[Note - you can now access our debut 'Introduction to Project-Based Learning' edX course for free here]
Project Based Learning (PBL) is poorly defined and often a misunderstood approach to teaching and learning. It sits at the centre of a Venn diagram of pedagogy, practice, learning theories, technology and specialist subject knowledge that to many makes adopting PBL difficult. PBL is a powerful tool that whilst being more resource intensive than traditional didactic approaches, has the potential to teach learners how to be resilient, tech savvy problem solvers that are used to working collaboratively with gracious professionalism.
In a previous blog, I have touched upon PBL before, but due to the complexity and nuances of PBL, it deserves more attention with a dedicated article. It is a mixture of technology, context, pedagogy and practice that is rooted in the classic approach of constructionism (constructivist-based theory of learning), cognitivism (constructing mental models of the world) and behaviourism (task analysis, reward of success, skills-based) being exemplified through multimodal social constructivist (learner-centred, discovery, participatory and experiential) activity.
In the Arm School Program we apply this theoretical framework through a complimentary resource framework where learners are given an engaging context (this depends on the age of the learner, but the Global Goals are a good starting point) and presented with differentiated success criteria. This success criteria ‘hems in’ the problem set and sets SMART targets that the learners seek to solve. How the learners engage with the problem is an open buffet and depends on a number of factors. For younger learners, aged 11-13 for example, the context would be presented in a story form to ensure the learners understand what the success criteria are and what is needed to achieve them. There may be a teaching session where any technical or programming elements are introduced or re-enforced, but not by providing a packaged solution to the problem. The learners could also be provided with scaffolding to ensure that they can progress.
This balance of ensuring engagement, facilitating progress and encouraging resilience in learners is the teachers primary role in PBL and its one that takes some practice as often learners will want to be spoon fed a solution but a key principle of PBL is problem solving and discovery and scaffolding should only be applied when absolutely necessary to avoid disengagement. Group work can also help this balance as learners can work collaboratively and this also adds a further social element of teamwork and gracious professionalism, all of which ae critical in the modern workplace.
Older learners are expected to be more resilient and have a deeper understanding of the both the problem and how to solve it. The problems we provide are designed to be highly flexible and there are many possible solutions and it is common to see every group/individual come up with a different way of approaching and solving the problem. A good example of the flexibility of this approach is the ‘tree protector’ activity I wrote last year for the ‘do-your-bit’ campaign.
This project involves designing and making an IoT product that is attached to trees to alert authorities in the Amazon to illegal logging. This task was originally designed for use with Grade 6-9 (UK KS3) learners but with a slight modification to the success criteria was also successfully used by Imperial College students. The undergrads obviously applied the technology in a more sophisticated fashion and was more realistic as a commercial product, but the underlying problem, limitations and objectives were the same. Both sets of learners engaged with the problem and solved it in an appropriate fashion.
As you can see there are many moving parts and various levers that can be shifted to best suit the learner. We look to provide everything a teacher needs to accommodate the needs of the most novice to the most advanced. Whilst PBL needs more content/resources for younger learners, these stabilisers can be removed as learners progress and as we saw at the university level just the base problem set is needed.
This learning by doing approach can also be applied in a number of ways, I have used these resources as a single lesson and also as a full day project and even a multi week project with the UCL students. We encourage the use of the approach in the formal curriculum in schools by creating the projects and resources with the Computing program of study in mind and map to the assessments and learning outcomes of the formal curriculum. This ensures this approach is not just ‘project’ with no bearing on formal outcomes.
There are some detractors of PBL and most of the criticism revolves around practical application of the theories in isolation and ignores the larger context of use in the classroom with differentiated scaffolding and associated pedagogy. Whilst many of the criticisms of the individual theories may stand, the combination of technology, context, pedagogy and practice mitigate these concerns.
Project based learning is also garnering more support in higher education and a recent study conducted by Arm Education indicated a pressing need for PBL in universities from teaching academics.
PBL is becoming more popular - this is mainly due to a lack of engagement in traditional didactic teaching methods in STEM subjects. The theoretical content taught is often abstract and dry. Applying the learning in a practical context is often difficult in schools and universities; PBL flips this approach which leads to greater engagement, deeper integration of learning as well as related social skills invaluable in the modern academic and industry workplace. The need for relevant, engaging projects and activities are a clear place for industry to intervene to add real world value to SEM education.
Whilst there are many benefits to PBL it can be more resource heavy than a traditional didactic approach but our resource can help and for those new to teaching in this way we are developing online teacher training that covers the technology, context, pedagogy and practice in detail to allow teachers to apply this approach confidently.
If you are interested in PBL or want to learn more, get in touch through email@example.com
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Hi, totally agree. I run a code club for kids, and when theoretical content takes too long, and it is not directly correlated to practical projects, kids start to not show up to sessions. The challenge is to split the content into meaningful and fun progressive projects, make them collaborative projects with peer-to-peer review. BTW I have started using this platform for PBL, which works pretty well and it is free.