First of all, what is Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Introduction to Project Based Learning (PBL)

So, what exactly is project based learning?  The Buck Institute for Education defines project based learning as “…a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” (What is PBL? (n.d.). Retrieved January 2, 2017, from ).  In simple terms, project based learning is meaningful learning that causes students to ask questions, investigate, teach each other, usually affects a student personally,  and deals with “real world concerns and essential understandings ( Kraus, Boss 2013).

I definitely admire the Buck Institute’s work in project based learning and they indeed have written the Gold Standard for project based learning.  I have used most of their resources myself when planning projects and they spell out step-by-step how to have a great instructional approach to project based learning.  If you are new to PBL, I would definitely start with using their planning sheets for your first project!  

But, to make things a little simpler and down to earth (for the upper elementary classroom), this means quality inquiry based lessons planned out so that a student in this age/grade group can understand and learn from them.  The lessons/unit should have overarching, compelling questions that students are led back to time and again as they journey through the learning process.  

These lessons should be designed to increase student engagement, have them investigating new ideas, lead them toward real-world experiences, and integrate the technology that is so rampant in their lives in this day and age.  At the end of the learning time, students should be able to answer the compelling questions with new insights gained from the activities/projects they have participated in.  

If you look around the internet for projects or lessons involving PBL in the upper elementary classroom, you will find some very good ones that you can probably tweak to make fit your individual circumstances.  You will definitely have a harder time coming up with projects for the upper elementary classroom, though.

The problem with project-based learning in the upper elementary classroom arises when teachers begin to realize, (after their initial rush of giddiness about changing their teaching style to fit a new generation of students), that

  • the projects they find don’t cover all of the content that they still need to cover to meet testing goals (and planning those projects take a tremendous amount of time),
  • or that this stuff is very hard work that is amazingly time consuming,
  • or that these little 8-11 year old minds need to develop a little more for the projects that you see out there in cyberspace.  

Please don’t get me wrong, I love project based learning!  I love when all of my students are engaged with learning from and interacting with each other in a nice way.  They are working on social skills, how to get along with a group, investigating new and exciting topics, and using technology (or actually teaching me how to use technology!).  

I also wanted to be totally honest about how hard it is and how you, as a teacher, have to be able to balance the learning retention with the time it takes to do the projects–and still get all of the content in.  This is my third year of integrating PBL into my coursework and I have definitely learned a few lessons the hard way.

Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments about your experiences.  Hopefully, we can learn from each other along this journey!


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