Project Based Learning in Elementary Classrooms

authentic learning elementary pbl pbl project based learning project-based learning Mar 08, 2022

Can you do project based learning in an elementary classroom? Is it possible when you have the same set of kids all day, but also have to teach reading and writing and social studies and science and social skills throughout the day as well? The answer is unequivocally yes, because project based learning really comes down to heightening student engagement with authenticity and purposeful work, and elementary students thrive on having purpose in their work as well.


Instead of having students learn a concept or a set of content and then having them complete some type of activity afterwards, which is often how we think of projects, project based learning introduces a meaningful problem to students at the beginning of a learning experience, and then you frame all of the learning as a way of solving that problem. And so of course this can be done in elementary classrooms, and in fact, it's sometimes best in elementary classrooms. Here's why:

PBL makes learning relevant.

One of the reasons PBL is so effective is because it makes the learning relevant for students. They’re getting to see how the content they’re learning can be applied in the real world. So when you have multiple content areas to teach students within a given day, as most elementary teachers do, tying the subject matter into the project gives students the opportunity to see how these different subject areas work together.

For instance, I know a group of teachers in Florida who are doing a PBL project with their students that’s all about helping to save the manatees. To do this, students will have to learn about manatees as well as their ecosystems. This covers science content. Students are also writing persuasive letters to city officials to help protect manatees. This is language arts content. Students use graphs and charts to study the populations of manatees: math class. They're creating posters to put up around the school to raise awareness about manatees: art class. And they're looking at the impact that human growth and development has on the environment and what role they can plan in that: social studies.

Motivate students with problems that matter to them.

These students are motivated to learn all of this content, not just because that's the expectation of being in that class, and it’s not just for grades, or even just personal achievement. They're learning the content to save the manatees. That’s the project; that’s the purpose and authenticity, and it’s the primary driver of student work and engagement.

Teachers don't have to reinvent how they teach to do Project Based Learning.

These students' teachers are not having to teach this content in a brand new way. They can still use best practices to deliver the material. If a teacher has some great worksheets to teach persuasive writing, they can keep using them. Only now, they preface the writing activities by saying, “We are writing these letters to try to persuade city officials to help take care of manatees. But we need to make sure that our letters are really convincing, and there are certain things we can do to make that happen. So let’s learn about persuasive writing. Let’s practice. Here’s a worksheet that can help you with that.”

It's not abandoning or replacing how you teach; it's enhancing it with authentic motivators. 

Not everything has to connect to the PBL project.

If you teach an elementary classroom, know that you can do project based learning and yet not everything has to be project based learning. It's okay to say, "Alright, we are going to work on the project for a bit this morning," and then at some point later in the class say, "We are going to pause that for now and we are going to do Readers Workshop."

Not everything has to be PBL. Remember, the purpose of Project Based Learning is to heighten student engagement, and that engagement often lasts when the project work is over.

Tie in purpose to student work.

But the more we can help students find the purpose in their work and in their learning, the more they’re going to engage with it.

And so if you are going to do the Save the Manatee Project, what if for Reader's Workshop that week you found books that relate to the project in some way? So that while students are learning reading skills, it can be applied to this project that students care about.

So my challenge to you, especially if project based learning is new to you, would be to take one unit that already exists and ask the question, "How can I make this more authentic for my students? What problem could they solve while learning this material?" Answer that, and you've got a PBL project.

 Want to learn more about Project Based Learning? Check out my PBL Materclass.

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