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Project-based learning

Project-based learning or problem-based learning (PBL) is a teaching approach in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

Buck Institute for Education

Authentic PBL allows students to address challenges that are real to them and their lives.

For PBL to be successful, teachers need to understand:

  • students interests and passions
  • how to make connections to real world contexts and people.

Many different interactions and situations need to be planned and facilitated by the teacher. Integrating digital technologies in innovative and intentional ways into PBL has the potential to improve the PBL process and resulting products.

Essential elements of project-based learning

  • Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills – the project is focused on student learning goals, including curriculum-based content and skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and self-management.
     
  • A challenging problem or question  the project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
     
  • Sustained inquiry – inquiry is iterative, students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information to reach a satisfactory solution.
     
  • Authenticity – the project features real-world tasks, processes, tools, and performance/quality standards. It can have an impact on others, or create something that will be used or experienced by others. It can have personal authenticity relating to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.
     
  • Student voice and choice – students have input and (some) control over the project, including the questions they generate, the resources they use, how they work, and what they create.
     
  • Reflection – reflection should be an explicit part of project journals, formative assessment, discussions at project checkpoints, and public presentations of student work.
    • Reflection on the content knowledge and understanding gained helps students solidify what they have learned and think about how it might apply elsewhere. 
    • Reflection on skill/competency development helps students set goals for further growth. 
    • Reflection on the project itself – how it was designed and implemented – helps students decide how they might approach their next project, and helps teachers improve the quality of their PBL practice.
       
  • Critique and revision – teach students how to give and receive constructive peer feedback to improve their process and products.
     
  • Public product – students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

Buck Institute for Education (BIE)  

At St Hilda's Collegiate, every year 9 student is mentored with someone from the local community as they work throughout the year on their passion project. 

When compared with traditional instruction, studies show that students engaged in well implemented project-based learning:

  • demonstrate increased long-term retention of content
  • perform as well as, if not better, than traditional learners in high-stakes tests
  • improve problem-solving and collaboration skills 
  • have a more positive attitude towards learning.

Strobel and van Barneveld (2009)1

Senior secondary students reflect on how their learning has changed at Fraser High School through curriculum integration and the use of authentic contexts as they produced the first issue of Passionfruit magazine. 

Key resource

High Tech High – Seven successful projects

These projects are examples of the work that is done at all of the High Tech High Schools. It is our record of what to do and how to get there. Teachers can utilise this to display what they have done with their students, and get ideas from other teachers. 

 1. Strobel, J., & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of meta-analyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms (Abstract) . The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1). 

"Project-based learning (PBL) is one way we can support deeper learning outcomes."

Lathram, Lenz, and Vander Ark (2016)

When developing a project-based learning (PBL) approach, consider designing project elements that reflect the following:

  • real-world relevance where learning is embedded in social practice
  • authentic tasks, with a diversity of outcomes
  • opportunities for students to examine content and tasks from a variety of perspectives
  • opportunities for students to collaborate, articulate and reflect
  • assessment that is authentic and seamlessly integrated with tasks.2

Provide opportunities for students to build key competencies and skills such as:

  • critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • collaboration
  • self-management.
More information »

Integrate digital technologies to improve the PBL experience

“If the goal of education is to allow learners to apply what they learn in real situations, learning must involve applications and take place in the context of authentic activities.”

National Research Council

Consider how to integrate digital technologies in innovative and intentional ways to enhance the PBL process and resulting products. Identify digital technologies needed to:

  • remove barriers to learning for students
  • enable communication and collaboration between students, experts, and mentors
  • enable organisation, planning, feedback, and reflection
  • carry out project tasks.  

Sam Cunnane, head of the arts faculty at Fraser High School, talks about the curriculum integration project. Sam says the scheme is about “turning the way we approach NCEA upside down by getting students to produce an authentic project.”

Key resource
Technology Matrix

The Technology Integration Matrix

This matrix aligns well to PBL and how technology should be used in the PBL classroom. 

Students can work together on cloud-based, collaborative tools to plan, design, develop, and present on:

  • an environmental cleanup in their community
  • a positive communication plan for their classroom or school
  • school camp – healthy food menus, budgeting, or designing activities and games
  • a school production – organising marketing for this production
  • exploring new options for their overcrowded school bus service, and working with the local council to develop solutions
  • research on topics such as a local playground – and present a submission on improvements to the local council
  • books to be transported to an overseas school that lacked resources
  • science fair projects
  • environmental projects such as designing areas of the school grounds to make them more appealing.

New Zealand Curriculum Online

Cloud-based collaborative tools could include:

Articles with recommended cloud-based collaborative tools for education 

Cloud collaboration tools: Now or later?  

A list of tools for schools, with ideas for in-class collaboration now, and anytime, anywhere connections later.

20 Fun free tools for interactive classroom collaboration

EmergingEdTech have put together a listing of 20 top-notch free tools that are being used in schools and classrooms to collaborate and interact on assignments, projects, and other active learning efforts. 

Online collaborative tools in education

This paper outlines how collaboration is essential in teaching 21st century skills and applying project-based learning in the classroom. Research has shown that, in addition to demonstrating mastery of subject matter, students who collaborate also increase their skills in problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

25 Creative ways to incorporate more project-based learning in the classroom

A NZ blog post (April 2016) from Fusion Yearbooks providing useful information, suggestions for applications and software, and practical approaches to implement project-based learning into your classroom

1. Authentic audience integration

  • Invite people to share their ideas and experiences virtually with your students.
  • Connect with an audience at the beginning, middle, and end of a project and invite feedback in the process. 

2. From products to management

  • Use online tools such as G–Suite , Microsoft 365 , Evernote , to store information, build projects, and push out information. 
  • Use the technology to set, share, and reflect on goals. 

