How to Make Projects (and Learning) Authentic and Relevant to Students

  • Project-Based Learning
Todd Bearson, PBL Department Head

Welcome to the Project Based Learning (PBL) Round Up, where the cool overrule the non-project ridicule and retool their school to run on PBL fuel.

This week’s driving question: How to make content relevant for optimal student engagement?

One of the more challenging aspects of education is deciding what students need to know and what skills to prioritize. Too frequently,  the content we choose drives students away from learning because it's irrelevant to them personally. This is not to say that obscure skills or subject matter aren’t important - to the contrary, they are.  The problem is when it becomes the lion’s share of the what students are exposed to during each school day.

Authenticity is key when designing student projects

One of the best ways to create student buy-in is authenticity. We see greater motivation and student performance when the work that students are doing is real, engaging, and relevant to who they are, where they are at developmentally, and where their interests lie. Carroll teachers are adept at knowing their students, allowing them to create content that is not only differentiated to address specific challenges but also differentiated to harness strengths and interests.

2 characteristics of successful PBL teachers

To be authentic and relevant, good PBL teachers understand that their projects meet a real need in the world beyond their classroom or that what they produce has the potential to be used by actual people.

  1. They know that the project work addresses a problem that they themselves have encountered or that the adults in the world face. This sets up an a scenario that, even if it is fictitious or fantastical, maintains a foundation of real/realistic work from which the tasks spring.
  2. They know that students need to use the tools that adults are using to solve real problems and overcome obstacles. Working on tasks that professionals work on is paramount for authenticity. An excellent example of this can be found in persuasive essays written in Language class or any of the engineering tools that are found in the Fab Lab & Learning Commons. These machines are not built for schools or children in mind - they are used professionally throughout the world to create and build, Students know this. I believe that one of the reasons why such environments are so popular is because kids are anxious to do real work.

As Carroll teachers inject more authenticity into their projects, the seriousness with which students engage is readily apparent.

Partnerships are a good way to add relevancy to a classroom project

Alum, Andrew Gray, presents to Middle School students during Multiple Intelligences DayBuilding partnerships with outside entities is key to the Carroll PBL curriculum and how we design projects that are authentic to our students. Partnerships come in many forms:

  • A speaker on a subject the class is studying
  • Working with an engineering school to create solutions to real-world problems
  • Collaborating with other schools to overcome challenges and/or building useful tools
  • Helping local food banks and food rescue organizations with research or assisting them in their work
  • Etc.

Most often, the most authentic and engaging project includes partnerships with professionals - whether that individual is in an advisory role, available for interviews by students, or come into the classroom on a regular basis to help guide students and answer questions. Having someone whose life is (at least, partly) about the very work students are doing is powerful. We often see this with visiting artists and business owners, who are regularly sharing their expertise both during the regular school day and on special occasions such as Multiple Intelligence/ Dyslexic Advantage Day.

Including experts during students' PBL presentations adds authenticity

Noticeability founder speaks to Middle School studentThose same professionals can be key players for the last element of authenticity: public presentation. Experts can lend a crucial perspective by evaluating student work, whether by acting as a judge during a presentation or by providing feedback to written work or other student created materials. Knowing that the audience knows their field is an important motivator for students and often helps them to rise to higher levels of quality and to take constructive criticism more effectively. A great example was when the sixth grade had professional engineers and city planners sit in on their effort to build models of a working community.

As you go forward thinking about how to implement projects, it’s important to consider the authenticity component of what will make a good project great. Carroll teachers impart this authenticity on a daily basis and our students are able to make important connections between the content and where it will take them - which is at the core of any lesson.

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