Interest in project-based learning has been on the rise in recent years, and the practice can now be found in some form or another all over the United States. But while interest in projects is high, a deep understanding of what makes project work meaningful and impactful to students is less pervasive, largely due to a lack of understanding of what kinds of projects make for high-quality learning experiences.
There’s certainly a danger in an education trend that gains popularity but isn’t implemented well. The Buck Institute recognizes this, however, and convened a broad range of teachers, education leaders, policy groups, foundation representatives, international stakeholders, and more to design a “Framework For High Quality Project Based Learning.”
Ultimately, this group decided that there are plenty of existing materials focused on teachers, but few that describe what student learning looked like in a high quality project-based learning environment. They hope that by focusing on students, parents can also use the framework to hold schools accountable. The framework is built around five basic elements that the framers believe must be present: intellectual challenge and accomplishment, authenticity, public product, collaboration, and reflection.
Intellectual challenge. This is one of the most common elements missing from modern classroom projects. For example, say that students in Lowell learned a lot of history about how the Lowell mills came to be, and then had to build a model mill. The model and project part is, for the most part, a mere afterthought to the bulk of the learning in this case. It could even be made by a parent or bought off a shelf, and this doesn’t challenge the student intellectually at all.
Authenticity. If a project doesn’t mirror the ways that people work in the real world, then it isn’t authentic. Teaching students real-world skills and preparing them for life after school is a vital part of project-based learning.
Public product. Building off of the authenticity element, high-quality projects will not only teach students real-world skills but also help them create products that have use in the real world. For example, one school with a dried-out garden had students design a new watering system.
Collaboration. Learning to work with others is another essential skill for life after school. The ideal project will include collaboration with other students and working together towards common project goals.
Reflection. To add to the learning, students should always reflect back on their work after completing the project. This helps both students and teachers learn about the project process and how to improve for next time.
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