Overview of Project-Based Learning
Introducing projects into the curriculum is not a new or revolutionary idea in education. During the past decade, however, the practice has evolved into a more formally defined teaching strategy. Project-based learning has gained a greater foothold in the classroom as researchers have documented what teachers have long understood: Learners become more engaged in learning when they have a chance to dig into complex, challenging, and sometimes even messy problems that closely resemble real life.
Project-based learning goes beyond generating learner interest. Well-designed projects encourage active inquiry and higher-level thinking (Thomas, 1998). Brain research underscores the value of these learning activities. Learners' abilities to acquire new understanding are enhanced when they are "connected to meaningful problem-solving activities, and when learners are helped to understand why, when, and how those facts and skills are relevant" (Bransford, Brown, & Conking, 2000, p. 23).
What is project-based learning?
Project-based learning is a teaching and learning model that involves learners in investigations of compelling problems that culminate in authentic products. Projects that make for stronger classroom learning opportunities can vary widely in subject matter and scope, and can be delivered at a wide range of grade levels. Nonetheless, they tend to share defining features. Projects grow out of challenging questions that cannot be answered by rote learning. Projects put learners in an active role such as: problem solver, decision maker, investigator, or documentarian. Projects serve specific, significant educational goals; they are not diversions or adds-ons to the "real" curriculum.
How does project-based learning relate to inquiry?
Inquiry encompasses a broad range of activities that give reign to our natural curiosity about the world. Within the context of education, inquiry takes on a more specific meaning. Teachers who use inquiry as a strategy typically encourage learners to raise questions, plan and carry out investigations, make observations, and reflect on what they have discovered. However, this is not a static definition. Even within a single classroom, inquiry activities may be taking place along a continuum, from more structured and teacher-directed on one end to more open-ended and driven by learner interest on the other (Jarrett, 1997).
It may be helpful to think of project-based learning as a subset of inquiry learning. A review of research about project-based learning concludes that such projects are focused on questions or problems that "drive learners to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline" (Thomas, 2000, p. 3). What's more, the central activities of a project involve inquiry and the construction of new knowledge by the learner (Thomas, 2000). Learners typically have a choice when it comes to designing their project, which allows them to pursue their interests and engage their curiosity. In the course of answering their own questions, learners may investigate topics not identified by the teacher as learning goals.
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