TweetIn a recent post I introduced the subject of project-based learning. Now it’s time to go into more detail for those who are new to this method of teaching. For those who aren’t familiar with it, PBL is a learner-focused teaching approach that encourages learners to work together toward one common goal.
This is probably going to be easier if I give examples:
- Learners work collaboratively in small groups to study one aspect of language in depth and then share their findings with the rest of the class.
- The entire class studies one theme or concept through games, activities, projects and other hands-on approaches.
There are actually a large number of ways to use project-based learning in our language classrooms. I like project-based activities for the simple reason that they put a lot of the responsibility for how the lesson evolves and succeeds in the hands of the learners. Initially, you might get the idea that project-based activities need to be grandiose ‘events’ in which you have to undertake complex issues or problems in class. The truth is, however, that they don’t have to be huge sprawling monsters. It is enough that they follow the basic tenets of being open-ended, having no single, specific lesson to be learned, and challenging learners to draw many of their own conclusions.
As with my recent mega-post on teaching vocabulary, I have a wide audience in mind for this: if you’re new to PBL, you might benefit from reading every part of the post; if you’re a bit more experienced, you’ll probably enjoy my selection of activities in part 2 the most.
OK, are we ready? Let’s do this…
1. How and why go with PBL?
What’s the purpose?
The purpose of a project-based activity is to relate educational objectives to learners in a way that differs from the ‘usual classroom instruction model’ by challenging learners to work together to solve problems that hold meaning for the instruction in the “real world.” Project-based activities allow learners to solve problems related with the central ideas and principles of a subject using a hands-on approach, and through activities that promote creativity, fun and intelligence.
How to structure PBL
As I mentioned, PBL doesn’t mean committing to a huge sprawling project that lasts for days or even weeks. Project-based activities can be short- or long-term, multi-step lessons in which groups of learners carve up the work and responsibilities among themselves. Even though the action of dividing the work equally among learners is important, the actual focus is on the process of working together to reach a goal. As learners tend to present their project together, they need to communicate to the teacher and other learners what they have learned.
What are the key elements of PBL?
There are certain elements of project-based activities which differ from traditional classroom instruction. As noted, project-based activities are typically open-ended and concentrate on practical skills. Whereas traditional classroom instruction often requires learners to work individually or outside of a group effort, group feedback, teamwork and rewriting/revising are vital parts of project-based activities.
2. Some great project-based learning activities
Hopefully, this is where all you experienced teachers have rejoined the party!
All that theory is nice, but how might it pan out in an actual activity? To give you a clearer idea of what it involves, here are some easy-to-implement activities for getting started with PBL.
Study the countries where English is spoken
Working in groups of three or four, learners research information about countries in which the language is spoken.
- Assign each group a country in which English is the first (or most important) language.
- Each group finds information about the customs, food, history and traditions of that country and presents its material to the rest of the class.
- To make this a more creative project for learners, let them choose the way in which they present their material, such as a poster, presentation, or short movie.
Useful staring point: Wikipedia has just such a list
Your family tree
Your learners can show their knowledge of family vocabulary and expressions by creating a family tree. This project works well as a solo project, although it can be expanded easily by getting learners to interview each other and present what they’ve learned about their class mates.
- Get learners to draw a family tree as a large poster; they may include photos or illustrations of their family members.
- Write sentences in the target language about each person on their family trees. They might explain family relationships, describe personality and appearance, or discuss their family history.
- This project can be extended to include any number of vocabulary skills; learners use their family members as the basis for what they write within the scope of the project.
If any learner feels uncomfortable talking about their own family, you can allow them to concoct a (based on a made-up idea) family; the language skills they practice will still be the same whether the family is real or not.
Useful staring point: Family Echo has a free family tree maker which enables you to print off your finished product
Investigate famous people
Learners can combine language and culture in an engaging way by completing projects on famous people. There are several different variations on this project, so it can work equally well for every level of a language.
- The basic idea is to have learners research a famous person and create a report on that person.
- They can use PowerPoint, a hard-copy poster, or even just do a formal piece of writing.
- The famous people could be actors, athletes, artists or even people of historical influence (they can be popular currently or they might have died years ago).