3. Technology to assess collaboration

  • Use tools such as the Google Draftback extension  so students and teachers can see a visual record of digital collaboration on a project. 
  • Allow students, teachers, and parents to provide online, specific feedback on ways to work together to meet the purpose of a project. This can be achieved on a range of platforms, such as Blogger , Google Apps, Microsoft 365, Seesaw

4. Digital fluency as a 21st century skill

  • Provide opportunities in a PBL approach for students to access and effectively use technologies to support their learning and develop digital fluency .
More information » 

Questions to consider when designing a PBL experience

  • Does it focus on supporting "doing" rather than "knowing"?
  • Is it based on a meaningful problem to solve or an open-ended question to answer?
  • Does it support sustained inquiry?
  • Does it have a real-world context, use real-world processes, make an impact and/or connected to students’ own lives?
  • Does it include student voice and choice?
  • Can students reflect on what and how they are learning?
  • Does it provide opportunities for assessment for learning?
  • Is it collaborative?
  • Is there an authentic audience?
  • Does it allow for opportunities to develop digital fluency?

2. McKenzie, A. Morgan, C. Cochrane, K. Watson, G. & Roberts, D. (2002) Authentic learning: What is it, and what are the ideal curriculum conditions to cultivate it in?  University of Sydney, Australia.

Spiral of inquiry – Developing a Makerspace to create successful learning experiences for priority learners .

The year 7 and 8 teaching team at Marshland School investigated the effect of authentic learning on increasing motivation and engagement among their students. Students identified their own real-life problems for projects and created solutions to these within the Makerspace. Students shared their products and learning at a Maker Faire where the local community was invited.

Filter by: Primary Secondary

Passionfruit – a curriculum integration project

Passionfruit – a curriculum integration project

Sam Cunnane, head of the arts faculty at Fraser High School, talks about an experiment in cross-curricular teaching at secondary school level.

Passion projects

Passion projects

At St Hilda's Collegiate, every Year 9 student is mentored with someone from the local community and they work throughout the year on their Passion project

Fraser High School curriculum integration project – students reflect

Fraser High School curriculum integration project – students reflect

Senior secondary students reflect on how their learning has changed at Fraser High School through curriculum integration and the use of authentic contexts as they produced the first issue of Passionfruit magazine.

Students communicating beyond the classroom using digital technologies

Students communicating beyond the classroom using digital technologies

Teacher, Mike Crawford and his students from Woodend School describe why they are using Twitter to raise public awareness of local environmental issues.

The Portal Unity Project

The Portal Unity Project

Year 13 student Daniel Cowpertwait describes a "mod" he has developed for an online game Portal.

The Impact Project

Impact project

Miranda Makin, DP Albany Senior High School, describes how technologies have enabled students engaged in the Impact Project to take their learning beyond the school and engage with experts to find information and share their learning.

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Key resource

 Buck Institute for Education

As a mission-driven nonprofit organisation, Buck Institute creates, gathers, and shares high-quality PBL instructional practices and products and provides highly effective services to teachers, schools, and districts.

Education for sustainability

New Zealand’s national curriculum focuses on 21st century learning, ensuring learners are equipped to participate in and contribute to their own society and the wider world. An important aspect of this is encouraging students to consider significant future-focused issues such as sustainability.

Education review

Enterprise in The New Zealand Curriculum

This ERO report has been written to help schools develop enterprise learning. Seven case studies present the challenges and benefits of enterprise as authentic teaching and learning. 

High Tech High – Seven successful projects

These projects are examples of the work that is done at all of the High Tech High Schools in USA. It is our record of what to do and how to get there. Teachers can utilise this to display what they have done with their students, and get ideas from other teachers.

Spiral of inquiry – Developing a Makerspace to create successful learning experiences for priority learners .

The year 7 and 8 teaching team at Marshland School investigated the effect of authentic learning on increasing motivation and engagement among their students. Students identified their own real-life problems for projects and created solutions to these within the Makerspace. Students shared their products and learning at a Maker Faire where the local community was invited.

21st century project based learning

This site includes the WVDE template for project-based learning design . You download this as a Word document so it’s completely adaptable to any project you may be considering.

realworldmath.org

Real World Math is a collection of free math activities for Google Earth designed for students and educators. In the virtual world of Google Earth, concepts and challenges can be presented in a meaningful way that portray the usefulness of the ideas. It also has a page with downloadable PBL projects

PBL for beginners

Setting up your first project-based learning unit can be an intimidating task. Alyson Boustead, details her school’s venture into PBL, and the impact it had on her learners’ creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience.

Global citizen foundation

PBL Ideas book

It has nine top quality, project-based learning ideas for primary, middle, and senior grades. These scenarios are all customisable for any grade level and for multiple subjects.

Technology Matrix

The Technology Integration Matrix

This matrix aligns well to PBL and how technology should be used in the PBL classroom.

Preparing students for a project-based world

Preparing students for a project-based world   

This publication (August 2016) is the first in a three-part series aimed at promoting equity and access to deeper learning as an outcome for all students. It describes why and how all students should benefit from project-based learning (PBL) in preparation for a project-based world.

Getting started with Genius Hour

A blog post by Al Ingham (March 2016), explaining the process for teachers to setup and get started with implementing Genius Hour or Passion Projects. Students are given time to plan and develop personal projects.

25 Creative ways to incorporate more project-based learning in the classroom

A NZ blog post (April 2016) from Fusion Yearbooks providing useful information, suggestions for applications and software, and practical approaches to implement project-based learning into your classroom.

Getting Smart logo

Project-based learning

This section of the Getting Smart website provides up-to-date blog posts from guest authors focused on project-based learning.

e-Learning community discussions

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