I spent this week looking at sample projects for Project-based learning (PBL) and considering how it can translate into my classroom. I am not brand-new at PBL. My school has spent a year learning about PBL in order for the teachers to give it a try, and I have two PBL projects I think worked well with my students and I intend to repeat. However, my PBL repertoire is pretty small, and I welcomed the opportunity to see what other teachers were doing for PBL in their classes, especially in my two subject areas, English and social studies.
I was drawn to projects that asked big questions, something often lacking in both high school English and social studies instruction. The nature of state and national standards and testing today means we teachers have become very adept at asking our students questions with correct answers. When was Napoleon defeated at Waterloo? 1815. Who was the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter? Hester Prynne. But the real reason we teach social studies and English is not to be able to answer multiple choice tests correctly. We teach those subjects because they, at some point, have made us question big ideas. How did Napoleon’s reign change the history of law in Europe? Was Napoleon good for France? Would I like a leader like Napoleon for my country? Would I be willing to be publicly shamed in order to live my life the way I want to like Hester Prynne did? Would I be willing to keep a really big secret if it meant I was the only one who was punished? PBL seems to be a very effective conduit to ask the big questions that do not have a correct or easy answer, thus pushing our students to get deeper into the subject matter than is covered on a multiple choice test.