As schools across the country continue to implement hybrid and distance learning strategies in response to COVID-19, many educators have quickly discovered how challenging it is to incorporate hands-on and experiential learning techniques in these settings.
While it may seem counterintuitive to even attempt this kind of education given our challenging circumstances, resourceful instructors have turned to project-based learning (PBL) as an effective solution. Popularized by the ideas of 20th-century American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who believed that learning should be “grounded in experience and driven by student interest,” today PBL can be found in curricula ranging from kindergarten to the collegiate level.
Project-Based Learning at Distance
The obvious question arises: how can educators implement PBL outside a traditional classroom setting?
In an article published in The Hechinger Report, journalist Tara García Mathewson reported that district administrators at Shelby County Schools in Kentucky asked themselves this same question when their schools were forced to close toward the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
All of the district’s teachers had been trained in PBL in 2012, and many have since used this type of teaching in their classes. As the teachers experienced how difficult it was to “replicate a normal school day remotely,” they realized PBL could provide a solution. For Susan Dugle, chief academic officer of the district, remote learning represented a great chance to promote the benefits of PBL and receive even more educator buy-in.
This strategy worked and according to Dugle, educators throughout the district observed increased student engagement in response to projects that captivated their interest and attention. Additionally, by allowing students the agency to work on parts of their project at their own pace, educators were better able to navigate the myriad schedules and unique personal situations of their students.
The district-wide push to implement PBL was a success, and according to Dugle, Shelby County Public Schools plans to use this strategy as a way of helping students catch up on missed learning standards.
“What we’ve decided,” Dugle said in the article, “is that project-based learning is the way to take possible missing learning and standards from a previous year and integrate it into a project the following year…and have that learning occur at the same time.”
Supporting Students in a Home Environment
In an article published in Edutopia, John Larmer, Editor-in-Chief at the Buck Institute for Education, explains that part of what makes PBL such a useful learning strategy during the pandemic is that students are able to undertake projects that align with their unique set of circumstances and available resources.
Larmer goes on to say that early support from parents can be very helpful, and that parents will likely welcome learning that takes place away from the computer screen. Projects are also a great way for families to do things together, or conversely, provide an ideal opportunity for students to work independently and develop confidence in an authentic way.
According to Larmer, it’s important to reiterate to parents that they are not expected to be teachers – as they likely have enough on their plate. Instead, teachers should reassure parents that they will always be available as a resource to help whenever their child needs additional assistance on their project.
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