What is the appeal of project based learning? Buried inside, this approach is deeply rooted in how we learn. Working in groups to tackle real-world problems and to think at a higher level is apart of the human experience. It’s natural. Each day I come across tremendous lessons from my professional learning network on twitter that incorporate a “new way” of going about learning at school. Projects that made you wish you were young again. At the core of project based learning (and constructivism) is the power and responsibility that students are the center of their own learning, through primary, first hand accounts.

Project based learning is deeply tied to this theory and is an approach the education system should begin to look at to engage students at a deeper level.

I recently read two fantastic articles that tackle this idea in a much cleaner manner, that are worth reading: A Snapshot Of How Technology Is Used In Education and Problem-Based Learning: Our Brains Abhor Cliffhangers.

Constructivism definition from wikipedia.com is, “a theory to explain how knowledge is constructed in the human being when information comes into contact with existing knowledge that had been developed by experiences.”

The disruption and culture shift occurring in our education system falls under the constructivist theory. The definition of a teacher is morphing as a guide, who assists students on a journey to their own conclusion by monitoring and making students’ aware of opportunities during the learning process. Sadly, the traditional settings in many schools are in conflict with the constructivist theory, where more often than not, teachers’ use “sit and get” and a one-size fits all approach. State assessments and other constraints could be to blame, but there are opportunities to work with this theory through project based lessons, in small, manageable doses.

Important aspects at the core of how students learn, is the need for social interaction and authentic learning. Not only is social interaction essential for knowledge construction, but it also allows students to verify their understanding. We are in the middle of a social interactive paradigm shift and need students to understand its power. Throughout the school year, students must start with an authentic activity and constantly build upon and use background knowledge. Ample time must be given to communicate with peers and staff, if constructivism learning is to work well. The constructivist theory requires a strong teacher in an active role of support and modeling, and a move away from passive, old school approaches.

With constructivist theory, errors are learning opportunities. Social interaction through cooperation, collaboration, deeper communication and project based learning tie into constructivism to create life experiences that make powerful connections. Engaged students will understand their potential and that they are agents of change in their own learning and will feel a greater sense of accomplishment. For both the student and teacher, the process of project based learning is powerful.

Efforts to pursue deeper learning and reflection by showcasing skills through projects like an ePortfolio, is a concept I deeply support. ePortfolio-like projects can replace many traditional projects that no longer reach the 21st century student and can be worked well into the constructivist theory as well. Where “sit and get” methods miss their intended targets, districts must begin to accept project based learning, ePortfolios and flipped classroom models as viable alternatives, if not replacements for traditional means. The tool-kit available to teachers must continue to head down this path.

A fixable problem with project based learning and deep, authentic assignments is the time and effort needed to be done well. To achieve authentic learning that constructivism seeks, teachers need to communicate and collaborate to a higher degree to incorporate various standards. A project based learning lesson will incorporate multiple standards, requiring all teachers to get on board. That can be a large hurdle, but for districts willing to make broad changes, time can be on their side.

Opposite of the passive “sit and get” model, teachers must offer a classroom environment capable of multiple learning opportunities for students to acquire the information through different means. This looks like many things, but I guess that is the point; options are a must! As an aside, teachers have been known to gripe about needing differentiated professional development for their own professional growth. If a teacher learns through various techniques and are vocal about the support (and time) they need as learners, it is mandatory students are afforded equal opportunities and variations. The constructivist theory supports this notion. The issue once again becomes the sweat and tears needed to change paths and the resistance to do so at a district, state or national level. Is real change through constructivism truly possible?

To play devil’s advocate on myself, some of the principles on the outer fringe of constructivist theory, such as allowing students to develop autonomously and at their own pace, simply are not ideal or achievable with the state assessments and standards each student must meet. I fully understand the limits of taking everything the theory has to offer and have reservations as well. The good news…there is plenty of wiggle room for teachers to dip a toe into a week long project based learning environment without much, if any, change to a larger curriculum. Project based learning and the multiple tie-ins actually fit very well with the Common Core standards and is worth a deeper look.

Project based learning is the future and is expected of this generation as they enter the work force. Students need access and modeling of group discussion and activities in various formats, involving a strong teacher. Students need an ability to communicate well both online and in person and most of all need to use their background knowledge every day to tackle authentic, thought provoking lessons. The constructivist theory and the foundation of how knowledge is constructed can be wrapped up in a project based lesson environment.

There is a boundary to constructivist theory, but it is safe to say our country’s education system isn’t jumping over the line anytime soon. For now, teachers should take the first steps to implementing and changing at least one lesson for next year and be on their way towards a new approach to learning.

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