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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

What Does Following Children's Interests Through Project Based Learning Really Mean?


Many early years settings use PBL (Project Based Learning) as the main driver of their curriculum. PBL is popular and backed by a lot of research (here, here) as a way of engaging students in learning that develops a wide variety of skills. PBL also offers an alternative to the traditional model of education where the adult supplies information and the student remembers it long enough to pass the test. Essentially PBL is an attempt to move from passive to active learning.



In a previous article we asked four questions about project based learning. The fourth question in that article was 'What is the difference between ensuring that every child is involved in every activity of the project and whole group (teacher directed) instruction?' The move away from a TDA (teacher directed approach) with breaks for "play time" or "recess" towards PBL was intended to allow children to learn through play, inquiry and offer a more personalized hands on approach. For many early years programs though the move to PBL hasn't changed the problems that came from TDA.


In the TDA all children learn the same thing at the same time and do the same thing at the same time, for everything! If the curriculum says today the children need to learn the life cycle of an insect then the teacher will give the lesson, check for understanding (repeat after me) and then ask children to do something, perhaps colour, cut and past the life cycle pictures in the right order.

















In the PBL classroom on the same topic (insects) rather than giving the lesson the teacher might ask a question such as "what makes an animal an insect?" or "how does a caterpillar become a butterfly?" (or another insect). The teacher would then set out the classroom or an area of the classroom with the resources/activity to find the answer.

There are some concerns with this approach to PBL. The first concern is the children are still controlled by the teacher with the questions coming from the adult and the pursuit of answering these questions are the main focus.


What's the alternative?

Instead of only seeking to answer the teachers (curriculum) questions or reach specific curriculum learning goals (knows the the distinct features of an insect), we can place greater emphasis on supporting students to answer their own wonderings. That is the main objective, that students continue to be curious and are able to find answers/satisfy their curiosity. Knowing that an insect has three body parts, six feet, feelers and sometimes wings is not the important aspect, the questions and things children want to find out is. Providing them with the support to discover these answers is where we should focus our goals.


The second concern with this way of working in PBL is that usually the teacher requires all students to complete certain activities to show understanding. During TDA this happens at one time in one class. In PBL this might happen over a day, two days or even a week. For example, to show each child understands the life cycle of an insect they will work in small groups to show this understanding.



















What's the alternative?

Having all students complete the same tasks is still standardization. Within a project we (Barrkinderplay) propose that not all students needs to do all the same activities. For example, the teacher might say making the insect life cycle with play doh shows their understanding of the life cycle, the features of the insect and develops fine motor skills. But a child can engage in a number of fine motor skills in a number of different ways to develop those skills. If a child can simply explain the life cycle, it is as good as making it with play doh (expression, language development, conveying meaning etc.). Knowing the life cycle of one particular insect also isn't the most important element. Knowing key information about a topic, how they found out that information and can use that knowledge is. That can be demonstrated in many ways through various areas of interest.


What Does Following Children's Interests Through Project Based Learning Really Mean?

  1. Children follow personalized learning pathways where their questions are recorded, investigated an answered (not necessarily all of them and their questions might not be verbal and instead asked through their actions).

  2. The length and direction of a project is not time bound. It can last as long as interest, curiosity, learning and engagement continue.

  3. Teacher's questions evolve and change with students interests.

  4. PBL doesn't mean one project topic and everything is related. Children can handle multiple projects of varying types. For example, a class might be exploring a project related to insects but also some children are also learning about their name and how to write it. Some children are also learning about how to use water colour paints. Some students are learning about another language. Some students are planning for an event coming up. There can be multiple projects happening at the same time of varying participation, levels of difficulty, and time spent on each.

  5. Not all children need to participate in the same activities every day or week. If a teacher invites students to make a bug book its OK if some aren't interested. Find other times to engage their mark making and pre-writing/writing skills.


 


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