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Project Based Learning: Passing trend or new blueprint for learning?

I am not a “jump right in and get both feet wet” kind of person. I will dip a finger in the water, swirl it around a bit, pull it out and then research, research, research. I want to find out exactly what is in that water, how that water will affect my health, and, if there is not enough data on that water, I will sit back and wait until there is, so I can make that “fully educated” decision so characteristic of this information age.

Still, I admire those who jump in and move forward with that element of entrepreneurial risk, those who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them. After all, they are the ones who will provide the treasured security blanket of studies and data from their experiences. Without their boldness, our society would remain stagnant.

When strategies like Project Based Learning (PBL) come into focus as a way to change how we teach our children, educators have to decide whether to test the water or dive in. While PBL can greatly enhance the student’s experience of learning, to what degree should it be used? Is PBL suited to all students? Should PBL be the new model of learning integrated throughout the school day or as another tool to use within existing structures?

Project-Based Learning is rooted in the belief that students have better learning outcomes by experiencing and solving real world problems. This inquiry based method stresses eight essential elements – that the focus has significant content and teaches students important knowledge and skills. It builds 21st century competencies such as critical thinking and problem solving and engages students in an in-depth inquiry process that is investigated over an extended period of time. The project is focused by a driving question that students find interesting. The students see the need to know, learning the knowledge they require to answer this question, and they are given voice and choice to take ownership of the project. The process includes critique and revision to allow students to give and receive feedback and finally, the students present their findings and work to an authentic, public audience.

PBL in the Christian schools
Christian schools across Canada are incorporating PBL in various ways. Schools like Abbotsford Christian Middle and High School (ACS) in B.C. and Hamilton District Christian High (HDCH) in Ontario have formally introduced PBL over the past three to five years within their classrooms. At ACS, teachers design and include at least one project per semester at the high school level. ACS recently hosted a “Presentation of Learning” evening that highlighted their students’ PBL projects from the previous term. Similarly, HDCH is establishing PBL through different phases of integration.

As HDCH teacher and Executive Director of the Christian Teacher Academy, Harry Blyleven, explained, “PBL provides a structure to make learning more authentic, to educate with the hands, heart and mind and it encourages students to learn more about their communities.”

At the elementary level, Christian grade schools are starting to integrate PBL as well. Amanda Breimer, teacher at Calvin Christian School in Hamilton, is currently using this method in her Grade Six science class, designing and proposing models on how renewable energy could be used at their school. 

“Watching my students take on these projects has been fascinating,” said Breimer. “Students have begun to take charge of their own learning and they are able to begin to understand how they learn, research and work with others. Students are fully invested when the project becomes authentic. They realize their work means much more than just a paper that they hand in on the teacher’s desk.”

It takes a great deal of preparatory work and organization to carry out a unit using PBL. Redeemer University College professor Dr. Darren Brouwer, who has been using PBL in his Analytical Chemistry course since 2012, attests to this but says the increased work load is worth it. His students studied the nearby Chedoke Watershed and its contaminants. Not only did his students collect and analyze their own samples, but they learned skills like project planning, management and how to communicate their findings.

Their authentic audience – representatives from various organizations such as the City of Hamilton and the Royal Botanical Gardens – were impressed to see such engaged students, and the Q & A period became an unexpected catalyst for discussion on how to really address this problem.

Integrating a PBL approach
In fully integrating PBL, educators will need to move away from traditional concepts of curriculum. The focus shifts from obtaining large amounts of factual knowledge to “experiencing creation and the richness of a dynamic project,” as described by Justin Cook, Director of Learning at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools.

Cook acknowledges the difficulties in making such changes, and that institutions attempting this shift will experience growing pains. As Klaas Hoekstra, Principal at Taber Christian School, pointed out, “PBL can be messy and requires an atmosphere that tolerates change and making mistakes.”

“The challenge that I have had with PBL is allowing myself to release a measure of control to my students, a shift of teacher-led instruction to student-led learning,” Breimer explained. “In PBL, I see myself like a driving instructor sitting in the passenger seat ensuring the children are reaching the learning objectives but they are ultimately in control of how they’re going to get there.”

“The teacher becomes the designer, activator, manager, coach and assessor, still extremely active in the process of the project,” said Cook, referencing the PBL structure developed by the Buck Institute of Education (BIE). Online communities and resources like the BIE (bie.org) are helpful for educators approaching PBL. Cook advises “Find a community of fellow-minded colleagues to gain collaborative support.”

Teachers and school leaders can also attend courses that focus on PBL, such as the Christian Teacher’s Academy (teacheracademy.ca) hosted by HDCH in Southern Ontario or the Society of Christian Schools’  PBL residency program hosted by ACS in British Columbia (pblresidency.com). Both these events take place in August.

Recently, over 60 Christian school administrators and teachers travelled to High Tech High (HTH) in California to learn more about this experimental PBL school. Blyleven describes HTH as an inspirational place, providing opportunity for teachers and school administrators to reflect on their own school and model of teaching. Likewise, ACS teachers visited HTH five years ago: “Teachers came away determined to explore the PBL model much more deeply,” explained Robbert Bakker, Secondary Vice Principal at ACS. 

Bakker emphasizes community support: “Your own community must see that PBL is an incredibly powerful tool. The world today requires skills that are no longer content driven. It requires critical thinkers, problem solvers, communicators and collaborators, creativity, and global citizenship.”

Cook and Hoekstra also stress the importance of support from school leaders and community: “There has to be a culture of collaboration among the entire staff and student body,” advises Hoekstra.

Is PBL the future of education?
Will Project Based Learning outlive its trendiness and revolutionize education? Will it become the model used everywhere, changing the way we think about education? PBL advocates hope so but it will be years before this question can really be answered. In many ways, Christian schools have already been embracing elements of PBL as an approach to education.

As Hoekstra explains, “We have not formally introduced PBL, but there are many characteristics that are already happening. We invite our students to be part of the learning process which involves making decisions about how they learn, how they work together, and how that learning continues beyond the walls of the classroom.”

“As a Christian school, we see the child differently. We see each child as a unique product of God’s endlessly creative power,” said Bakker. “They are made in his image.  Therefore, if we want to be teachers, we can never be content with education that is ‘good enough’ or ‘worked for me.’ We must always be striving to move forward.”

As this unfolds, I will be peering over the shoulder of these architects of education, waiting to see what happens, but commending those willing to take the risk and invest so much of their time doing it. Above all, I laud all school leaders and teachers who are always looking for innovative ways to improve education for those to whom it matters most – our children.


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