As part of the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards, teachers are expected to help students use and develop higher-order thinking skills and critical thinking. This can be very challenging for many reasons, including the fact that this requires a different style of teaching than many are accustomed to, as well as the sheer volume of material that must be covered. Project-based learning (PBL) is an educational reform movement being used by many teachers as a way to help students meet higher learning standards (Selmer et al, 2014). It is an approach to instruction that emphasizes “authentic learning tasks grounded in the personal interests of learners” (Schwalm & Tylek, 2012). Students are presented with real-world, multidisciplinary problems that demand critical thinking, engagement and collaboration. PBL is, “facilitated by a curriculum structure that emphasizes standards, driving questions, and carefully orchestrated learning experiences for students that lead to related sub-questions and investigations to answer those questions (Buck Institute for Education, 2011).
Projects also help children relate the work of school to their individual worlds. Because students select the topic for a project and choose what they will work on each day, the inquiry is more meaningful to them than teacher-assigned work (Diffily, 2002). The content and processes of learning are connected to the world outside the classroom rather than being prescribed by textbooks. Textbooks are still used in PBL, but they serve as only one of many resources and do not dictate what knowledge and skills will be learned at a particular time. Students also consult the internet, print and people (both interviews and observation) as key means of gathering information (Diffily, 2002).
Technology can be valuable in supporting students and teachers in projects requiring higher level thinking; however, it is not the type of technology that is most important, but how it is used. As teachers become more immersed in using technology effectively to promote thinking, they become less didactic and more constructivist; they lecture less and coach more and expect individual differences (Lundeberg, 1997).The cultural constructivist perspective assumes that the student is actively involved in constructing knowledge and the teacher is actively involved in mediating the learning. One of the core beliefs is that learning occurs by doing. The interactions between students and teacher are essential components of the learning process (Lundeberg, 1997).
Since teachers’ instructional practices are directly tied to their beliefs about teaching and learning, putting ideas such as project-based learning into practice depends on the particular beliefs of teachers (Lundeberg, 1997). If one’s beliefs are congruent with the basic assumptions and underlying philosophy of PBL, it may be an approach to teaching and learning that warrants further consideration. As discussed later in this brief, PBL allows for differentiation within a classroom of diverse learners, and teaches much more than academic skills.
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