Why Project-Based Learning Isn’t Just for Students

By: Amy Pavelich, Zulama Copy Editor

At the heart of our Computer Science and Game Design Certificate Program is a project: you design an original video game and then showcase it in a digital portfolio. But how will this fun professional learning experience help shape and inform your own teaching practices once you step back into the classroom?

In this post, we’ll explore how professional learning that is tech-oriented and project-based gives you an upper hand when teaching in a student-centered learning environment. PBL curriculum can open your classroom walls, turning your classroom into a laboratory of divergent thinking, creativity, and active learning.

The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.John Dewey

The Growing Influence of Project-Based Learning (PBL)

John Dewey (1859–1952), a pioneering thought leader and educator, advocated “learning by doing.” He argued that if lessons were focused only on content and not driven by an experiential element, learners would be deprived of making informed opinions based on their interaction with the content. But, he went further in suggesting that “each student’s experience will be individualized based on past experiences, and not all students will take away the same outlook of the concept. Thus, the experiential learning classroom mimics society, where all people have different views of topics and information” (Learn NC, 2009).

While the idea of learning by doing was not new, Dewey’s advocacy for it in the early twentieth century led to it becoming “a recognized field of education, and in 1977 the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) was established” (Hammerman, Hammerman, & Hammerman, 2001). And PBL has gained momentum as technology has advanced. In today’s world, students have so much information to traverse and assess, and PBL gives them the ability to use higher-order thinking skills to identify and solve problems that are increasingly complex and unique to the twenty-first century.

As PBL’s influence has grown, experts have tried to pinpoint some key ingredients for making PBL effective. Typical elements of PBL include real-world context, collaboration, various communication strategies, and authentic assessments. Adding a technology component can help to enhance the experience into one of deeper learning.

How does the Zulama brand of PBL stand apart from the traditional model?

projects, pbl, learning, PD

  • Students learn the foundational skills of computer science, which are critical to today’s workforce development.
  • We hook kids’ interest with game design as the content focus.
  • Teacher-facilitated lessons combine traditional methods, such as reading assignments, with dynamic student-created projects that give students greater autonomy and ownership of their learning, sparking empathy, creativity, and passion in their work.

Essentially, we give PBL a lift.

Impacts of PBL Professional Development (PD)

In a landmark study conducted by the Buck Institute for Education, researchers wanted to determine how PBL professional development (PD) would impact teachers in a poor rural state. They found that teachers with PBL PD experiences were more likely than teachers without it to be successful in teaching and assessing 21st-century skills. Why? It turns out these teachers were more likely to incorporate PBL curriculum once they got back into their classrooms. But that’s not all! These same teachers also were more likely to share and provide PBL PD to other teachers. And that, of course, leads to systemic change! Because PBL is immersed in authentic assessment, where you have check-ins and multifaceted assessments at intervals throughout the project, you have a better gauge on where your students are at in their learning and can use this to guide them to deeper learning.

“Facilitating” PBL

Teaching a rigorous tech-oriented PBL curriculum has all kinds of benefits: higher student achievement, a decline in absenteeism, increased cooperative learning skills, less teacher burnout, among others.

Going through our Certificate Program will give you the initial exposure to how tech-oriented PBL curriculum works. It will alleviate some of the concerns and hesitation you might have about instituting PBL, turning your view from one that’s steeped in “risk” to one filled with boundless opportunities for growth for you and your students.

PBL curriculum is student driven, meaning you must adopt the mindset of facilitator:

  •    Be open to uncertainties.
  •    Be okay with not correcting students’ mistakes.
  •    Be present.
  •    Ask good questions to redirect students when they get off task.
  •    See yourself as a co-learner alongside your students.

Facilitator

Keeping these helpful strategies in mind will make your transition from teacher to facilitator a much smoother one.

Cultivating Empathy through PBL

One other key to a successful PBL experience is empathy. At the core of PBL is collaboration, which requires a commitment to listening to others, valuing their perspectives, understanding where they’re coming from, and then being willing to adjust your own perspective based on this new information.

As you work your way through our professional learning, your ultimate project will be to design and code an original game. This is when thinking like a game designer and keeping the player experience in mind becomes critical. You must empathize with the player, developing a deep understanding of how the player will experience your game. This drives your creative process: What is the purpose of the game? Is it fun, engaging, challenging? Or is it frustrating, boring? Empathy also informs the playtesting process, where someone else plays your game. While you may think your game is great as is, your audience could feel otherwise and point out issues you may have overlooked. Having the ability to perceive others’ perspectives and understanding their experiences will help you look at your game from new angles. Perhaps there is room for improvement, after all! Cultivating empathy through game design projects is a means for actively practicing and modeling empathy with your students. And if you have experienced PBL first-hand in your own professional learning, you will be able to better understand and empathize with your students as they learn through projects in the classroom.

Learning from and Leading through Empathy

As your students work on their own game design projects, with your guidance, they too will begin to understand the importance of empathy, not only in how it applies to the player experience, but in a greater world context. As they interact with one another in group collaboration and feedback loops, they’re practicing skills that will make their futures brighter: actively listening to better understand and value other perspectives beside their own. Empathy drives the PBL curriculum—it’s what makes collaboration successful, what inspires people to look at things differently to make better decisions, and helps spark new ideas. This culture of collaboration cultivates outstanding leadership skills and the desire to be compassionate world citizens who tackle challenging problems with breakout innovations.

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This post is part of a blog series in support of our new professional learning opportunity, the Computer Science and Game Design Certificate, co-developed with the Computer Science Teachers Association. For more on the intersection of computer science and professional learning, read the previous posts in the series:

21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning – Part 2

Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) and Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher) share tips and classroom examples for using Project Based Learning to increase student performance and growth of 21st Century Skills.

Part 2 of 2

21st Century Skills and Project Based Learning – Part 1

Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd) and Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher) share tips and classroom examples for using Project Based Learning to increase student performance and growth of 21st Century Skills.

Part 1 of 2

Project Based Learning using Media – Part 2

Nikki Navta (Zulama), Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District), Dustin Stiver (Sprout Fund), and Melissa Benedict (Elizabeth Forward School District), and Dave Faulkner (StoryBots) discuss the best ways to use media for project based learning.

Part 2 of 2

Project Based Learning using Media – Part 1

Nikki Navta (Zulama), Todd Keruskin (Elizabeth Forward School District), Dustin Stiver (Sprout Fund), and Melissa Benedict (Elizabeth Forward School District), and Dave Faulkner (StoryBots) discuss the best ways to use media for project based learning.

Part 1 of 2