The key to engaging students in authentic, engaging and
meaningful project-based learning is making projects relevant to students. As
educators, we’ve been taught that project-based learning starts with a
well-defined driving question. However, when a challenge question is firmly
written with little room to shift focus, student engagement often wanes.
The strongest project-based learning experiences use design thinking as a
framework to solve problems through a “people-centered” lens. Pairing the design
process with project-based learning allows students to define their own driving
questions. Once students are immersed in a self-defined problem, it becomes more
meaningful, relevant and real.
At The Ellis School, an all-girls school in Pittsburgh where I am the
director of the Learning
Innovation Institute, we have found this approach significantly increases
student interest, confidence, leadership and core content knowledge.
Design thinking drives hands-on PBL
When planning the shift from a more passive, lecture-driven lesson to a more
active, hands-on project-based learning lesson, we use design methods from the
Stanford d.School as well as
the LUMA Institute.
Typically, many faculty will work with our Learning Innovation Institute to help
plan a new project. Most projects use 6-8 design methods, and they can last anywhere
from a few weeks to a few months. When they can’t meet face to face, students
interact with each other using the discussion boards within our Haiku Learning
Management System. That flexibility is possible because we’ve remixed class
space and class time with blended learning and the flipped classroom
Group work and effective collaboration are essential pieces of cultivating
student passions. In our upper school, we create teams based on student
strengths using the Gallup
StrengthsFinder. Students learn how to best use their strengths, and they practice
project skills, such as creating Gantt
charts and weekly “status update” reports. Our school permits students to
use their own devices or check one out from the school, and they decide which
digital media format they will use to solve their challenge.
As students complete projects in middle school to early upper school, they
gain skill and ultimately are paired with real clients. Some are in the
Pittsburgh community, while others are global partners in places like Haiti,
Kenya and Cameroon. When students pursue their passions for real clients, build
empathy for each other, learn how to fail fast and take calculated risks, they
gain the skills to be innovators and change agents. This style of project-based
learning that infuses design thinking at the core leads to highly
individualized, personalized and meaningful learning opportunities.
Here are a few of our favorite design methods to engage students and increase
their passion for project-based learning:
What’s On Your Radar. Teams of 3-4 students use a bulls-eye
diagram with three rings and between 4-6 pie slices to think about their
priorities around a certain topic or theme. Give students a prompt that ties to
your learning objectives for the project using a “how might we” question. This
method can take anywhere from 20-60 minutes, depending on the number of ideas
generated. Students take stock of the key priorities identified in the center
ring and negotiate on ideas to move forward with exploring. They own the process
and the outcome.
Interviewing and Learning Walks. Don’t assume students know
how to interview. Teach them how to develop interview questions, critique a mock
interview and analyze results to determine the themes that emerge from their
research. We call the theme-analysis process “affinity clustering.”
Alternatively, have half of the class or part of the group take “learning
walks,” where they practice observation skills and record them in a journal. We
like using Google Docs to keep digital records that are sharable to the teacher
and other teammates.
Creative Matrix. In a recent design-based project in AP
Biology, students spent time (approximately three, 80-minute classes plus a
90-minute field trip) determining the key issues on our campus related to
environmental sustainability. At the top of the matrix, they listed things like
recycling, composting, facilities and utilities, while the left side of the
matrix listed new products, new services, events or wildcard for ideas that
didn’t fit into the other three categories. The entire class broke into smaller
groups and then generated ideas on sticky notes to fit each cell in the matrix.
They then “visualized the vote” to pick their personalized project challenge
statement and continued onto the rest of the project phases.
Using these design methods at the start of the project makes every student
feel they have a voice. It contextualizes the topic and content, an important
aspect of project-based learning, particularly for engaging girls. A combined
approach to using digital media tools, design methods and allowing students to
be agents of change will place their passions at the center of learning.
Lisa Abel-Palmieri, Ph.D., is the director of technology and innovation
and head of computer science at The Ellis School. Connect
with her on Twitter via @Learn21Tech.