Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL in the Early Elementary Grades

Setting up project-based learning with young students can be a challenge, but it’s worth the work, according to first-grade teachers from across the U.S.

December 3, 2021
FatCamera / iStock

Making a change to classroom instruction can be complex, confusing, and even overwhelming. Educators may have reservations about shifting their teaching approach as they consider student response, increased time commitment, or lack of support. They also may not know how to take the leap. But taking the leap to project-based learning is well worth the effort. Moving toward a PBL teaching approach includes many potential benefits for educators and students alike.

Administrators and first-grade teachers from practicing PBL schools across the United States participated in focus-group conversations as part of a project to inform the development of a PBL-based first-grade curriculum. During the conversations, educators offered advice about areas they continue to navigate, what works well, and how to start a conversation about moving toward a PBL approach to teaching.

Anticipated Challenges and How to Address Them

If you’re considering PBL, you might be wondering about potential barriers and how to navigate them. In the course of talking with practicing PBL educators from around the country, some common challenges with PBL implementation emerged.

1. Lack of support from other teachers and/or administrators. Many educators indicated that there’s often a lack of support within the school as well as a general sense that teachers are fundamentally underprepared about how to implement PBL. External support is a crucial factor, so it’s important to talk with teachers and administrators about getting on board before launching PBL efforts. A network of other PBL educators inside and outside of school can provide support and help make the experience successful.

2. Additional time for lesson planning. Time is an important consideration that goes into planning and implementing project work, as a majority of educators mentioned during focus-group conversations. Since integrating PBL takes a substantial amount of time, educators can ask for understanding and flexibility from others in the school with planning, scheduling, and enacting.

3. Shifted role from instructor to facilitator. Successful PBL requires teachers to act as motivators for students in their learning. This shift in classroom control may cause apprehension and a need for adjustment for teachers and learners. Through the use of balanced instruction, increasing the amount of student choice, and providing appropriate scaffolding, this instructional shift becomes much easier to navigate and creates an opportunity to successfully implement PBL.

Successes of Moving Toward PBL

Using a PBL learning approach comes with many benefits and countless opportunities, as the educators we talked with pointed out. These advantages positively impact students, teachers, parents, and communities.

1. Opportunities for collaboration. Collaboration is paramount in PBL and one of the best ways students and educators can further develop soft skills, including communication and problem-solving. Students learn to consider alternative viewpoints, and educators benefit from being able to plan with the support of colleagues, collaborate with teachers from other classes, and think through ideas together.

Collaboration seems to be fundamental to educators’ perspectives with creating successful and meaningful project-based approaches to learning. Through collaboration, students and educators not only develop better project work but also learn important real-world skills that extend beyond their projects and will benefit them in multiple ways.

2. Increased student engagement. By using student voice and choice throughout PBL, educators can create opportunities to engage and motivate students who might otherwise not be interested in actively participating in learning opportunities. Project work requires balance and finesse to maintain engagement over the course of the entire unit. By utilizing PBL curriculum, however, these educators reported greater student connection, particularly for students who are often hard to engage.

When educators take the perspectives of their students into account throughout the learning process, they create engaging ways to keep up with their changing needs. It can be helpful to use formative assessments, including student interviews, as a way to check in with students throughout the PBL process to understand what motivates, engages, and excites them. Increasing student voice by linking student interests and motivations throughout the process can maintain engagement and ensure that students feel connected to the work.

3. Authentic learning opportunities. It’s important to ensure that projects serve a purpose beyond the classroom and allow students to draw real-world connections with the work they’re actively engaged in. When educators provide authentic context for student work through PBL and an authentic audience to present their work to, students feel more connected, excited, and engaged with their project work. Nearly all of the educators in focus-group conversations noted that it’s important for the project work to feel real to students and to remind students of their authentic audience throughout the course of project work.

Starting the Conversation

Previous research shows that PBL can foster intrinsic motivation, increase student engagement, and help develop creative thinking skills. It’s also been proven to be a catalyst that can encourage engagement of student learning, support sustained student interest in exploring novel ideas, and help promote communication and collaboration.
A great place to begin is to familiarize yourself with the essential project design elements of PBL. Next, start small. Think about a project idea you may have once had, dust it off, and start talking with your colleagues about how to bring it to life in your classroom. Then, recognize your capacity.

As demands on teachers increase to equip students with 21st-century skills to help them adapt to a quickly changing society, more educators are turning to teaching methods such as PBL, and it’s essential that administrators know how to support them. Talk with your administrator about your PBL thoughts, hopes, and dreams. Present the evidence, pitch your idea, and prepare for an exciting journey with PBL.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • K-2 Primary

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