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It’s no secret that COVID has changed how students are engaging in the classroom. In computer science and beyond, teachers are looking for different ways to get students invested in their learning. Project based learning (PBL) is a great solution.
We recently had the chance to sit down with PBL expert and founder of Magnify Learning, Ryan Steuer. In this interview, he discusses PBL best practices, shares success stories, and offers advice for getting started in your classroom.
When I was at UPS as an engineer, I saw people be successful when they could work well in a group, solve problems, and communicate solutions. I switched careers from engineering to teaching to help learners experience the success I had at UPS. With 21st Century Skills, I had a lot of options in front of me, and I wanted that for my learners. I found out very quickly that a traditional teaching model did not empower learners to be problem solvers. It created passive point getters at best and disengaged youth at its worst.
PBL changed learners from passive to empowered, and I began to see the change I had switched careers for. I saw learners interacting with community partners they otherwise never would have encountered. Our learners were presenting to vice-presidents of banks, engineers, and elected officials. The real world problems that were being solved through our standards gave our learners a “why” that caused them to lift their heads up and engage in a way they never had before. Disengaged learners saw a reason for learning, so they jumped in. Top students were being challenged to think beyond the textbook and apply their thinking. The change was immediate and undeniable: attendance went up, disciplinary problems went down, and our standardized test scores went up. PBL worked!
I founded Magnify Learning to continue this work and spread it across the country. We began a grassroots movement of teachers teaching teachers, but now it was time to systemize our culture and method. We still have teachers serving as our trainers. It’s our secret sauce! Boots on the ground teachers training and collaborating with one another.
Project Based Learning is an instructional model that lets a teacher in any content area engage their learners in solving a real world problem. PBL connects academics in a classroom to industry needs in the real world. As a result, learners encounter reasons to learn problem solving, presenting, and collaborating. Without a real reason to learn these valuable skills, learners are at a disadvantage when they go on to their next adventure. If you ask any business leader what they are looking for from our graduates, it is typically some version of critical thinking, teamwork, and self-discipline.
Teachers are amazing! They will always find a way to reach their learners in a meaningful way. It’s just in their spirit. Some teachers have been well prepared due to their PBL backgrounds. Blended learning or distance learning is often used by PBLers to connect with a community partner or hold a workshop. With distance learning being a part of COVID plans, engagement is a key ingredient. Engagement has always been tricky in schools, but now we are competing with an Xbox in the same room as the learner. The engagement of real world problem solving and presenting to authentic audiences puts PBLers at a distinct advantage. PBL brings engagement that goes beyond an exciting theme to the core of a learner where they want to help solve a problem in the community.I have seen some virtual field trips or community partners brought directly into the classroom via Zoom. PBLers tend to find a way to bring real world aspects of learning to their learners. The blended environment has certainly brought challenges, but we have also seen some amazing innovations.Here’s an example from one of our Demonstration Sites:
While PBL can work well in any environment, there are some factors that can add to its success. When a principal is on board, teachers tend to thrive. We have been a grassroots movement from the beginning, but we also recognize the need for support. You can do PBL on your own, but it’s sometimes a difficult road.
PBL works well in a school that is paying attention to culture and is community minded. When a school is addressing the needs of the whole child, the empowerment of PBL works really well for learners. A community-focused school can invite businesses, parents, and nonprofits to be involved in the work. We have seen whole communities rally around the school system in a new way as PBL opens the doors.
Again, I have seen PBL work in preschool to college classes and from math to art, so I know it can work everywhere. PBL may not work in a school that is not open to rethinking old ideas. If adults are not willing to give up some control to empower learners, PBL will not work well. There has to be a shift to allow learners to understand who they are and what they are capable of. This doesn’t work in the old model of I tell you what you need to know and then you repeat it back on a test.
Southport Elementary in Indianapolis uses PBL as it’s backbone for everything they do. Their 3rd graders are likely to greet you with a professional handshake and begin talking to you about their Monarch garden or how they collaborated with Hope Gallery to display their art and work with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Southport Elementary is a high performing school despite it’s high free and reduced lunch numbers and half of its learners are speaking English as their second language.
Babcock Ranch Neighborhood School in Florida will greet you with a culture that has had PBL from day one. You can ask any learner about why they are using a 3D printer or how they are protecting the local water. You will get an articulate and well thought out response that shows learners are confident and thinking critically about the world around them.
If a school or teacher is looking to get started in PBL, I would encourage them that they are likely halfway there! They are already looking to engage learners on a deeper level, and they have a couple of rockstar units that really get learners engaged. To take these to the next level, there are PBL resources, training, and support to help on this journey. We just launched a YouTube series called PBL Simplified that walks the audience through PBL one week at a time.
If they are ready to jump in fully, we are scheduling in-person and virtual 3-day PBL workshops for this coming summer. We are passionate about helping teachers engage their learners, tackle boredom, and transform their classroom.
I look forward to the day when PBL is the norm. PBL should be the baseline for all of education. At the core, we are relating classroom learning to the real world to make school relevant to learners and the community. As PBL continues to grow and it becomes the norm, I look forward to the next innovation.
Listen to our Confidence Builders interview featuring Ryan! He dives deeper into his career change, what inspires him to bring PBL to students, and his advice for finding your why.