Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Patty Vreeland on Project-Based Learning

October 1, 2001

Patty Vreeland, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Newsome Park Elementary School, describes her approach to project-based learning.

1. How does project-based learning motivate you and your students?

I think you're turned on because it's a way for kids to be learners and stay excited and stay engaged. You don't have discipline problems. That's not to say you don't have kids that need some time out occasionally, but you don't have nearly the discipline problems. It's also a place where if you know kids and you know not everybody's at the same place at the same time -- if I've got my classroom set up that way -- then they don't have to be at the same place at the same time. You can be reading about wolves while you're reading about hampsters and somebody else may be working on a math game. It's OK.

Again, it's a lot of tough kid watching though, because you've got to make sure everybody's still challenged and nobody's laying back and not getting the work done. So, there's a lot of work. But it's exciting. I've got children who are now -- one in college and one grown -- and there's a part of me that wishes this for them. Or wishes this for me when I was a kid.

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2. What happens to state academic standards when projects are the instructional focus?

We're bound by the same state standards that every other teacher in Virginia is bound by, as well as the fact that national standards figure into it as well. We want [the kids] to be autonomous. So, I think what happens is our role as teachers has to dramatically change in the sense that we've got to know our curriculum. We've got to know those standards inside and out. So, that when the kids say, "I want to study pets," it's my job then to figure out sort of where this might go, what sorts of standards of learning are going to need to be guided. But at the same time knowing that if the books are there and the experts are there and the field work is there, the kids are probably going to glean that information that we want them to get.

There are some state standards that don't fit into anything and we still teach those in isolation. We have to. We still provide experiences along with them, but then not everything fits into the project. But a lot of it does.

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3. How do you use technology in project-based learning?

What we really want for the children is a way for them to take their school work and move it into the real world. And as we know, technology is the real world. So we've gone away from packaged programs and packaged games and that sort of thing to real applications -- Microsoft Word, PowerPoint®, AppleWorks, now that we're using the Mac system so that the children are using the technology for real purposes.

If they write a story in the classroom and they want to produce it in a way that it looks better, and it's more attractive for them, and they want to share it and they're more excited, they go to the computer now. And they can choose the application. They can decide how they want to illustrate it and if they get in a bind, they either come to me or to each other. The beauty of it is, once I teach one or two of them, then I can say, "Richie, you go help Chelsea with her PowerPoint® project. You know how to capture those pictures and bring them in." So the beauty of it is, whether there are five or six or ten, they're kids helping kids, which is, in our profession as teachers, and in a lot of professions, the way the real world works.

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4. How do children, especially your first grade students, approach technology?

What we find is, they have no fear. If you talked to my mom, who's seventy years old, she'll say, "Oh my goodness, I don't know what to do on that computer." But if you talk to a five- or six-year-old, they say, "Let me at it!" And they're not afraid if they make a mistake on the computer. They know it can be fixed. And so they're learning from a point different than we did, where you had to type it out and strike it out and start all over -- that nothing's ever a done deal. They can always go back and edit. They can always go back and change. If a picture's not the way they want it, they can fix it. If a sentence doesn't look the way they want it, they can fix it. And they know that, and they think that's great.

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5. How does project-based learning affect the way your students approach learning?

They know that they don't have all the answers, and it's okay. They also know that Ms. V. doesn't have all the answers and it doesn't bother her a bit. And so we sit back and we go, "Okay, who can we call? Who can we ask?" Or, "Where can we go?" And so for them, a lot of them will say, "We'll go online. See what we can find online." And so we'll go online. Or they'll go, "My doctor knows about asthma. I have asthma. Maybe we should call my doctor!" They're falling all over themselves with suggestions.

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6. What challenges does project-based learning pose for the teacher?

You have to be really a risk taker. You have to do for yourself what you're asking the children to do. In a lot of ways, we're constructing the knowledge ourselves. Universities and colleges -- depends on where you go to school -- it depends on what test you took. It depends on where you've been as to how textbook-driven your teaching has been. It's easier to teach out of a textbook where this day it tells me to do this, and this day it tells me to do that. So, in a way, you've got to be willing to work a little harder, too, to do it this way. Even though it looks like the kids are doing all the hard work, there's a lot of planning that goes on behind it to make sure that the work is there for them.

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7. What is the biggest benefit of project-based learning?

I'm more excited. The kids are more excited. It's a level of enthusiasm. We still get stuck. We still have to work through problems. But it's kind of nice as a teacher for me to be able to look at the kids and go, "Okay look, what are we going to do about this? This isn't working right now." And believe it or not, they have some really, really good suggestions. And it's never, "Well, let's just quit and give up." It's always, "Let's try something new." So they're already in a mode where ... never give up. There's more than one way to figure it out. There's more than one right answer. And so, that's the exciting part. That's the key.

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