K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

Important Announcement about Online Courses and LEARN NC.

Important Message about LEARN NC

LEARN NC is evaluating its role in the current online education environment as it relates directly to the mission of UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education (UNC-CH SOE). We plan to look at our ability to facilitate the transmission of the best research coming out of UNC-CH SOE and other campus partners to support classroom teachers across North Carolina. We will begin by evaluating our existing faculty and student involvement with various NC public schools to determine what might be useful to share with you.

Don’t worry! The lesson plans, articles, and textbooks you use and love aren’t going away. They are simply being moved into the new LEARN NC Digital Archive. While we are moving away from a focus on publishing, we know it’s important that educators have access to these kinds of resources. These resources will be preserved on our website for the foreseeable future. That said, we’re directing our resources into our newest efforts, so we won’t be adding to the archive or updating its contents. This means that as the North Carolina Standard Course of Study changes in the future, we won’t be re-aligning resources. Our full-text and tag searches should make it possible for you to find exactly what you need, regardless of standards alignment.

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Related pages

  • Traveling the world, virtually: Project-based learning in elementary school: Fifth-grade teacher Shannon Page shares her methods and experiences with using project-based learning in the elementary school classroom. Ms. Page's focus on taking virtual field trips, which are planned and guided by her students, helps infuse curriculum objectives with relevance and rigor.
  • Challenge-based learning: José Garcia's innovative approach to student inquiry: This article discusses the instructional strategies of Greene County Middle School science teacher José Garcia. Mr. Garcia employs challenge-based learning, which marries project-based learning with student inquiry and makes effective use of technology. José Garcia received an Apple Distinguished Educator award in 2009 and was Teacher of the Year in his school and county in 2008-2009.
  • Socratic method: This article explains the history and theory of the Socratic method of teaching, which emphasizes teacher-student dialogue. The article offers suggestions for creating Socratic circles and Socratic seminars and provides resources for further reading.

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Project-based learning is a teaching approach that engages students in sustained, collaborative real-world investigations. Projects are organized around a driving question, and students participate in a variety of tasks that seek to meaningfully address this question.

History of project-based learning

According to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), project-based learning has its roots in experiential education and the philosophy of John Dewey. The method of project-based learning emerged due to developments in learning theory in the past 25 years. The BIE suggests, “Research in neuroscience and psychology has extended cognitive and behavioral models of learning — which support traditional direct instruction — to show that knowledge, thinking, doing, and the contexts for learning are inextricably tied.”1 Because learning is a social activity, teaching methods can scaffold on students’ prior experiences and include a focus on community and culture. Furthermore, because we live in an increasingly more technological and global society, teachers realize that they must prepare students not only to think about new information, but they also must engage them in tasks that prepare them for this global citizenship. Based on the developments in cognitive research and the changing modern educational environment in the latter part of the 20th Century, project-based learning has gained popularity.

Project-based learning defined

BIE defines project-based learning as “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” This process can last for varying time periods and can extend over multiple content areas.

John Thomas (2000) explains that project-based learning requires “complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems, that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision making, or investigative activities; give students the opportunity to work relatively autonomously over extended periods of time; and culminate in realistic products or presentations.”2

According to Ronald Marx et. al. (1994), project-based instruction often has a “‘driving question’ encompassing worthwhile content that is anchored in a real-world problem; investigations and artifacts that allow students to learn concepts, apply information, and represent knowledge in a variety of ways; collaboration among students, teachers, and others in the community so that participants can learn from one another; and use of cognitive tools that help learners represent ideas by using technology…”3

Methods of using project-based learning

The project-based learning approach is often used in small school settings, like charter and magnet schools, because they are affected to a lesser degree by the high-stakes state-mandated testing movement. Although project-based learning can be done in combination with the national standardized testing model, it is often difficult for teachers to effectively interweave these two seemingly different types of instruction.

In order to create effective project-based learning units, professional development organizers suggest using the following guidelines:

  • Begin with the end in mind and plan for this end result.
  • Craft the driving question; select and refine a central question.
  • Plan the assessment and define outcomes and assessment criteria.
  • Map the project: Decide how to structure the project.
  • Manage the process: Find tools and strategies for successful projects.4

Project-based learning can involve, but is not limited to:

  • Asking and refining questions
  • Debating ideas
  • Making predictions
  • Designing plans and/or experiments
  • Collecting and analyzing data
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Communicating ideas and findings to others
  • Asking new questions
  • Creating artifacts 5

Teacher role in project-based learning

Project-based learning is only possible in classrooms where teachers support students by giving sufficient guidance and feedback. The teacher must thoroughly explain all tasks that are to be completed, provide detailed directions for how to develop the project, and circulate within the classroom in order to answer questions and encourage student motivation. In order to create successful units focused on project-based learning, teachers must plan well and be flexible. In this approach to instruction, teachers often find themselves in the role of learner and peer with the students. Teachers can assess project-based learning with a combination of objective tests, checklists, and rubrics; however, these often only measure task completion. The inclusion of a reflective writing component provides for self-evaluation of student learning.

Student role in project-based learning

Students generally work in small, collaborative groups in the project-based learning model. They find sources, conduct research, and hold each other responsible for learning and the completion of tasks. Essentially, students must be “self-managers” in this approach to instruction.6

Results of project-based learning research is mixed. Some studies suggest that it is an engaging instructional approach, but numerous studies have also claimed that students are not motivated by this type of learning, and that it places a great amount of stress on teachers.