Teachers Must Learn to Let Go to Enable Project-Based Learning

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Georgia HallSeveral summers ago, I watched 35 youth participating in a summer learning program stand in a grass field and launch their self-designed kites. There was a lot of running, limited string and low flying. When a teacher’s kite started to edge higher, all eyes focused. The teacher challenged the youth to let the kite string go a little. She circulated to help while keeping her own kite high in the sky. Forty-five minutes later, the sky was full to the tree tops with colorful flyers. This activity was followed by an experientially based math lesson on altitude, energy and aerodynamics.

Since 2010, researchers from the National Institute for Out-of-School Time (NIOST) have visited summer programs at citywide and statewide partners — in partnership with 12 different school districts — to examine the impact of summer programs on youth learning. We have conducted more than 250 observations of learning experiences and collected outcome assessment data for more than 10,000 students.

Collecting data multiple ways from diverse sources (including youth, summer program staff and teachers, community partners and school administrators) has informed a deeper understanding of the qualities and practices that are associated with successful and effective programming, as well as exposed some existing gaps and limitations in the work.

Project-based learning (PBL) has been a key instructional strategy in many of the summer learning initiatives NIOST studied — in fact, it’s key for all out-of-school time programming. PBL typically includes groups of students working together in authentic and engaging learning activities that are designed to answer a question or solve a problem. Typically, PBL is comprehensive, stretches intentionally across multiple disciplines and is most effectively carried out by highly skilled teachers given the interdisciplinary nature of its delivery.

Across program sites, teachers express enthusiasm for utilizing a PBL approach and recognize the positive effect on students’ level of involvement and academic engagement. For instance, teachers consistently comment on the high levels of student engagement and enjoyment during PBL experiences. PBL encourages students working in small groups and taking on group leadership roles. Having to problem-solve with peers, negotiate project processes and practice teamwork are all positive aspects of a PBL approach.

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Despite these strengths, though, there are challenges in the implementation of PBL. One of the largest challenges for classroom teachers and program staff is letting go. Teachers and program leaders can feel great risk in transferring some of the authority and power to carry forth the learning to the students themselves.

As observers in programs we look to see how often youth help select, lead or contribute to running the activity; if activities offer youth choice and decision-making; and if activities offer young people opportunities to work collaboratively in pairs, in groups or as part of a team.

As adults, we are all very invested in making sure learning happens and often have in mind particular outcomes we want to deliver. However, substantial experience in youth development has pointed to the valuable learning that happens for youth when they are given more responsibility for their own knowledge-building.

Middle school and high school youth in particular need to take on more responsibilities in their learning settings than just handing out supplies, collecting materials or making a predetermined project. Youth investment swells when young people are fully brought into the planning, implementation and reflection elements of the teaching and learning experience.

Strong organization, flexibility and having a back-up plan if needed can make the letting go less risky. Training on PBL approaches and strategies to support scaffolding for youth can build teacher confidence.

Authentic PBL really relies on these elements. Young people miss out on important opportunities to grow leadership skills, build peer relationships and “own” their learning when their involvement and investment is missing.

One of the most gifted teachers I have met shared that she is “filled with joy” when looking at the work of her students in which their creativity and personal investment in their learning is evident. It appears the greater risk is in not letting go.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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