The Immeasurable Benefits of Project-Based Learning


Throughout my career, I have changed the way that I teach to my students. With access to the internet, I recognized that students don’t need for me to “teach” anymore; what they need is for me to be a facilitator of knowledge; they need to see me scaffold how to do research and employ critical thinking skills, to help them understand how to be truly and equally collaborative in group settings, and spark in them a sense of belonging to a larger world community.

The focus of my classroom is Project-Based Learning. PBL is the tool that allows me to cultivate these essential skills with my students: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and empathy. These skills are what will be useful to our students as they enter the global workforce. It is clear that they will be called upon in the near future to solve immense global challenges, and in preparation for these challenges, I ask them to solve real world problems in a very authentic manner. From designing a cell-based sensor for early detection of an Ebola infection, to creating recipes for the World Food Bank to aide the global food crisis, to using cellular respiration/photosynthesis as a platform to research and propose solutions to our energy problems, my students are thinking, designing, researching, and intelligently proposing solutions to very real world issues.

Cooke - Innovation and ExplorationTo allow my students the grace and the space they need to meet these challenges, you could say that my classroom is “messy”. My students are on different parts of this same journey to attainment of these skills and because of that, my classroom at any given time can appear to be very chaotic. I allow my students to learn at their own pace and ask them to personally critique their knowledge before moving on to the next learning goal. Because of this, it is not uncommon for my students to be spread out in small groups, talking to each other or on their computers/phones; they are discussing and debating their ideas and seeking the knowledge they need to move forward. To me, this is what true learning looks like.

This kind of learning is uncomfortable for my students at first. They like to have parameters and expectations to meet. PBL does not give that to them; it is open-ended and free to their interpretation. However, by the end of the year, my students have learned to believe in themselves and their ability to think and debate real issues. I have had students move on from my class and pursue degrees in medicine and science education, I currently have students submitting their PBL research to scientific journals for publication, and I even have students who pursue research experiences around the world; in short, I am teaching my students to think, to question, to believe in themselves, and to grow as humans. As an educator in this transitional time, that is all that I can ask of them, and they exceed my expectations every single time.

Cooke - Ebola

Authentic Learning Experiences!

I barely got to the airport before I purchased Dayna Laur’s book, Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real-World Approach to Project Based Learning. I was so impressed with her knowledge and her passion for this subject and I am certain that this same energy will flow from her pages of this book. I like that this book is going to help me better learn how to implement a real-world approach to project-based learning. Authentic learning experiences are created around genuine, outside audiences and meaningful purposes. They meet the Common Core, engage students in critical thinking and 21st Century learning, teach important skills such as research and collaboration, and improve student learning. This practical guide provides step-by-step instructions to make it easy for teachers to create their own authentic learning experiences. The book is loaded with a variety of examples from different grade levels and content areas. It also includes quick to implement “checks for understanding” as the reader progresses through the book.

I will let you know what I think, stay tuned!

PBL Academy 101

I had the most inspiring 2 day conference in Atlanta this week. I attended PBL 101 with the Buck Institute and can honestly say that I am inspired. We had 2 amazing Keynote Speakers, one each morning, to start the day. Yesterday morning, we were introduced to Stephen Ritz and his organization, Green Bronx Machine. To say that this man and his mission are awe-inspiring is an understatement. I don’t think I have ever come across a more influential educator in all my life. Steve lives in South Bronx, which is arguably one of the poorest areas in our country. According to Steve, “Green Bronx Machine was born via collaboration between life-long educator Stephen Ritz and his students who observed that as waistlines expanded, engagement and opportunities in school decreased, school performance suffered, and hope and ambition became minimized. Originally an after-school, alternative program for high school students, Green Bronx Machine has evolved into K-12+ model fully integrated into core curriculum. Our students grow, eat and love their vegetables en route to spectacular academic performance. 30,000 pounds of Bronx vegetables later, our favorite crops include healthy students, high performing schools, graduates, registered voters, living wage jobs and members of the middle class.” I highly recommend that you take a few moments and find his youtube channel or Ted Talks. He is busting with energy and his magnetism is contagious. You can access most of his videos here, my personal favorite is “Meet Green Bronx Machine”.

Our Keynote speaker this morning was Sam Seidel who shared his passion for the High School of Recording Arts in Minnesota with us. HSRA is dedicated to providing all young people a chance to realize their full potential, despite any previous setbacks. “As we engage students through music and the exploration and operation of the music business, we demonstrate that core learning areas and real world, 21st century skills can be acquired at the same time. More than just earning a high school diploma, HSRA prepares students for a positive post-secondary education and life”. Sam has an incredible career history that has taken him across the country and back looking at alternate forms of education and began his questioning of how education is approached in this country. His experience and passion for hip hop helped formulate relationships when he was working with incarcerated youth in the prison system.

Sam now works with several networks of innovative schools, speaks nationally about education issues, and writes for Husslington Post. I found Sam to be inspiring in different ways that Steven. The questions Sam asked  were thought provoking and required introspection on my part.

Both of these Keynote speakers set us up for creative days of reflection and creation in our small groups. I had the pleasure of working with Dayna Laur who is a member of the National Faculty for the Buck Institute. Dayna has been a classroom teacher for about 14 years before she stepped out and began doing educational consulting for organizations like the Buck Institute. We spent the next 2 days working through the 8 Essential Steps of creating an authentic and influential project to enhance, and in most cases, develop student learning. I really enjoyed working with Dayna. She is so knowledgable on this subject and in this area and she really ignited good conversation between the individuals in our group. By the end of the 2nd day we were all freely sharing and collaborating with one another.

I really loved having this opportunity to develop the PBL projects that I have implemented into my curriculum this year. The meat of what I have is good, but I really needed to focus on the pre/post project work which is arguably just as or even more important. Having these 2 days “off” from my classes and family gave me a LOT of time to really focus on my goals and my projects so much so that I am feeling much better about them for next year.

WWW.BIE.ORG is a great website for resources on implementation of PBL practices into your classroom or school, but I really do recommend attending the workshop if you can. It is so great to step outside of our busy lives for just a day or two to focus on our craft so intently.

An Unexpected Reflection

I am having my 10th grade Honors Biology students keep a portfolio of their Project Based Learning activities this year. The portfolio is organized with a title page, an index of projects, an abstract page which provides the reader with a short paragraph explanatory excerpt of each project and, of course, the actual projects themselves.

One of my students, a particularly shy and quiet child, started his abstract page with a paragraph reflection of what he believed the purpose of our PBL activities are. I swear that his reflection nearly brought me to tears because he nailed it exactly. He fully gets the purpose of these activities and he is getting out of them exactly what I am hoping for.

Project Based Learning is what happens at the end of most chapters in our Biology class. We are assigned a goal to accomplish with a partner, and can go about that goal however we like. These projects are like real world problems based on our learning in the classroom. They are preparations for the real world, where creativity is rewarded and recognized over only pure intellect. They allow us to explore subjects with our own free will and experience another side of science, the real side.”

I could never ask for more than this. My heart is smiling today 🙂