Let’s take a closer look at a Project Based Learning cycle as it unfolds in a public elementary school with a team of third grade classes.
An Authentic Problem
A team of six third grade teachers came up with the project idea based on a drought their community was going through. Cities were under strict watering restrictions and everyone was feeling the effects the lack of rainfall had brought. In looking at their science content standards, the teachers knew that resources, conservation, and environmental changes were coming up. This tied in well with the social studies standards about humans adapting to variations in their physical environment. They also knew they could incorporate language arts standards through research, expository writing, and persuasive writing. The teachers decided they wanted their students to focus on convincing others (particularly students at their school and their families) to conserve water. They developed this driving question to pose to their students: How can we, as conservationists, teach other to use water wisely?
The teachers planned specific lessons on research skills to begin the PBL cycle. Students used those research skills to learn about the current drought and its effect on people, plants, and animals. They also learned about water, from how much water is available on earth to how much is consumed by an average household. They very quickly realized how much water is wasted and were eager to find ways to conserve water, and to convince others to save water as well. Writing lessons focused on expository writing to share what they learned about the issue, and then persuasive writing to convince others to make a change.
Student Choice and an Inquiry-Based Approach
As students were researching, they naturally formed inquiry groups. Some were focused on the problem of wasting water and its inevitable effects, while others focused on potential conservation solutions. These groups began to brainstorm ways they could inform others of what they had learned. One group elected to create a newsletter about the problem and effects of wasting water. Another group developed a skit about how to conserve water at home. Several small groups of students decided to film PSAs (Public Service Announcements) that could be broadcasted over the school’s morning news show. These student choices led to the teachers regrouping their classes based on student interests and teacher skillsets. Each teacher then developed appropriate lessons to help the students create their final products. As a culminating activity, the third grade students held a school-wide assembly in which they shared their skits, PSAs, and a slideshow presentation based on information from their newsletters.
21st Century Skills
Throughout the entire process of PBL, students were working on a large variety of life skills that will benefit them well beyond the classroom. Through their research and synthesis of the knowledge they gained, they were working on critical thinking and information literacy. By forming small groups, they improved their leadership and social skills. Having so much choice in the project, they increased their flexibility, productivity and learning to take initiative. And finally, with their final products and assembly presentation, the students built their creativity and communication skills.
Adult mentorship was easy to incorporate into this project based learning cycle. The teachers used school resources such as the librarian for research lessons and the instructional technologist to teach video editing lessons. They had a local meteorologist visit with a presentation on the drought. Furthermore, the entire grade level took a field trip to the LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority) early on in the project to start building their background knowledge about the water cycle.
Throughout the course of the PBL cycle, students had various checkpoints and assessments to monitor their progress, such as a quiz on natural resources and conservation in science, quick checks of their independent research notes for reading, and expository and persuasive letter writing assessed with rubrics for writing. For students not reaching mastery on any of these tasks, teacher-led small groups were formed to provide more support as needed. And of course, students received a summative assessment grade on their final product, which was assessed with a common rubric developed by the team of teachers. Because the rubric was based on content standards, it was able to be applied to multiple products, such as a skit, PSA, or a newsletter.
Project plan revision was built in throughout the process. As students formed their specific interest groups, the teachers had to revise their groupings and lesson plans based on student needs. At the end of the full PBL cycle, the team of teachers completed individual teacher reflections and then discussed those results in a team meeting as they considered how best to improve the process for future PBL cycles.
This particular project took place over a period of about 9 weeks. However, PBL cycles can be shorter or longer than that, depending on the scope of the project. It is also important to note that while this was a third grade project, PBL can be easily implemented into any grade level. Project Based Learning is a flexible instructional approach that will benefit even your most reluctant learners.