George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning in the Early Years

Project-Based Learning in the Early Years

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I've recently finished my training to become an elementary teacher and have been lucky enough this year to find myself with a wonderful class of K/1 students. Whilst, over the last few years, I've had experience running projects in all years from K through to 6, it's been this year that I've made the perilous leap into PBL in the early years. Having run a couple of cool little projects with my class this year, I'd like to explain how PBL with this age group compares to PBL with older students.

Firstly, the process is the same. You begin with a good question to drive some decent inquiry, you have an authentic audience with which to share the fruits of the students' hard labour - an audience that will be interested in the things your kids will be learning, making and doing.

Earlier this year my students made a series of videos about Australian animals for a kindergarten class over in Indiana. The class over in Indiana (the Kinder Panthers) reciprocated and made ebooks about American animals for my class. The interaction between our two classes (via intro/thank you videos) from across the globe really drove the motivation for my students to learn, create the best products possible and had them excited about the project.

Other aspects of PBL in K/1 that are identical are the inclusion of essential 'need to knows' and revision and reflection. Regardless of the project, we regularly gather as a class or in groups to discuss whether we have learned enough about the topic to create and share something that will inform, entertain and/or persuade our audience.

I would also suggest that the discover, create, share process (pioneered by my wife, Bianca Hewes) inherent to PBL is the same regardless of age group.

So how is it different?

Well, as kindy kids are at varying levels of ability when it comes to literacy and numeracy, and most at the very early stages of learning to read and write, they need more support with some of the inquiry process. Rather than spitting out information to a bunch of 5 & 6 year olds and expecting them to remember it, I have found that voice and choice helps in allowing students to pursue lines of inquiry relevant to their interests. In the case of the Australian animals project, I provided my class with some links to highly visual websites with information about such animals and had year 5 & 6 students come and help them read through the links on animals they were interested in to answer their research questions.

I'm also lucky to have a year 2/3 class next door who we regularly work with and these older students are also great at helping my younger kiddies read through more complex texts. It also helps if you have a worksheet/gdoc/proforma for students to complete, just to guide their inquiry a little toward answering the driving question.

I also have the older/more capable kids in my class complete any difficult, demanding writing aspects of projects and take on group leadership roles whilst the others can contribute to their group's work through less demanding but equally important (for example artistic/creative) means. PBL naturally differentiates.

Another thing about PBL with kids of this age is that it's probably good to choose projects with foci in areas like science, history/society and culture so that literacy and numeracy can be given the treatment it deserves at this foundational stage, outside of 'PBL time'.

Anyway, that's my take on PBL in the early years - same but different. If you haven't given it a go yet, I'd say to not be afraid, jump on in and have some fun engaging in some authentic learning with your kindy class!


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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Lee,

Thanks for sharing your experience. I've always adhered to the discover, create, share...I use discover, collaborate to create, share. I would also like to move beyond my classroom/school this year with the audience. Thanks for the inspiration.

Gaetan

Lee Hewes's picture

Hi Gaetan,

Thanks for the comment, and no worries, always happy to share.
Would love to hear how you go with moving beyond your classroom and school.

Cheers! :-)

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi Lee,
Thanks so much for sharing about how PBL works in your younger grades classroom. It's not uncommon to hear people say that it can't work at younger ages, so it's nice to see meaningful work happening with those students.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Lee. I agree that PBL doesn't have to be limited because of age, but as you point out, the specific strategies used are different in some ways. In the Critical Skills K-3 Coaching Kit.pdf (http://tinyurl.com/AUNE-CSP-k3) we share a number of different examples and tools that you might find helpful. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

Lee Hewes's picture

Hi Dan,

Yes, I've heard people say that PBL doesn't work for this age group before also. Having two kids of my own and seeing what they are capable of, I disagreed and set myself the challenge to make it work with my kindy class. So far it's been pretty cool!

Lee :-)

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Lee,

I like your reflection piece "Regardless of the project, we regularly gather as a class or in groups to discuss whether we have learned enough about the topic to create and share something that will inform, entertain and/or persuade our audience" I feel strongly that the reflection piece of teaching is one of the most overlooked. When kids reflect, even at this young age, I see it helping motivate them to love learning and engage more.

While I agree that cultural, science, or social studies topics lend themselves well to help an educator develop an overall PBL topic for kids this age, I actually have found that the times I can integrate reading and math into these sorts of projects I actually see the most learning taking place in those two subjects. The reading and math become much more real and involve authentic audiences.

For example, A few years ago we were learning about bears and their habitats. We ended up revisiting bears, specifically bear safety over the last month of a school year in response to some local bear-human encounters. While this PBL was a science based topic, it lent itself well to working across the curriculum in reading, writing, math, and social studies/geography. We also found ways to integrate the arts and PE into this project. In the end, the students ended up developing a simple awareness campaign around bear safety we took not only to the rest of the school, but our town, and newspapers throughout the state with class written letters to the editor.

The multi-age/multi-classroom stuff you speak of works really well for getting more out of a younger K-2 classroom. Educators of younger grades should consider doing what you did and work with another classroom. This last year our K worked very successfully with their 5-6 buddy classroom on a PBL math unit.

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Lee Hewes's picture

Hi John,

I love that your students developed an awareness campaign based on what they had been learning. That's something I'm really hoping that my students will do in the future. This term I'm going to have them pursue personal interest projects, so perhaps some of them will uncover an issue worthy of campaigning for.

I agree that it's great to integrate maths into PBL with this age group, too. Also that it adds to the authenticity of what they are learning - for example, last year, the year 2 class I was working with grew plants to sell at a farmers market to be held at the school. Not only did this support authentic financial literacy, but students also collected authentic data by tracking the growth of their seedlings and creating line graphs, awesome considering they were only 6-7 years old!

You can see these graphs here:

http://mepsmarkets.weebly.com/2/post/2013/09/tracking-the-growth-of-our-...

I also believe that it's difficult to separate literacy from whatever students are learning and that PBL is a great way to integrate a whole range of subjects without having to compromise the integrity of the learning or 'force' integration in any way.

To clarify, I guess what I was trying to say was that kids of this age group, particularly in regards to literacy at the school where I am working, have additional needs that cant't be neglected and for which they must be given adequate instruction outside of and in addition to their inquiry learning.

Thanks for your comment.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I totally agree about the literacy and meeting the needs of the kids your working with. That separate piece still happens for us, but what we did was print out (http://www.readinga-z.com) or collect appropriate reading level materials for the students that were on the topic of animals so all the kids could be reading something on or close to their reading level that was on-topic.

The graphs are great. I love the comments on the graphs webpage.

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