Designing Authentic Project Based Learning

Guest Post by Stephanie Rothstein, @Steph_EdTech

I hear it often, “Oh yeah, I do projects.” But doing a project is very different from Project Based Learning. Chairing a Design Thinking PBL pathway has changed me as an educator. I now look at all situations through a project application lens. A few years ago at a leadership conference, I went to a session on Project Design. The speaker explained that there are three ways to approach project design. 

When designing projects, you can be inspired by your content, you can be inspired by a real need in your own community, you can be inspired by an issue that impacts the world. 

I have thought back to this approach often as I approach project design. I find when I work with educators, that most approach projects trying to figure out how to apply their content to a project that helps students showcase their learning. But Project Based Learning means revamping this idea and essentially inverting it. So instead of a project at the end after doing the learning, it is through the project that students learn the concepts. It might not be in the order we would have planned for them, but they will learn it and in my experience will go deeper because they developed questions and created meaningful connections. 

So, what does this actually look like in the classroom? How does it actually work? I will take you through one of my English 9 projects to walk you through.

I have done Service Learning for 18 years but it was only about 8 years ago that I finally felt like this really became Project Based Learning. Based on a general interest survey on service topics, I split the class and bring them to 6 different locations. We learn about that service organization and volunteer. These students then come back and present to the class about the organization. Students in the class are able to ask questions to the student experts. After, students then pick their topic to focus on for the unit. 

Students are then organized into shared topic groups and together these students pick a non-fiction book. I have a suggested book list that has been made by local and global non-profit groups, teachers, and students. Groups are also encouraged to propose a new book. While reading their book, students hold their own book chats, record them and use them to create their own podcasts to submit to the NPR student podcast challenge. This is not “the project” and is just one part of the project design. Students also select their own individual research topic and use articles, the interview of an expert at their non-profit, and reflection on their time volunteering to help inform their research paper. 

The last part of this unit came because students asked me a question. They said, “I’m glad we volunteered 20 hours, interviewed someone, read, researched, wrote a paper, but shouldn’t we be doing something more? Shouldn’t we apply our learning and give back in some way?” After that, the real Project Based Learning opportunity was born. Students create a Give Back Opportunity that helps spread awareness, collects items to donate, or fundraises and must be based on the needs of that organization. These projects have brought about real impact. This year, being virtual has broadened my perspective on how to make an impact with this project and we will use Solve In Time Cards to Design Think their Give Back Opportunity and The Global Goals for Sustainable Development to help students think both locally and globally. This unit takes 14 weeks and closes with group presentations to the class and an invited group of non-profit panelists. 

This project approaches from all three focus areas: content, local, and global. I always knew for this project that I wanted to connect with local non-profits and that I wanted students to better understand non-fiction resources. The other layer to consider when building the unit plan is which tech skills will students build upon during this project. 

Project Based Learning is complex and is rooted in questions. It must begin with an entry experience. My “workshops” are based on student needs that they create at the start of the unit. These workshops may be for small groups or the entire class. Students still have deadlines, they still have goals, but project based learning means that groups may be at different stages of the project. I use a shared SCRUM board to help students track project progress so that I know where they are and the team understands where they are in the process. Topics for this project vary based on year and interests. And this is real life. I have had students who focus on Foster Care, Women’s Rights, LGBTQI, the Environment, Black Lives Matter, Food Insecurity, Animal Rights, Homelessness and more. It is the variety of topics that helps me know that my students are connecting individually and are able to teach something to their classmates and to me. They are all learning the skill of researching using articles, non-fiction books, interviews, and personal experiences. 

It keeps me on my toes and no year is ever the same but I am proud of the learning experiences created through deep Project Based Learning.

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Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks