They say no two snowflakes are alike, but what about your English lessons.
Are they all starting to look the same? Are you bored going through the same types of exercises in the same ways every day? Are your students? Maybe it’s time to change things up a bit and in the process give what may possibly be the best lesson you teach all year. How you ask? Through project based learning.
What Is Project Based Learning?
If you aren’t already familiar with it, project based learning is just what it sounds like. Students learn not through lectures and exercises but by completing a project. The term project is rather broad, but in this case a project is a real world problem which your students work to find a solution for. Project based learning is flexible and engaging. It’s the perfect way to take advantage of your students’ natural interests and have them put their English skills to practical use. This means that students communicate in a natural way, more like they will have to use in out in the “real world.” Students studying English for business purposes often find this approach particularly useful, so keep it in mind especially if you teach a business English class.
What Isn’t Project Based Learning?
Project based learning isn’t throwing your students in the deep end to fend for themselves. It’s not giving them a crazy hard task and then sitting back to work on lesson plans or catch up on grading. Project based learning is a teaching method in which the teacher is very involved. You work with students every step of the way to encourage, guide, and direct when necessary. It’s also not a way to fill the time when you aren’t prepared for class. Project based learning seeks to teach students very specific skills, skills which you will determine before selecting the project. It’s intentional and purposeful and engages students’ interests.
So enough about the what’s and why’s of project based learning. It’s time to talk about the how.
8 Steps to a Project Based Learning Lesson
Though it might seem intimidating at first, project based learning is really rather straightforward and easy to plan out with these simple steps.
Give the Students a Problem/Situation
If you can, go along with what your students are already interested in or base the project on a question they have asked. Take advantage of their passion for a particular topic and design your project around that. If your students don’t show a strong interest in any specific subject, that’s okay too. You can choose a project for them or give them an area to work on. Just keep in mind that they will be working on the project for a significant amount of time, so make sure the topic will be interesting and engaging for your students for the long haul.
Give Them a Question to Drive the Project
This isn’t a yes/no question or one that is easily answerable with facts or a Google search. The question has to be multifaceted, complex. So for example, if you were doing a unit on food you would not pose the question, “What ingredients are in pasta putenesca?” You would want to choose a more in depth, analysis oriented question such as, “How could we design a restaurant plan that would take advantage of the multicultural aspect of our city’s population? What would that look like?” Keep in mind that this step is a good place to introduce a specific grammar structure you want to teach or that your students will need to complete the project. So this question or one like it might be just right if you wanted to teach your students the conditional form in English. Feel free to tailor the wording of your question to target the specific grammar structure you plan to teach or you want to elicit from your students, too.
Make a Plan for Answering the Question
This is one of the parts you have to help your students through. A big question can be off putting and intimidating. Develop a plan of research with your students. The plan should be a multistep process that will lead students to the answer to the central question. So looking at the big question, the big project, how can you break it down into several steps? What must you achieve at each step in the process to move to the next step or to answer the central question? It is okay if you need to modify the plan later. It’s just important to have something in place for them to follow as they investigate. Start by brainstorming as a class what they will need to know to answer the question. Then try and put these steps in an order that makes sense. In case of the restaurant, students might need to research the nationalities present in the community, successful and unsuccessful restaurant attempts in the area, and a cost analysis of starting up a restaurant as well as planning a menu and determining suppliers for the ingredients they would need.
Make a Schedule or Timetable for the Steps in Your Plan
I don’t know about you, but I work best when I have a deadline to meet, and my students tend to be the same way. Make a plan for when each step in the process should be completed. And have checks in place to make sure they are done. Write up your plan and post it in your classroom so your students can refer to it daily to keep themselves on track.
Research the Answer to the Question
Now that you have your central question and a plan for answering it, it’s time to do some research. Have students work in groups. You should decide how big of a group works best for your students, but I would suggest at least three in a group and no more than five depending on how complex the question it and how quickly you want it completed. Make sure you give your students plenty of time to work in class and at the library to find the answers to the question and develop their plan. If need be, invite people to come in for your class to interview and think of other sources of information that might be of use to your students.
Work with Your Students
Step six happens concurrently with step five. In step six, you monitor your students in their research and findings. You give them feedback, guidance, and encouragement as well as correction if they need it. Make sure everyone is participating, and perhaps do some unofficial evaluating of student skills at this point in the process. You might also find it necessary to teach particular language skills such as a grammatical structure or a writing technique. It’s okay to take time out for a lesson on skills your students need to complete the assignment.
Answer the Question
Now that they have completed their research and met each deadline in the schedule, it’s time to answer the original question. Your students will put the information they have gathered to use and answer the central question. In the restaurant example, students would put together their plan for the multicultural restaurant in the community.
Evaluation is key for future successes. Give your students some time with their groups to answer three questions about the entire project process. What worked? What didn’t work? What needs to be changed for next time? After groups have discussed this, have a class discussion on the same questions. Make sure you take notes because your students’ input will be of the utmost value for the next project based assignment you do.
Project based learning might be very different from what you normally do in class, but that might just be the best thing about it.
If you try it, you will be amazed at how much your students learn in the process and how smoothly that process can go.
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