by Jody Passanisi & Shara Peters
The idea behind Project Based Learning is that students will understand more if they make meaning through inquiry based creation. Project Based Learning can apply to any discipline.
We’ve tried it in our history classroom to varying levels of success. Being proponents of constructivism, Project Based Learning was not too much of a stretch for us to embrace, pedagogically. However, there are some challenges that result.
In this blog post we’ll describe two eighth grade American History units (the U.S. Civil War and the Reconstruction Era) in which we incorporated Project Based Learning and share our reflections on those experiences.
Technology and the Civil War
Our Civil War Unit has always been something we weren’t fully satisfied with, so it seemed natural for us to try out Project Based Learning with this unit. We had scaffolded the Civil War extensively with a “Causes of the Civil War Unit” that took months to complete, so students were primed with contextual understanding before beginning this unit.
While PBL often doesn’t put parameters on the inquiry process, we did create a few parameters for the students. The framing question was about Civil War technology. Students were placed in groups according to interest in communication, medicine, espionage, weaponry, maritime warfare, etc., and told to explore and answer the question: How did (your group’s type of technology) change the Civil War?
The students were only given two “rules”: 1) Their projects should fully answer the question and be beautiful, meaningful, sophisticated, and enduring; and 2) They could conduct their research using books or the Internet engine SweetSearch, a search tool that limits results to academically vetted articles and avoids much of the “world wide web” served up by Google or Bing.
Curiosity and engagement
The research and inquiry process was incredible to see. Because the students were able to choose a topic that interested them, there was automatic interest on the part of the students — they were interested in the topic for its own sake. More times than not, students walked in the door to our classroom talking about their project, sat down and immediately got to work before the bell rang, and we did not even have to tell them that class was starting.
Also, the narrow and academically reliable nature of the results on Sweetsearch allowed the students to assign more credibility to their search results, spending more time reading for comprehension rather than deciding whether or not to throw out a source. These factors, combined with the space for creativity that was allowed by the open-endedness of the prompt, made for a level of engagement that we have yet to see in any other independent work we have devised.
Examples of student work
Our students created informative and creative presentations that showcased their knowledge to their peers. While there were still the ubiquitous PowerPoints and (now) Prezis, there were also movies, skits, and game shows used as platforms for the students to share what they learned with their audience. One group, charged with conveying how communication changed the war, made a functioning telegraph to show just how quickly messages were sent using this new technology, in contrast to older forms of information transfer.
Another team, also presenting about communication, created a newspaper. In a fairly meta way, they explained how communication affected the people at home. They even included an obituary section and acted out a discussion about the names of the deceased. They showed an understanding both of the content, and more importantly, the impact of the technologies they chose to examine on the American Civil War and on modern war in general.
We had less PBL success during Reconstruction
Our subsequent experience with Project Based Learning for the Reconstruction Era was not quite as successful. Why? We have a few hypotheses. For one, the students did not have as much scaffolding for this unit as they did for their Civil War studies. Without the framing context comparable to what they had for the Civil War PBL assignment, students had difficulty figuring out where to begin their research.
Students seemed to find the concept of the Civil War a little more straightforward than Reconstruction. At the very least, there is an agreed upon beginning and end for the War, whereas even the chronological parameters for the Reconstruction Era are debated. Next time we teach this unit, we plan to provide students with more general context for Reconstruction before they break off into subtopic groups for independent research.
Project Learning pros and cons
There are some definite pros and cons when using PBL for history classes. We can see how this kind of approach might make some teachers, especially those who really feel like certain facts and events must be understood and mastered, go nuts.
The open-endedness of PBL, even with the inclusion of some project guidelines, requires the teacher to yield some control, and that is going to be a challenge for some of us who are more accustomed to holding the reins of facts and chronology pretty tightly.
Similarly, since PBL is most often done in teams, it is always possible for issues of work inequity to arise. (We have a system for equal sharing of responsibility in group work that we’ll talk about it in a future post.) However, the amazing creativity, and the spectrum of that creativity, that you see with PBL is definitely worth giving up some of the control. And the student investment in the material cannot be understated. Isn’t that what we want — for the students to really engage and care about this stuff? Another plus: Because of the nature of PBL (choice, student interests, teaming, etc.), differentiation and multiple modalities are built into its construct.
What we want in history class is to bring meaning and relevancy to these stories about things that happened long ago. PBL goes a long way to help with this: students are interested and driven to learn because of increased autonomy and the drive of inquiry. Students can make meaning from historical events– and even if it isn’t the meaning that we intended in the first place, it is no less powerful, and probably more enduring.
How about you? Have you tried PBL in your classroom? What’s worked? What’s been a challenge?