The Power of PBL
Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed
Educator, Instructional Designer
I worked with high-risk high school students for several years in a special high school completion program. The kids came to me as seniors with barely a high school credit to their name. Most were chronic truants. Some were dropouts we connected with and brought back into the system. The goal was to get those young adults out into the working world, have them pass the five GED tests, civics, and health, and graduate them with their class. And they did! I had the privilege of being the teacher of 130 students over seven years who became high school graduates as a result of the program.
Many of the kids simply did not like each other. Though we were in an off-campus setting, old feuds from the high school setting prevailed. Once given the opportunity to succeed, their motivation to finish school was actually not a problem. Getting beyond their dislike for each other was an obvious barrier right from the start. Each year I found a community service project to start our school year as the first of several projects we worked on together. It forced the students to work together and gave them a purpose; at least that’s how I thought of it then. Looking back, I now realize the students were immersed in 21st Century Skills. The “project” took a disconnected group of students and gave them a purpose on which to focus their energy and passion.
One year the group built a play station for a local daycare. The large play station came in several parts, with lots of screws and bolts. It was “some assembly required” to the max! The guys saw it as a guy project. They could lift the heavy pieces into place, and right in their cars, every one of their cars, was a set of tools waiting to be used. They instantly took on individual roles, some pulling pieces into place, others driving bolts where needed. They forgot they were supposed to be at odds with each other because the intrinsic joy of building and the showing their finely-tuned building skills overcame any past disagreements. It was poetry in motion.
What about the girls? The guys dismissed them as unnecessary and let them know it, not only in what they said, but very definitely in how they behaved. At least they did until one of the girls picked up a screwdriver and started securing a timber, demonstrating obvious skill. Time stopped at that moment for the guys. Another girl picked up the printed directions and started reading the directions aloud, step by step. A third helped organize the sequence of the assembly. By early afternoon, the play station was built and the kids looked at what they had constructed with pride.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the project can be best described within a social context. A dramatic and long-lasting change came over the group as the play station project progressed. They recognized and respected individual skills and shared a common purpose. Collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, voice and choice, and the creation of a product – all enhanced 21st Century skills ruled the day. And every day they could drive by the day care center and say, “I built that.” Their product was a public good. It was shared with the community in the local newspaper, and their image in the community became positive.
The power of project based learning is truly unlimited, not only in building important personal skills, but also in helping students learn how to function in the real world. Project based learning is a keystone of Zulama’s courses. Project based learning is not one person working on a project, but a group of engaged individuals sharing talents though collaboration. Everyone brings his or her unique qualities to the project.
Zulama students work in small groups to innovate, design, engage others, and assess in the form of ongoing iteration. Zulama calls these small group and group process IDEA Teams. Teamwork builds self-reliance, self-confidence, accountability, and most importantly, responsibility. In the first Evolution of Games IDEA Team project, students create the game board for the ancient game of Ur that originated in Mesopotamia. Students take a deep dive into the history and culture of this ancient time and place and then translate their knowledge onto a game board. Who does the research? Who creates the art? Who constructs the game board? Who presents it? When does the group meet and what are they responsible for sharing?
Royal Game Of Ur Game Board
This early project sets the social context in which the class functions. Just as with my play station-building students, IDEA Teams find purpose and pride in what they accomplish, not because a teacher has told them what needs to be done and how, but because they determine their set of expectations and strive to meet them.
It’s exciting to read about the energized project based learning environments in the Danville, Kentucky school district and at High Tech High in Philadelphia. It’s equally exciting to walk into Zulama classes and see the social engagement and cognitive investment when students are immersed in game design and project based learning. Research supporting project based learning is compelling. I saw the benefits of project based learning play out for 130 young adults who walked with great pride at graduation. Class projects became defining moments in their education and had a dramatic and positive influence on their futures.