6 Reasons to Make Project-Based Learning a Core Practice in Diverse Schools

Project-based learning allows students to find their own route to success in the classroom.

Updated on: November 13, 2017

I teach in an urban school environment with much socioeconomic diversity, and my students also span a broad range of academic achievement. Some students need significant support for standard coursework, while others need challenges beyond their grade level.

My classes include students who read at a 3rd-grade level and students who read at a 12th-grade level. I have students who come from backgrounds of poverty and of privilege. Some students excel in traditional school structures, while others lack executive functioning skills.

This vast spectrum of needs makes differentiation an enormous challenge. This is why project-based learning is a mainstay in my classroom. When done correctly, project-based learning evens the playing field. It allows students of all skill levels to find their own route to success.

Project Based Learning

Here are some resources to get you started with project-based learning.

  1. What is FutureFit?
  2. Try our FutureFit Projects
  3. 5 Easy Ways to Add Service Learning to Your Classroom

Project-based learning differs from traditional project work in a few key ways. PBL should include:

  • A curiosity-sparking driving question.

    In PBL, the instructor hooks students with an open-ended question that ignites their desire to discover.

  • Student interest and student choice.

    Students are able to make decisions that shape the direction of their work. This builds ownership (I'll talk more about this later on).

  • A process of inquiry and exploration.

    Students are investigators, looking for a solution or a "best practice." This might look like trying to understand a scientific phenomenon. It might look like determining staging choices that best capture the message of a play. Inquiry and exploration can occur in any discipline.

  • Constructive critiques and revision.

    Students are in dialogue with their teacher and peers over the course of the project. They are able to actively incorporate feedback throughout the process.

  • 21st century skills.

    The Partnership for 21st Century Learning identified collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity as fundamental skills for future success.

  • A culminating presentation.

    Students have the opportunity to showcase their work for an audience. Ideally, this audience is beyond their typical classroom peers. A showcase can take many forms, from traditional presentations to interactive displays to film festivals and more.

"When done correctly, Project-Based Learning evens the playing field. It allows students of all skill levels to find their own route to success."

Now, here's why I love project-based learning specifically for my students' wide-ranging needs:

  1. Project-based learning allows for easy integration of differentiation.

    With PBL, students often work on a wide range of tasks. Teacher feedback, student materials, and final product expectations are already unique and individualized. It is easy to make modifications for students without causing them to stand out. Providing extra support or creating challenges for students based on their needs comes naturally. Students won't feel stigmatized for having different looking work, because everyone does! Also, teachers can direct students towards choices that will push them forward in their zone of proximal development. This means that students are doing work just far enough outside their comfort zone that they will experience growth.

  2. Project-based learning models real-world work.

    When students enter college and then begin their careers, they will become part of dynamic work environments. Their jobs will demand collaboration, critical thinking and reasoning, problem solving, and grit. The in-demand jobs of the 21st century will require our students to be able to identify problems, ask the right questions, and self-direct their work towards desirable outcomes. Students will need to be resilient and able to work through challenges and setbacks. Project-based learning allows them to practice for high-stakes jobs of the future in a safe, supportive setting.

  3. Project-based learning synthesizes disciplines instead of compartmentalizing them.

    In most schools, students experience academic subjects as separate and distinct entities. Students travel to math class, history class, language arts class, and science class. They rarely have opportunities for overlap.

    In the working world, these subjects are in constant conversation. A biologist will need to be able to clearly express their research through writing. A researcher in the humanities will need to interpret and use data to support their claims. A citizen deciding how to vote will need to synthesize information from statistics, speeches from candidates, and editorials from newspapers while understanding economic, political, and social context. Our lives and work are multidisciplinary — the education of our children should model that.

    Using PBL, students can approach the same driving question through a variety of disciplines. They will begin to see how complex real world problems can be tackled from many angles.

  4. The availability of choices within a project's structure balance learning goals with student interest.

    I like to refer to my project-based learning model as “choice within structure.” I provide enough structure to keep students from stepping too far out of my range of expertise and to ensure that they meet learning standards.

    For example, when my students focus on a driving question around environmental sustainability, I provide four environmental concentrations, as well as a menu of choices for students to address the question. The four options for environmental concentrations allow me to focus my own learning so that I am ready to help guide students. The menu ensured that students all had a research and writing element to their projects as well as a hands-on, green technology solution.

    This setup allows students enough choice to pursue a direction that captures their interest and allows them to use their strengths.

  5. Project-based learning builds ownership.

    So often in traditional classroom settings, students feel as if their learning is something that is being done to them — not something they are doing for themselves.

    I’ve found that during project-based learning, the frequent “How do I get an A?” or “How much do I have to write?” questions drop away. Students stop thinking about what boxes they need to check off in order to meet their teacher’s standards, and start thinking about how to create a solution that means something to them. They own their learning.

    Whenever a PBL unit takes place in my classroom or a colleague's classroom, students voluntarily gravitate to that room after school. They choose, without any requirement, to stay late and keep working. They invest because the work is fully theirs.

  6. Project-based learning re-frames challenges and setbacks, promoting growth mindset.

    When I introduce a project-based task to my students, I frame it as being about the process instead of the result. Challenges are expected. Setbacks are expected. A project may change form and the destination may evolve. In project-based learning, we let go of rigid requirements and embrace unexpected outcomes.

    This means PBL units are a great place to reinforce your messaging around growth mindset. I like to give my students language to use when facing setbacks, such as “What resources can I use for help?” and “What did this challenge teach me?” and “I need to try another strategy.”

I have seen that in a PBL unit, student success is not correlated with high test scores. Instead, success correlates with students who have found a path that challenges and excites them. This makes project-based learning great fit for classrooms with diverse needs.

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Author Bio:

Nicole Nicholas is a urban public school teacher who is passionate about designing curriculum that is rigorous, engaging, inquiry driven and socially conscious. She loves learning about and discussing creative ways to support and differentiate for students with a wide spectrum of needs.

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