4 Keys To Designing A Project-Based Learning Classroom
Traditional American classrooms tend to fit a particular mold: Students face the front of the class where teachers lecture.
Students take notes, finish assignments at home, and hope to memorize enough information just long enough to pass a test.
Engagement and passion are often in short supply — among students and teachers. The system does not necessarily accommodate all learning styles, and even those who fair well may be missing out on other important work-life lessons, like how to creatively solve problems, stay focused, work as part of a team, and organize their thoughts in a way others will understand.
This is where project-based learning enters the equation.
What is Project-Based Learning?
Project-based learning, or PBL, is generating a great deal of buzz in the world of education, and is often portrayed as an alternative to passive learning and rote memorization. If traditional education is classical, PBL is jazz. In a PBL classroom, teachers present problems that students must solve together in groups. Rather than reciting facts and hoping some of them stick, teachers give students the resources they need to research concepts and apply them in a practical form. Mistakes are allowed and even expected in the course of meaningful learning. The result: Students become active rather than passive learners and build important workplace skills. Of course, all of this requires a great deal of planning, a healthy dose of flexibility and an environment that supports collaboration. Here are four essential elements of a successful PBL classroom.
4 must-follow rules for designing a PBL classroom
1. Learning Spaces Help Set The Tone
One of the defining characteristics of a PBL classroom is the emphasis on group work: Students work with their peers to solve problems. That means the space must be organized in a way that supports collaboration — neat lines of forward-facing desks are the enemy. In a multi-disciplinary elementary classroom, portable floor mats or cushions are an excellent alternative to traditional desks, at least during group work periods.
Teachers still need a central location where all students can congregate to hear stories, lessons or project instructions, but there should be enough room beyond that for break-out group work. Older students, on the other hand, often need large work surfaces and comfortable chairs. Large round or rectangular tables are ideal, but if budgets are limited, teachers can simply push desks together in small clusters.
One key? Keep your content area and common project types in mind. Small writing desks may be okay for English students, but science students probably need large surfaces that accommodate lab work. Digital products will require requisite technology access, as will mobile learning approaches, and community-based projects can benefit from social media access and blogging tools in addition to local periodicals, and even space for face-to-face interaction with community members. You might find online tools like Classroom Architect helpful during the classroom planning process.
2. Think Information Access
PBL is not a paper-pushing style of learning. Students need access to chalk or white boards, reference books, and art or presentation supplies. Young children are often spatial and tactile learners, so it helps to divide these multi-disciplinary classrooms into subject-themed areas that organize and display manipulatives, learning materials and other supplies.
Classrooms for older students tend to be subject-dedicated, so teachers might consider reserving an area for rotating, lesson-specific materials in addition to the usual year-round supplies. Whatever their grade or subject, remember that PBL classrooms are by definition unpredictable and, to a degree, student-guided. You may not know what direction a particular project will take, so try to keep a wide breadth of materials on-hand to support rather than limit creativity.