PBL: Terrapin Style Building a Project-Based Learning Community at Tar River Elementary


What does Project-Based Learning look like at Tar River?

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What are the elements of Project-Based Learning? How does it work?

There is a lot of creativity and flexibility built in to project-based learning, both for teachers and for students. There are also elements that all great project-based learning experiences have in common. For one, project-based learning experiences happen over a significant period of time - enough time for students to engage deeply with the challenging problem or question. This can be as short as a week, or as long as a whole school year. The following checklist from PBL Works, identifies other essential elements of high-quality PBL.

PBL Works Essential Project Design Elements Checklist

What do we want students to learn through PBL?

Project-based learning is different than asking students to complete a project, such as a poster or diorama, at the end of a lesson or unit. Through project-based learning, students deepen their learning of subjects like math, English, science, social studies, and electives while also learning real world success skills like collaboration, critical-thinking, and creativity. When students are learning both academic content and real world skills while exploring an interesting question or challenge, the result is sometimes referred to as "Main Course PBL", while the more common definition of school projects is referred to as "Dessert Projects". For more information about how students learn both academic subjects and real world skills through project-based learning, click the button below.

Dessert vs. main course image from PBL Works

How do we know students are learning through PBL?

The things that students create during PBL (products), and how they work by themselves and with others to create these things (process), provide the best evidence that they've met the learning goals. Student products can be videos, presentations, infographics, writing, drawings, exhibits, or some combination of these products, and are best when they have an authentic audience outside the classroom.

Teachers work together and with students to define what successful and authentic learning looks like and sounds like using tools such as rubrics, student work samples, and conversations. They create checkpoints for students throughout the course of a project-based learning experience. At each checkpoint, and at other times, students receive feedback and are asked to reflect on their learning. Below are some student work samples from recent PBL experiences.

Tar River student products and presentations

What is the role of teachers in PBL? How is it different?

Creating great project-based learning experiences for students is highly creative and complex work. In doing this work, teachers go through the same process that their students go through when completing a project-based learning experience. Teachers collaborate with their grade-level team, other teachers, and community partners to design and refine their project-based learning experiences. This process can be messy, lengthy, and demanding, especially while teachers are planning their first project-based learning experiences. One way to think about PBL is that teachers spend a lot of time and energy in planning the PBL experiences, while their students are the ones working hard during class time as teachers rotate throughout the classroom to provide personalized support to students as they work.

What role do parents and families play in our PBL community?

We all know that parent and family engagement has a huge impact on student learning. Like teachers, the best way for parents and guardians to support students in PBL is through developing an understanding project-based learning, and learning some basic techniques for coaching students to help them think more deeply. Here are some simple tools and resources to help parents coach their students. Below are some additional resources that parents might find helpful.

Try It: Terrapin Family Design Challenge