Project based learning (PBL)
Project based learning (PBL) is an inquiry-based method where students use language to tackle and solve real-world problems/tasks within a given amount of time. Most teachers tend to relate PBL to TBL and though both of them are very much alike, there is a distinct difference. In PBL the task becomes the focal point, not of a lesson, but of a whole course which could range from one week to a whole term.
Though PBL stands out for its creativity and its authenticity, it’s these same reasons that might deter some teachers from implementing PBL in their ESL classroom. Teaching the standards through a project can be quite challenging especially for newly qualified teachers as it requires the teachers to think a lot on their feet.
A Guiding Question as a starting point of your project
Project-based lessons are framed by a guiding question that runs as a thread throughout the duration of the course and keeps the students focused on the project. The question derives from a central topic, e.g. London life and poses real life problems that reflect the students’ interests, e.g. How can a ‘newbie’ survive in London? for a group of students who are planning to study in London. Ideally the guiding question should be decided and phrased along with the students but when the latter are young or the time frame is tight the teacher can form the question on behalf of the students taking always into consideration the students’ interests.
Students’ & Teacher’s Role
Once the guiding question has been identified, the students work collaboratively and decide what steps need to be taken to answer the question and what could be their final outcome, e.g. a survival guidebook for London. Their investigation will often include interviews, internet research or reading books.PBL stands out not only because it engages students in meaningful tasks but also because it equips them with soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and team work. Throughout the project the students have to evaluate their findings, manage their time, make decisions and delegate duties just like in real life.
By granting so much autonomy to the students, some teachers might feel that they do not teach the basics and therefore they do not fulfill their role. However, this is not the case as there is still room for teacher-directed instruction. During the project the teacher can spot what language the students lack to successfully complete the task or what language could improve their project and provide immediate instruction. Moreover, knowing the guiding question and the final outcome of the project gives the teachers the chance to predict the language the students will need in advance. At this stage it is also the teacher’s responsibility to impose standards and check the students’ progress or even put them back on track if he/she feels that their findings might not contribute to the final outcome. All the tasks should be driven by the guiding question and all the tasks should contribute to the final outcome. A good way to ensure that is to ask your students questions like, ‘Why are we doing this now?’ or ‘Why do you need to know this? after every single task. This is a key element of PBL since it enables the students to see the connection between the guiding question and the tasks ,as well as the connection between the tasks and the final outcome and therefore stay motivated.
The Outcome - Presentation
Once the end product of the project is completed, the students need to showcase their learning and the progress they have made and pass that knowledge to the others. The most common way to achieve that is to present their work to an audience which could be the students from the other classes. Bear in mind that this should be communicated to the students from the very beginning in order to keep the students motivated until the end and give them a motive to strive for better performance throughout the project. If the students find this out last minute, they will probably get stressed and frustrated and it is even possible to refuse to do it which will sadly lead to the failure of the project, though the students might have worked hard for it.
It is also essential that the audience is actively involved during the presentation and also learns something before they walk out of the classroom. This means that the host students should prepare an interactive presentation where the guest students (audience) are also involved or are given a question to answer or a short quiz.
Ending the presentation gives the students a feeling of great relief and satisfaction but this is not the end of their project based experience. This time students return back in their groups and discuss their project. The discussion revolves around questions like ‘Was our project successful?, ‘What were its strengths and weaknesses?’, ‘What could we have done differently?’, ‘Which of the projects did you enjoy the most?’. It creates a learning community where students reflect on what language or skills they were not good at, at the beginning of the project and how much progress they have made by the end of it, giving them a sense of progress.
Finally, once the whole process is finished it’s time for the teacher to also self-reflect and self-assess his/her performance. As has already been mentioned, in PBL, once the final outcome has been decided the teacher as the expert can predict the language the students will need. So, the end of the project gives the teacher the chance to check whether his/her predictions were accurate and contemplate on what he/she has missed. It’s also a good idea while the project is still fresh in the teacher’s mind, to think how this project could be adapted in order to be used with a different level class or group.
PBL: the benefits and the challenges
PBL has lots of advantages and though quite demanding it’s worth giving it a try or adopting some of its techniques and see how it differentiates from other more traditional approaches. It is ideal for mixed-ability classes as all students can bring some of their own knowledge and there are still lots of opportunities to upgrade their language and skills.
The basic criticism of PBL is that it cannot be used with young learners and exam classes. Having used PBL in both cases, I have come to believe that it is possible with a few variations. When you teach exam classes you can use PBL as it is and adapt your activities to exam type activities, eg. ask your students to rephrase what they have said by giving them prompts (FCE-Key Word Transformations). However, it is true that you cannot rely solely on PBL to prepare your students for exams and if you do, prepare yourself for mental exhaustion and sleepless nights.
When it comes to young learners PBL is also possible provided you do not give your students excessive autonomy. You need to be available to offer constant guidance and supervision as they can easily go off track. You will also probably need to rely a lot on your strong students to lead the projects and as with all young learners, you need to bear in mind that the activities will take longer than what you assumed when you were planning.