When I taught fourth grade, I was initially met with skepticism from other teachers when I started to regularly engage my students in project based learning (PBL) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). I think much of this apprehension existed because some of my practices did in fact perpetuate the myth that PBL was fluff and that the “real” teaching and learning takes place through more direct instruction. However, as I continuously reflected upon and refined my craft, many of these doubters went from, “That wouldn’t work with my students!” to “How can that work with my students?”
Looking back, I still think some of my original PBL practices were forgivable, simply because I had to begin somewhere (Don’t we all?). But, there are definitely some bits of advice I wish I had been given prior to getting started.
That being said, here are five ways to avoid project based learning fluff.
1. Focus on the Right Academic Standards: When planning a project it could be tempting to simply start with “cool” ideas, as opposed to first exploring what should be taught based on academic standards (or a standards-aligned curriculum). As a fourth grade teacher I participated in an elementary level STEM initiative. Following the initial professional development I went to plan my first STEM unit, only to realize my curriculum was a bit outdated. So, rather than wasting time designing learning experiences aligned to old standards, I first created an updated makeshift pacing guide to ensure any units I put together would be future proof (until a change in standards, which has still yet to happen).