Project-Based Learning: Why it Matters

Holland Elementary is a small K-6 school located in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The five classroom teachers here serve forty-two students, so they get to know their kids well. After visiting the King Middle in Maine to see project based teaching practices and project-based learning in action, the Holland teachers began to implement the model in their school.  

Project-based learning (PBL) allows students to work collaboratively in teams or independently to answer abstract questions and solve problems or design challenges that are authentic. An authentic unit is relevant to students’ lives, is realistic, or involves real-world tasks and processes. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products students create are used by real people. Inquiry is central in PBL classrooms. Project-based teaching involves carefully planned scaffolding (structure and modeling to help all students make progress towards the goal), coaching and assessment. Rather than content driving the curriculum, a project-based learning model is driven by student interest.

Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alumni, shared her thoughts on why the North Country Supervisory Union, especially Holland Elementary, has taken on PBL as an approach to teaching and learning.

Why PBL? What were you seeing in the district/school that led you to choose this approach?
What encouraged me to pursue PBL as an instructional approach was less about what I am seeing specifically in our supervisory union and more about what I am seeing in education in general.  Our educational system promotes a traditional way of teaching that does not always allow for student centered learning – that which promotes inquiry and student choice in learning.  It goes without saying that content is important, but it is equally, and perhaps more important for us as educators to teach our students the habits of work and learning that they can transfer to all areas of life.  Perseverance, responsibility, effective communication skills, how to analyze information, how to be a problem solver, how to be a responsible citizen.  These are the “soft” skills that are often critical for a person’s success – regardless of how we define success – in all areas of life. Project-based learning lends itself to teaching these.  

What do you see as obstacles or challenges with this new learning and approach to teaching?
Our schools tend to be bound by traditional systems, ways of doing business, and approaches to educating children, that can sometimes be rigid and limiting.  Moving beyond those traditions is important to providing the opportunities that kids may need to stretch their learning and thinking. Teachers need to be given the permission to try different instructional approaches and students need to understand that they are leaders of their learning. Our current systems don’t foster this for teachers or students.  

What school-community connections do you think may be enhanced?
Enhancing authentic community connections is always tricky.  My thinking about community engagement has changed over time, from encouraging community members to come to the building to see what we are learning and producing, to including the community as partners in student learning. Also, I want people to increasingly understand that some of the most authentic learning happens beyond our building, and that some of the most knowledgeable people on topics are our community members who live and breathe the skills and information we are trying to teach our students. My hope is that we will build more authentic partnerships with the community so our students understand that important learning happens all the time, with many more people than their classroom teachers, and that it has a value far beyond a grade or score on an assignment.  

Although it is still early in the year, I can see that teachers are beginning to feel more confident about how to implement PBL in their classrooms. Through coaching, they are on the way to developing PBL units and integrating project- based teaching practices on a more consistent basis. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see what the students at Holland will be up to next week.

Commentary by Becky Wipfler and Kelli Dean

Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of our faculty.

Kelli Dean is the principal at Holland Elementary School.  She graduated from UVEI’s Principal Intern Program in 2012.