This is the first in a series of articles about how educators are using project-based learning. Upcoming entries will explore the power of PBL in middle school and high school.
By the time college students enter my classroom at the Levinsky College of Education, they have experience creating traditional school projects such as poster boards. They’ve been exposed to the idea of creating and expressing themselves while they learn. As teachers and aspiring teachers themselves, they listen to me, but they are also analyzing my way of teaching. If I want to create a learning environment that inspires curiosity, I have to teach in the same way.
There isn’t a menu for learning, so the trick is to ask the question that will get students stirred up. What bothers them? What questions are they seeking the solution to? I’m a firm believer in project-based learning, but my students approach it with a wary eye. They ask me “What do you want us to do?” and I explain to them that PBL allows us to come up with that answer together. They’d rather me just give them the menu and send them on their way, but once they finish a project addressing subjects they care about, they have so much more pride in their work.
For instance, my students were preparing for an exhibition where they were instructed to imagine that people were going to invest millions of dollars in their ideas. This got their wheels turning. They gained a deeper understanding of their topic because they were able to approach it in their own way.
To make PBL work in my classroom, I have to be a good manager. I have to get my students to look around and see what they already bring to the desk: their knowledge, ambitions and desires. My job is to enhance their abilities with the skills they have at that very moment. They can’t work with what they don’t have, so I get them to be familiar with their independent strengths. I encourage them to work from a place where their existing knowledge motivates them to grow to a new level.
Using collaborative tools like Google Drive brings my students’ PBL experience to life. I also use an online platform, Project Pals, to give my students a new outlet to express themselves — not only through which topic they choose for the project, but through how they choose to represent it. Having one shared platform for all phases of a project enables students to use a wide array of images, video and text to craft their message. An interactive and collaborative workspace that updates in real time gives students a shared canvas where they can both brainstorm ideas and bring them to life.
Some of my students take this approach by storm, and others need more guidance. Eventually it introduces them to a new perspective of teaching and learning. New technology can be brought into the classroom, but it doesn’t change the way people digest information. With a PBL platform, the visual aspect of connecting dots on their own gives students an autonomy with their subject. Instead of verbal instructions, I give them projects.
Sharon Hardof is a lecturer who teaches education in multiple higher education institutions in Israel, including the University of Tel-Aviv and the Levinsky College of Education.
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