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Classrooms that apply the concept of project-based learning cultivate students who are fully prepared to succeed in a 21st-century world. Different from traditional classroom learning, project-based education develops the critical thinking skills that are so important in today's society.

What Is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is far from a new concept. Pioneer educator, Dr. Maria Montessori was using similar methods in Italy as far back as 1907, when she taught a classroom of disadvantaged and previously un-schooled children how to absorb knowledge from their environment. Montessori's students made huge strides in learning from the moment they stepped into her classroom, simply because she got them involved in the process of education, making them excited to learn along the way.

Today, project-based learning is rapidly gaining ground as the go-to curriculum for students of all ages. In the project-based classroom, students work together in teams to find solutions and accomplish goals. They search for answers to questions that matter, while learning core objectives in the process.

Students involved in this type of learning are searching for answers to pre-determined outcomes. Examples could include:

  • How can we keep our classroom neater?

  • How can we make our cafeteria meals healthier?

  • How can we help a local charity reach a specific goal?

The problems introduced in project-based learning help children understand real-world impact. For instance, when working on a project that involves finding solutions for a cleaner classroom, children might brainstorm ideas such as adding different-sized bins for small, medium and large supplies, assigning students to take turns sweeping up play areas or emptying trash cans, and having designated receptacles for pencils, markers and crayons. As a result of the project, students would implement their changes, test their theories, study the outcome, and form conclusions.

Did the changes work? Is clarification needed on any of the existing changes? Could more changes be made?

It's this type of real-world practice in collaboration and problem-solving that project-based learning aims to nurture. Along the way, students learn additional skills, such as how to work together as a team, how to collaborate and interact in appropriate ways with peers, and how to think about a problem and devise a solution.

What Project-Based Learning Isn't

There are a lot of things project-based learning is and a lot of things it isn't. PBL is not memorization-based education. Teachers don't relay facts and require students to memorize them for a test on Friday. It's not hand-outs given at the start of a class and filled in with answers as the information is covered. Certainly, activities like these can be a part of project-based learning, but in the PBL classroom, they no longer make up the majority of study. Instead of working independently, and being measured independently, students are assigned teams in which they must participate to achieve a common goal and a common grade. Socialization and communication are required for everyone to succeed, much as they are in the real world.

Goals of Project-Based Learning

The focus of this learning model is the formation of critical thinking skills. As students participate, they develop the abilities to problem-solve, to communicate effectively with others, to collaborate, to innovate, and to stretch the limits of their creativity. They gain confidence in their own abilities to find solutions and to meet new challenges. And they play roles in their own social and academic achievements.

PBL teaches students how to take command of their own learning by moving them along, step-by-step, toward predetermined outcomes. Because of this, students are more motivated, more curious and more invested in finding solutions.

Role of the Teacher in the PBL Classroom

In a true PBL classroom, the teacher becomes less of a teacher and more of a facilitator. He or she may introduce the topic and then help students decide which questions they would like to answer. The teacher may give examples of ways to achieve goals. Afterward, he or she takes a back seat to allow children to forge the way.

The shifting away from the traditional teacher-student dynamic is necessary for project-based learning to succeed. In PBL, teachers play widely different roles than they do in traditional classroom education:

  • They must be more of a supporter and less of a leader.

  • They must have empathy.

  • They must actively inspire their students.

  • They must find ways to encourage thinking, development and growth.

  • They must introduce workable questions and allow students adequate time to resolve them.

Teachers must also know how to guide projects along to keep them moving toward conclusion, and they must ensure that core concepts are being learned as part of the PBL activities. Core concepts at the preschool age involve such goals as learning to get along with others, handling emotions appropriately, developing cognitive and motor skills, and developing appropriate language and literacy skills.

The Components of Project-Based Learning

In completing a PBL unit, even early learners use multiple skills, including:

  • Conducting Research

  • Forming Analysis

  • Investigating Possibilities

  • Exploring Solutions

  • Creating Outcomes

Along the way, they're strengthening their abilities to question and to speculate, to make informed conclusions, and to predict outcomes. It's a scientific approach to 21st-century learning that will benefit children for the rest of their lives and help them to compete and succeed in a rapidly expanding world.

Early Pioneers

Dr. Maria Montessori was an early pioneer of project-based learning, but so was Jean Piaget, whose Theory of Cognitive Development helped influence the science of developmental psychology. According to Piaget, children learn by playing active roles in their own learning process. They experiment, make observations and draw conclusions -- all are which are fundamental elements of project based learning. Piaget first published his theory back in 1936, envisioning the influence it would have in helping educators understand more about child development. Today, we know that most early learners between the ages of two and seven years old are in their pre-operational stage of learning. This means several things:

  • They're just beginning to think about things symbolically.

  • They're beginning to recognize letters and numbers, and they can identify objects from words and pictures.

  • They're egocentric and have trouble viewing a situation from the perspective of someone else.

  • They still think about things in concrete terms.

  • Children in the pre-operational stage are becoming very skilled at pretend play.

It's important that teachers in the project-based, preschool classroom understand these stages and design projects that play to children's capabilities and strengths. In this way, early learners gain the foundational ground they need to become skilled critical thinkers.