- You can alter what is needed things for this project based on what you want your learners to learn, or in order to (make different) one project for different years of language instruction.
As learners present their projects to the class, the rest of their classmates can learn something new about a person who was significant to that culture.
Useful staring point: biography.com people has information about people in about as much detail as your learners should find necessary.
All about me
This is a great one for all levels of language learners. Learners work independently to create a short self-written life story in the foreign language they’re studying. As with the family tree project, this one works well as a solo project, although it can be expanded easily by getting learners to interview each other and present what they’ve learned about their class mates.
- Each learner develops create a presentation in English to introduce herself to the rest of the class.
- The learners then decide the best method to present their project to the class, such as by using a poster or presentation, for instance.
- Give each learner a time limit, such as 10 minutes, to present her self-written life story to the rest of the class.
Useful staring point: why not get learners to use Google Earth to show the important locations connected to their life?
A great thing about language classes with learners from many backgrounds is that you can often plan lessons to celebrate various national holidays. Holidays are an important aspect of any culture, so teaching people about their language culture’s holidays is an important part of language learning.
- Get learners to complete projects on the history of the holiday; they can write them as a story book or present them on a website display.
- Learners might also plan a classroom celebration, researching the way that the holiday is celebrated in the target culture and then re-creating that celebration in class.
- Learners can also complete projects that compare and contrast their own cultural celebrations with the ones they are studying in class.
Useful staring point: Wikipedia also has a list of the national holidays of each country
Holiday projects work well, because they can be fun and creative, in addition to being educational. Learners really enjoy making traditional decorations, learning traditional music or even baking traditional foods to go with this project.
The class newspaper
This classic activity is just as appropriate for advanced learners as it is for beginners.
- The class works together as a large group to create a newspaper in the language they’re studying.
- The learners decide who writes each section of the newspaper, which can include, for example, a lifestyle page, book review, news headlines, movie reviews and (descriptions of dead people).
- Learners can work together or independently on this project, but they then read their articles to the class upon completion.
Why not bring all articles together as a blog?
Useful staring point: ReadWriteThink has great resources for developing class newspapers
3. Criticisms of project-based learning
Where is the teacher in all this?
A major criticism of project-based activities is that there appears to be a lack of direct teacher supervision throughout the course of the project, which can result a weak project where not much is completed or learned.
A further issue with the lack of supervision is that it can be hard to learn who really worked hard, and how much work each learner committed to the project. Another criticism is that the presentation of the project – a flashy poster or video – can often make up for a lack of research or group effort.
Individuals and teams learn differently
People understand and internalize materials at different speeds, and to a different depth and medium. Benjamin Bloom (who I wrote about in connection with developing lesson objectives recently) developed a classification system for learning, teaching and testing educational goals that subdivided the skills for learning knowledge into two categories:
- Low-order skills (remember, understand and apply), and
- High-order skills (analyze, evaluate and create).
Project-based education is based on the assumption that human beings are motivated to solve problems and will look (for) whatever knowledge is needed to do so. Is this something we can assume of all our learners? Will everyone get the same enjoyment and learning out of the project? How will this influence the success of the project?
4. How to overcome problems in the planning stage
Define the method of assignment
Project learning can be undertaken using a variety of tools such as business case study (description of problem situations requiring a solution), a game or even a test (controlled social interaction to achieve an end goal). Define how you are going to go about it when planning the project.
After you’ve tried PBL a few times, get feedback from your learners about which projects they like doing best. You’ll probably find that they will have clear preferences. Also, don’t keep doing the same project over and over again; it will get boring quickly!
Clearly state the problem
Clearly define and describe the problem, highlighting what curriculum objectives will be met by fulfilling this project and the time frame for completion. Check for understanding, and then check again!
Explain the criteria
What criteria will be used to judge the successful completion of the project and what conditions must be met to think about the acceptability of the proposed solution. The use of a rubric can help with this.
Make sources of additional information available
Assemble information related to the problem, such as websites, supplemental texts or sources that contrast with the information that the learners already have access to.
Develop helpful ways of giving feedback
Create feedback mechanisms that challenge perspective and encourage further analysis. A good way to do this is by asking questions that get learners to evaluate and explain their own performance.