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Monday, January 3, 2011

Project-Based Learning: An Overview | Edutopia

Project-Based Learning: An Overview | Edutopia

How do I learn?

Identify at least two philosophies or theories you believe are best aligned with your views on learning in general, and/or that best describe how you learn. Also explain how an understanding of learning theory will influence the work you do as an instructional designer.


As an educator, I believe that it is important to provide opportunities for learners and instructors to plan and collaborate as they develop hands-on projects that are inquiry-based, constructivist, and student centered. The project-based pedagogical approach emphasizes the importance of students exploring ideas, conducting “hands on” investigations, engaging in investigative projects on topics they choose, working collaboratively, discussing their ideas, and gaining conceptual understanding through engaging in the development of authentic projects. This is the way workers in the 21st century get their work done and I think this makes the approach more relevant for k-12 learners.

A project-based approach has proven to not only meet state competencies, but engages students and empowers them with responsibility for their own education in ways unheard of in traditional classrooms. Technology is not the focus of a project-based learning environment, but it is an important tool. In my view, multimedia technologies form new genres for reading and writing and enable projects to be designed that were previously not possible. Digital stories, web sites, animations, and collaboration at a distance are a few examples of these new possibilities for creative project design.

I came to this view gradually from my own situated experiences; first as a secondary language arts teacher, then as an instructional designer/multimedia developer, and finally as a teacher-educator. These experiences may seem dissimilar at first glance, but all of my professional employment has involved designing learning environments that enable learners to construct knowledge. Through these experiences, I’ve come to see that both action and reflection are necessary components for constructing knowledge. I’ve also come to realize that when constructing an effective learning environment, it is necessary to connect to the learner’s existing knowledge and to their culture.

As I reflect on my educational philosophy and think about the experiences that have shaped my views I think back to my first teaching position in a secondary language arts classroom located on the Alamo Navajo reservation in central New Mexico. As the new teacher I was assigned the students who had the lowest test scores and who displayed the most behavior problems. At first, I used the traditional text books that were assigned to me and since the student test scores indicated their reading was way below grade level, I used the phonics work books that the reading specialist gave me. I approached the students as though they had deficiencies that could be fixed by these materials. This approach led to student resistance and teacher frustration. The more the students resisted, the more I pushed and the more frustrated we all became. After a short time the students shut down and would not do a thing I asked. They would barely speak to me and would never meet my eye. When I asked questions, they muttered Navajo phrases under their breath and the other students laughed. I was offered a job off the reservation and planned to leave at the end of my contract.

I didn’t leave though, instead, I stumbled upon some important concepts about the teaching and learning process that still inform my educational philosophy and I ended up working with this community for four years. Maybe the change in me began as I met adults from the community and they began to tell me stories about how as children they were taken by force from their homes to boarding schools. Maybe I came to appreciate their culture, or maybe I just had to change in order to survive. Somehow I was able to see that I was the one with a lack of understanding and awareness and that it was me who needed to change not my students. One day I did a presentation about the Long Walk – about when Kit Carson moved the Navajo from their land to Fort Sumner and I noticed that when I talked about the history of the Navajo my students showed an interest in what I had to say. The situation was so bad in my classroom that I attached a lot of importance to student interest and decided right then to use materials of more interest to the students.

It was certainly obvious from the students’ signs of disengagement, disinterest, and boredom that they were not interested in the text book or the phonics workbooks. In fact, they hated the phonics workbooks. They called them baby books and they defaced them with obscene words and pictures whenever they had a chance. I stopped using them and told the students that I could see that I had been wrong to use those workbooks and told them that I could tell that they already knew all they needed to know about phonics. I also stopped using the text book and developed a unit around Coyote stories and used these stories as reading material. Phonics and grammar instruction only occurred within the context of trying to make meaning from the text. Later I brought in some Navajo elders to tell the stories in Navajo. The classroom aide led groups of students to act as translators from Navajo to English. We taped the stories and I asked my students to transcribe the oral stories into written English. As we worked on this project there was no resistance or refusal. When they were asked to construct a meaningful project, these students were engaged and cooperative and demonstrated a much higher level of literacy skills than they had previously. They worked in groups to refine and edit the stories and they created an illustrated book of these stories that they read to the lower grades.

This was the first of many projects that we developed and as I think back on this experience, I can see that it was critical to use content that had meaning to the learners and to encourage them to write with a real purpose and audience so they could see the usefulness of writing. Perhaps they also saw some similarities between the structure of their traditional storytelling and the structure of fiction stories typically used in classrooms. It was most important that I let them know that I thought they were capable and knowledgeable and I started doing that when I threw out the phonics workbook and entrusted them with the work of translating and transcribing the stories told by their elders. As I demonstrated respect for them and their culture, they offered more respect to me. Occasionally, a student would even smile at me.

Striving to find content that was of interest to my students also led me to “integrate” computers into my curriculum. My teacher-training (in the 1980’s) didn’t include instruction about computers but when computers arrived in the classroom I could see that my students were interested in them, so I learned how to use them. At first my lack of knowledge and skill with computers made me feel uncomfortable because I could barely stay ahead of what my students knew, but later it led to an important shift in how I came to view the teaching/learning process. Because my students and I were learning to use computers together, I became a collaborator with my students and if I didn’t know something about the technology, I called on students to share their knowledge with the class. Experts evolved around certain pockets of knowledge and students became actively involved in helping each other to create projects that were interesting and relevant to them. Because we were all learning how to use computers together as we worked on authentic writing assignments, a community of student-experts formed around three areas: technology skills, content knowledge, and writing mechanics. I encouraged the students to rely on each other for help and I noticed that because of this they became more fully engaged with the assignments. Student test scores shot up that year and the positive changes occurred in that classroom because I legitimized their background experience and culture and gave them something interesting and authentic to do. Technology played a role in the projects we worked on, too. For instance, they could publish their stories because the technology of word processing enabled them to write stories that were legible to other people and they could print multiple copies and distribute them. Producing printed writing on these machines seemed more important than scribbling with a pencil in a ‘Big Chief’ tablet or filling out worksheets that were quickly discarded. This was the first time that I noticed how literacy practices are shaped by technology practices, but not the last.

My growing interest in learning theory and technology, led me out of the classroom toward a master’s degree in training and learning technologies and into a career as an instructional designer, multimedia developer, trainer, and project manager for multimedia software development projects in corporate and government environments. As a person who managed teams of professionals through multimedia product development cycles, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on how managing projects is a lot like teaching. Both the project manager and the teacher set goals and define the steps that will be needed to reach the goals. When a project development team is actively involved with a project, the team members come together and collaborate in ways that they do not when the team is idle or members are working independently. The same is as true of classroom development projects – collaborative engagement in the development of a project leads to active student learning.

Later I facilitated online courses – teaching learning theory and instructional design. I also worked as faculty developer assisting faculty to use technology is their teaching practice. Generally, these experiences reinforced the idea that simply inserting technology into the same old instructional strategies will not increase active student learning. I gave a great deal of thought to the interplay of learning theory and technology in the development of effective learning environments and I worked further on these ideas in my doctoral studies and in the writing of my dissertation.

My current belief is that effective instruction doesn’t need to be face-to-face but it must provide opportunities for learners to manipulate something. They must engage and interact with the content in order to actively construct knowledge and in our media saturated world interacting with content often involves manipulating technology. In the case of the teacher-candidates who I currently teach, I want them to enter the teaching profession with the ability to respond constructively and progressively to the technological and social changes that we are now experiencing and I want to be instrumental in their ability to understand that teaching is less about lecturing about what you know and more about finding out what your students know and designing an effective learning environment that will meet student needs.

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