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The Rise of PBL

Thursday 30 August 2018, by JMC

In the 21st century project-based learning has emerged as a popular and growing pedagogy at all levels of education. Education experts Edutopia, part of the George Lucas Foundation, describe project-based learning as a “dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge”. It’s something that we have been championing at Engineers Without Borders UK for a number of years now as an important way to educate young engineers.

With project-based learning the content is embedded within a long-term project, a real-world problem that students work to solve in a creative and authentic way. In the process of working through the project students meet the standards and demonstrate they have developed the required skills. However, this work is integrated in the project, not separated like many traditional forms of education, for example taking an exam at the end of a module.

The rise in the use of project-based learning can be attributed to many different factors however, to try and untangle why this is happening we can look at four key factors to help understand its popularity:

• Student engagement: Students tend to have higher levels of engagement with project-based learning as its relevance to the real world is immediately apparent. Further to this, project-based learning tends to challenge students more, encouraging them to direct their own learning. Projects are open ended, requiring students to critically evaluate multiple solutions; to be able to justify their decisions, all of these activities require a higher degree of thinking. If presented properly project-based learning can be a very stimulating educational experience for students involved.

• 21st century skills: Technology is making it easier than ever to find information at the touch of button and students need to be able to do more than regurgitate facts. As highlighted in an earlier thought piece ‘Preparing students for 21st century challenges’ employers have highlighted complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as some of the key skills they are looking for in new hires. Project-based learning is a brilliant way of allowing students to gain these skills and gives them a clear example to demonstrate these skills to potential employers.

• Improved academic performance: Many educators who have used project-based learning in their own teaching have reported improved academic performance from their students. Blogs such as cult of pedagogy have gained evidence from educators in support of this claim and a research paper written by the Buck Institute for Education has also provided clear evidence for improved academic performance as a result of project-based learning.

• Increased creativity: As project-based learning is largely student-directed learning it allows them to have free reign over the direction their project takes. This encourages creativity and encourages students to explore different areas they may have not considered through conventional teaching.

In addition, Edutopia have also identified a number of trends that have contributed to the adoption of project-based learning as a 21st century strategy for education. They note how cognitive scientists have advanced our understanding of how we learn and develop and how we begin to think at a higher level. We now have a much better understanding of what conditions create the best environment for learning. Using these insights we can see why project-based learning is seen as a great way of engaging a diverse group of learners. Projects offer students the opportunity to engage with real-world problems and contexts, they allow students choice and the ability to direct their own learning, for most students this is incredibly motivating and creates a real desire to learn and engage. Projects require students to interrogate the brief they have been given, come up with multiple solution and to justify any decisions that they have made, all of these activities engage higher-order thinking skills which is why this approach to teaching is becoming increasingly popular.

Over the coming years the trend for project-based learning is likely to increase as more educators embrace the pedagogy and realise the benefits of this method of teaching. Preparing students for the 21st century requires a shift in education towards methods that will equip students with the skills that they will require in a rapidly changing workplace.

This article is a lightly-edited version of an article posted in Sep 2017 on the Engineers Without Borders UK website. All copyright remains with EWB UK