What is Project Based Learning?

student doing project based learning

Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is a method of learning where a student designs, develops, and constructs hands-on solutions to problems. Some trace its beginnings back to antiquity when Confucius quipped “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” The ancient Chinese philosopher grasped the inherent power of getting your hands dirty with a task. But it was really in the 1960s at McMaster University where PBL got a name and a structured framework, first for medical schools, and very soon after for other disciplines like law and economics.

According to Boston University, the goal of project-based learning is to build students’ creativity and ability to work through difficult problems. The act of doing, as Confucius noted 2500 years ago, has a unique power to cement learning.

PBL curriculum can be broken down into three key components.

  1. Defining a problem and the challenges it presents
  2. Brainstorming problem-solving ideas and potential solutions
  3. Implementing and testing potential solutions in a real-world setting

Project-based learning is often implemented in groups because the classroom is the default setting for traditional school. But, it can also be a powerful tool for homeschoolers, independent learners, and in one-to-one settings like Cicero.

Understanding the Basics of Project Based Learning

At its core, project-based learning is more than a teaching method. It is a philosophy that reshapes the educational experience by empowering students to own the learning process and be the drivers of that learning.

Here’s a basic framework, based on how we do PBL at Cicero.

The teacher and student come up with a complex question connected to the topic they are studying. For example, how to solve factionalism in politics? Or, can a robot control the lights in my house?

  • Because most Cicero courses are taught one-to-one, the teacher is a co-learner and collaborator with the student. The student drives. The teacher guides. Which means that the teacher often acts as facilitator and thought partner; while the student leads the work.
  • The student works on solving the problem through research, experimentation, and inquiry, using the teacher and the live session as their sounding board.
  • The final result is some sort of produced work: a video, a construction, a piece of writing, a diorama, a play… that represents the process of inquiry, discovery, and problem-solving.
  • There are no single solutions or answers — though some are better than others.

We live in a project-based world, so it stands to reason that when students are immersed in real-world projects, these kick-start practical skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Unlike traditional instruction where information is often compartmentalized into subjects, a project-based curriculum seamlessly integrates multiple subjects into one holistic learning experience. By understanding the foundations of project-based learning, educators give their students agency.

Project-Based Curriculum Examples

The real beauty of a project-based curriculum lies in its diversity. The options are as unique as the students benefiting from them. A project for an online history course might, for example, involve creating a documentary or staging a historical reenactment. Science projects could include designing experiments to explore concepts in-depth. The arts offer opportunities for projects like creating a portfolio inspired by various art movements. Math can come alive through real-world applications, such as designing a budget or planning a virtual trip. These are just a few examples showcasing the versatility and benefits of a project-based learning curriculum.

Project-Based Learning Ideas

On some level there is no limit to project-based learning ideas. Here are a few classic ones from Cicero:

  • High School Math: A student in an algebra 1 course might manage a virtual investment portfolio or budget, learn about interest rates, savings, loans, and create a financial plan for a hypothetical scenario (like college planning).
  • English Language Arts: A student could create a magazine or blog, featuring articles, interviews, short stories, and poems, which prompts them to learn about different writing styles, editing, and digital or print layout design.
  • Biology: A student taking an AP biology course might create a mini ecosystem by building and maintaining a terrarium or aquarium. They document how different organisms interact, the life cycle of plants and animals, and how environmental factors affect the ecosystem. (This is similar to what we do in our Ecosystem in a Jar mini course.)
  • History: A student might design, plan, and launch a podcast on ancient civilizations, forcing them to dive deep into the topic but also learn about audio/video recording, media production, and the market economics of running a podcast.

In traditional education, the curriculum informs the projects. In project-based learning, the projects are the curriculum. Fresh project-based learning ideas infuse creativity and innovation into the educational experience and go beyond traditional instruction to prompt students to explore and learn from real-life scenarios.
Project-based learning is not just about acquiring information but actively applying it in meaningful ways.

