It’s one thing to read about how technology works or how it can be used. It’s a much different thing to actually do it—and to take the knowledge you’ve gained to actually produce a result or solve a problem. That’s the premise of project-based learning, which aims to take the focus away from textbooks and put learning lessons directly into students’ hands.
Project-based learning can increase test scores but the biggest value might be that kids develop confidence and are proud of the work they’re doing, and that teachers interact and engage more with their students.
“A lot of people think they know what it is because they experienced projects as students. But in most cases, you had projects done to you,” said Leslie Eaves, program director, project-based learning, at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), an Atlanta-based non-profit compact that works with 16 Southern states to improve public education for students. “It was usually a group project or something an individual could complete at home and one person owns the work and is the shining star because they don’t want their grade to stuffer. It’s not very guided. You learn, then you do.”
A study by the SREB of schools in Alabama found that project-based learning had strong positive effects for both teachers and student learning over time.
In the study, teachers implemented more strategies that promoted student involvement in the learning process and student engagement increased, with teachers attributing it to the implementation of project-based learning techniques. In addition, teachers were nearly unanimous in saying that project-based learning supported their own professional growth.
In reality, project-based learning should be the opposite—you do while you learn and solve a problem.
“The problem becomes the reason,” she said. “We all come in with constructs of what we know about the world. If you want kids to learn, you have to get them to a place where they know what they don’t know. Lecture/regurgitate doesn’t work because they’re not questioning their own constructs. With project-based learning, students learn how to learn,” said Eaves. “As a teacher, that is awesome. Kids come in excited and asking questions, gaining confidence, developing leadership, growing,”
Putting Project-Based Learning into Practice
Project-based learning is at the core of CompTIA Spark curriculum for middle-grades , which helps keep students more engaged in the material, let’s them learn social and collaboration skills and opens up a pathway to start learning skills to make them career-ready down the road.
“All our learning units are designed to get kids in front of the technology and more involved,” said Henry Mann, senior director of product development at CompTIA Spark. “There are a lot of misconceptions that tech is hard to learn and hard to use. Project-based learning helps destigmatize those notions and demonstrate that almost anyone can learn to use technology to accomplish tasks and solve problems. It’s a great model for educating young students especially.”
Established project-based learning programs successfully plan authentic, intellectually demanding projects that allow students to master techniques as well as knowledge, get more in-depth experience and engage in collaborative problem solving and design processes, said Eaves.
“Students can learn trouble-shooting and diagnostic processes. It shifts the process from the teacher owning the knowledge to the student owning the knowledge and work,” she said. “It can fit in an any area. You start with content standards, no matter what they are, and design around them. I’ve yet to see a subject where project-based learning cannot be applied.”
Moving from traditional linear learning models to project-based learning requires a shift in thinking for school districts, department heads and teachers.
“Traditional models came from the need for schools to comply and to apply seat-time hours to learning units. That’s where we get the 180-day schedule from,” Eaves said. “I know why teachers tend to use it, it’s what we experienced. It’s been a method of transition to colleges and universities for centuries.
Project-based learning does require more planning up front. “And when you have hallway duties, standardized testing, also being the nurse or the counselor, trying to find a chunk time to plan a unit of study that’s different than you experienced as a learner can be difficult,” Eaves said. “The good news is once it’s planned, you’re not having to plan daily lessons. A lot of work is done up front so it let
s you be in the moment with the students.”
Developing Practices, Processes for Long-Term Success
Students who listen to direct instruction may comply, but if they haven’t built a reason for applying or connecting that information, there’s no guarantee the information will go from short-term to long-term memory.
“When students are discussing and collaborating and applying knowledge to a task, their brain is more primed to hear the instruction then,” Eaves said.
CompTIA Spark thoroughly researched project-based learning models while developing its middle grades curriculum and deliver content in short-form videos and other platforms that students respond to positively, Mann said.
“We’ve received a lot of great feedback about the program, including from educators and tech professionals who love that students aren’t just learning technology—they’re learning how it’s applied in real-life environments as well as skills to work together to find a solution,” Mann said.
CompTIA Spark has engaged with SREB on shared goals to help schools better prepare students for the future, said Eaves. “We’re all trying to spark curiosity and excitement in students for tech education. It’s all about how we can be good feedback partners and share resources and support each other. I want teachers to see different aspects of project-based learning. We’ll continue that together hopefully.”