Project-based Learning for Meaningful Education

That inevitable struggle of finding enough teaching time in the day feels overwhelming to many. Whether a homeschooling parent or classroom teacher, the challenge of covering the required material in the available time can feel tremendously cumbersome. That’s before considering the even bigger challenge of ensuring that learning is both memorable and retrievable when needed.

The struggle is real! It’s tough enough to get children and teens out of bed and into the shower. Any mom of teenagers will vouch for that. Getting those same teens excited to learn might seem like a mere pipe dream. Still, that’s the challenge we face as parents and educators.

Real Science-4-Kids previously posted about effective memory strategies that can be implemented and are proven to increase retention and recall of information. That’s a great place to start on the journey of successful education. This article goes even further and highlights some of the teaching advancements made possible through scientific discovery in the world of neurology. Whether teaching at home or in a classroom, there is an entire educational reformation underway that you need to know about.

When you first look at the education model that neuroscience is directing us toward, it might seem like it’s going to slow the system down. All of this focus on comprehension appears tedious and wasteful. That’s not what’s needed when it appears the U.S. test scores are lagging behind on a global scale.

After close examination, however, it’s becoming clear that over time the new methods actually increase understanding and student engagement while decreasing lecture time— the real killer of the adolescent attention span. We’re starting to get a better understanding of how important project-based learning and topic versus subject approaches are. We’ll discuss the difference in these approaches in this article.

The science behind education has also been transitioning away from the standard model of age-based education toward a competency-based model where students progress based on mastery of information, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. The idea that this type of education is better suited for overall comprehension isn’t new. This has historically been one of the biggest draws toward homeschooling, the ability to teach at each child’s individual speed, interest, and level of competency. Anyone who’s developed a functional homeschooling model will tell you that working slowly through challenging areas pays huge dividends and helps students progress much faster later on. As in construction, you have to have a strong foundation in order to build on it.

Being able to manage project-based education that incorporates competency-centered progression on a large scale has been a challenge. Many schools are figuring it out, however. They’re discovering creative ways to incorporate project-based learning through focusing on topics rather than subjects, and it’s working. This is very good news for both public schools and homeschoolers alike.

Project-based learning is a dynamic approach where students actively explore real-world problems and challenges. They investigate and respond to these authentic and complex questions or challenges in a meaningful way. This ‘investigate and respond’ approach has always been how science functions best and is now proving useful in other subjects, as well.

The key is that the topics need to be personally meaningful to the students, as opposed to the old model where topics were assigned based on a predesigned syllabus. Students need to feel an intrinsic desire to know more and investigate a topic out of personal desire, creating drive and ownership. This may sound vaguely reminiscent of the unschooling method on the surface, although these methods diverge from there.

Project-based learning incorporates a topic approach as opposed to a subject approach, and this increases meaning and understanding. A topic approach is when a topic, such as ocean life, is used as the central theme for language arts, math, and science. Students are charged with finding real-world applications to information, making the information much more meaningful than standalone facts. It’s like a new pair of lenses that suddenly bring into focus the peripheral view, expanding our vision and putting information into context.

How can we apply this approach to education? As parents and educators, when the topic of kinetic energy comes up, we can find meaningful ways to apply it to other disciplines. Connect it to nursery rhymes and discuss what was really happening when Humpty Dumpty took that fall. Would the height of the wall affect the outcome of the story? Why? Try recreating the scene with a real egg. Could this information possibly be used to improve outcomes of auto accidents? Make an artistic rendering of this scene and use geometry to help construct the wall and egg. Write an alternate ending to this story. Where did this event occur? Can we locate it on the map? What time in history is this story set in? What other historical and scientific events were happening when this story was written? You can see how this experience would be much more memorable over time than cold, unconnected facts.

Finland has been leading the charge with this learning approach for some time. "We think it's awfully important that when students are involved in the planning process, the topics or phenomena they choose must be interesting to them, so that they are inspired," said Irmeli Halinen, head of curriculum development at the Finnish National Board of Education. "All our work is based on trust, and this trust must also be expressed in schools toward students."

The idea of combining subjects is at least a century old and dates to the American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, "who believed that school should be connected to real life," said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

"When you teach subjects separate from one another -- you teach science, you teach math, you teach reading -- that means that there's a divorce between these contents, when in real life, they're not," Cuban added. "When you're cultivating a garden, you've got to know a lot about botany, insects, fertilizer, math, and a whole bunch of other things."

Another way of thinking about this teaching method is to think of it in terms of streams of water. The streams alone are nourishing, but when combined into one body of water, you are met with a much more forceful river.

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