How Do We Make Time for Project-Based Learning?

I talk with many teachers who would like to include project-based learning in their classrooms, but just don’t know how they can fit it in with everything else they are expected to do. I am definitely sympathetic to this—the number and array of demands on school time in the U.S. is unprecedented. At the same time, I hate for students and teachers to miss out on the many motivational and educational benefits of project-based learning. So here are some suggestions for making time for project-based learning:

1) Consider whether a project could address the same standards as an existing unit. Perhaps the next chapter in the social studies text, the next unit of study in English Language Arts, or the next set of science kits could be replaced by or included as part of a project. For example, a project in which students research an endangered animal and write letters to persuade businesses and other organizations to protect them could address Common Core State Standards Writing Standards 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as well as some standards for Reading Informational Text—this is much more than is typically addressed in a traditional Writers’ Workshop over that same period of time.

2) Take a little bit of time from multiple disciplines. I recently saw a project led by second-grade teacher Eugene Thompson in which students were designing and making water bottle holders to hang on the sides of their flip-top desks so their water bottles wouldn’t roll around, spill, or fall. This project incorporated math (measurement), science (engineering), social studies (they visited a factory and studied how things are made), art (they decorated the water bottle holders), literacy (they wrote how-to texts for other students on how to make them), and various skills related to planning, collaboration, and so on. This teacher could justify taking a little time from each of these disciplines (e.g., 10 minutes from math, 20 minutes from science) that, when put together, provide enough time for the project. One of the benefits of project-based learning is that it often involves multiple disciplines. We can take advantage of that feature when looking for time for PBL.

3) Eliminate classroom activities with little evidence of effectiveness. Consider the yesterday was . . . today is . . . tomorrow will be calendar activity I see in so many classrooms. Ask yourselves, if it’s February, and children are still unclear on what yesterday was, today is, and tomorrow will be, is this an effective activity? And if they are clear, do we still need to do this? Indeed, a great way to make room for project-based learning is to take a hard look at the way each minute in the day is used. In a recent book, Beth Brinkerhoff and Alysia Roehrig suggest looking for “time wasters” that lurk in your classroom. We need to keep a special eye out for practices that have long been used in schools, but actually don’t work very well, at least as far as we can tell from research. For example, giving students a list of vocabulary words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and/or write a sentence is less effective than any other approach to vocabulary instruction to which it has been compared. Teaching vocabulary in the context of a rich and compelling project, such as one in which students develop brochures about their state to distribute at the state tourism office, in the process learning terms such as climate, landforms, population, crops, landmark, and migration, is likely to be much more effective.

4) Make an argument to administrators. Sometimes you are required to use materials or engage in practices that you believe are less powerful than project-based learning is likely to be. In these situations, consider making an argument to your administrator to forgo the required work for a period of time in favor of a project. You will likely need to demonstrate that the project addresses much of the same content and that you will continue to align with standards and incorporate explicit instruction. You may need to share some research on project based learning as well. If you manage to convince your administrator to allow you to try a project, be sure to invite him or her into your classroom to see the project in action, and share student work samples that demonstrate learning. Before you know it, your administrator may be asking you to do more PBL!

It’s hard work to find time for PBL, but I think you’ll find it’s worth it. My best to you as you experience the power of projects!