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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teach Like a Runner: 3 Ways to Get Started With Project-Based Learning

By Zachary Herrmann, Pam Grossman & Sarah Schneider Kavanagh — October 20, 2021 2 min read
Project-based learning is daunting—what’s an easy way to get started?
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How can I get started incorporating project-based learning into my teaching?

Teaching is a lot like running.

Research has found that running as little as five to 10 minutes a day can have a massive impact on your health. In other words, you don’t have to go from a no-exercise lifestyle to an Olympic training regimen to see improvements. Taking small steps now can make a big difference later.

Similarly, project-based learning—an approach to teaching in which students create real solutions to real problems—can start with taking the equivalent of a five-minute run every day.

Consider authenticity, a core aspect of project-based learning. In our book, Core Practices for Project-Based Learning, we encourage teachers and leaders to think of authenticity along three dimensions: the students, the discipline, and the world. For each of these dimensions, here are simple changes you can make to build more authentic learning experiences for your students:

  1. Find connections to students’ lives. So much of the work students do in school is disconnected from their daily lives. To help students make personal connections to their work, find ways for them to draw on their perspectives, beliefs, ideas, and values as they explore the big ideas of the lesson or project. In an English/language arts class, students might explore how the themes in a novel resonate (or don’t) with their own lived experiences. In a math class, students might identify patterns or phenomena that they find curious, then work to represent them mathematically to explore further.
  2. Engage in the work of the subject-matter discipline. Rather than having students “learn about” math, science, or history, position students as mathematicians, scientists, and historians. For example, students can develop and refine mathematical models rather than do problem sets. They can design and run investigations to test hypotheses instead of listening to lectures. And they can work with primary-source documents to construct arguments about what happened in the past in lieu of memorizing names and dates.
  3. Link the work to the world outside the classroom. Students deserve to engage in work that has meaning outside of the classroom. To do this, ask yourself three questions: What are students being asked to produce? Who is the audience for students’ work? And what is the potential impact that work has?

In many classrooms, the answer to these questions is that students are producing a paper or test for the teacher to review for a grade. But what if students produced something of value (an argument, solution, prototype, or proposal) for a real audience (the school, a community, a field, or an organization) that had the potential for a real impact (to educate, to raise awareness, to solve a problem, or provide a service)?

Each new school year begins with a sense of possibility. Project-based learning can be more exciting than intimidating if you start by incorporating just a few of its principles in your lessons. Even small changes can have a big impact on student learning.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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