The Key Advantages of Project-Based Learning

The primary benefit of project-based learning lies in its capacity to cultivate a deep and lasting understanding of a concept. This is especially true in the context of homeschooling, where personalized, flexible learning is a core factor. Some key advantages jump out at us.

Critical Thinking Skills: Project-based curriculum is a training ground for critical thinking skills, going far beyond the conventional memorization used in traditional education. As students are immersed in complex problem-solving and decision-making scenarios, they navigate challenges that demand analytical prowess. (Remember Confucius’ quip about doing and understanding.) This not only sharpens their problem-solving abilities but also prepares them for navigating the complexities of an ever-changing world. Essentially, project-based learning is a dynamic training ground for cultivating a sharp intellect.

Intrinsic Motivation: The magic of project-based learning lies in its ability to ignite intrinsic motivation—the internal flame that fuels a genuine love for learning. We’ve seen over and over that by granting students the autonomy to choose projects aligned with their passions and interests, educators and parents spark a self-driven desire to explore, discover, and understand. This intrinsic motivation goes far beyond the immediate project and can inform a student’s entire educational journey. When students become active participants in their learning process, this fosters a lifelong commitment to curiosity that extends far beyond the boundaries of any singular project.

Real-world Application: In the realm of project-based learning, theory seamlessly transfers to real-world application. Projects are designed to mirror authentic scenarios, bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge acquired in traditional settings and practical applications in everyday life. This bridge is essential as it equips students with skills that extend beyond textbooks, enabling them to navigate the challenges of the real world with confidence. From developing a marketing plan to creating sustainable solutions for environmental issues, project-based learning becomes a fast track for translating knowledge into impactful actions with tangible, real-world consequences.

Collaboration and Communication: We know that collaboration and communication are essential in everyday life. That’s why we see such value in the collaborative nature of project-based learning. In one-to-one learning that collaboration happens between teacher and student, who work in a co-learning environment with one another on the project. This framework lays a sturdy foundation for essential skills in teamwork and communication. This collaboration not only enhances the quality of the project outcome but also prepares the student for success in both academic and professional environments by training them in some such vital real-world school skills as effective communication, active listening, and the ability to articulate ideas.
Adaptability: At the core of project-based learning lies an inherent adaptability that responds to the diversity of learning styles and individual strengths of the student. In this flexible environment, the learner gets the opportunity to shine in their unique way. Tailoring projects to cater to different learning preferences and needs allows a sense of autonomy in learning. This adaptability also accommodates varied paces of learning, ensuring that the student can delve into a project at a pace that aligns with their understanding, ability, and curiosity. In this way, project-based learning becomes a stage where adaptability and flexibility are not just encouraged but celebrated as a cornerstone of personalized, effective education.

Project-Based Learning is Backed by Research

Two recent studies funded by Lucas Education Research offer compelling evidence of project-based learning’s effectiveness for student success over traditional curricula. These studies showed that students across age ranges and backgrounds benefited when project-based learning was woven into their learning. The impacts were evident in all subject areas, in test scores, in social and emotional learning, as well as collaboration skills.

“One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. It’s an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children’s attention and effort.”-Education researcher Sylvia Chard

Creating A Plan

Cicero teachers often weave project-based learning into the courses they design and lead for homeschoolers and worldschoolers. We like to think of these students as being on an “educational journey,” and PBL can play an important role.

For us, the journey begins with crafting a personalized plan for project-based learning. This involves an understanding of a child’s interests, learning style, and developmental stage. From there, the key is to design projects that not only meet the student’s needs but also the family’s overarching educational goals.
The beauty of a project-based homeschool curriculum lies in its adaptability and flexibility. Teachers can tailor projects to their student’s pace, and preferences, as well as adapt to their evolving interests (because we all know how quickly those can change). This adaptability ensures that the learning plan remains dynamic, catering to the individual needs of each student, and fostering a more meaningful and enjoyable educational journey.

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