Connecting with Hard-to-Reach Learners Using Project-based Learning

Posted by Melinda Kolk on Apr 20, 2011 10:34:00 AM

While digital natives may be the current rage in the media, our classrooms are also full of students who are not prepared for work at grade level and are not interested in school. Many have disadvantaged backgrounds, some need help learning even basic skills, others are bored because they aren’t being challenged. Without a rich and powerful educational experience, these students will have a harder time succeeding in the world outside of the classroom, now and in the future.

digital learningTo engage hard-to-reach learners, our classrooms need to supply both rigor AND relevance. We need to teach academics in a way that helps students make connections from what they are learning to the world outside the classroom.

While many of these students often struggle with basic literacy skills, and need additional help with the 3’R’s, they also need learning experiences that help provide important 21st century skills like creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and media-rich communication.

Project-based Learning  (PBL) is a great way to engage students with high and low interest.  In a project-based learning environment, students answer questions/complete challenges/build products that require them to apply knowledge to solve a real world problem. You often hear the real world connection being referred to as “authentic” work.

Student work is authentic when:

  1. It is work that is also done BY someone outside of the classroom
  2. It is done FOR someone outside of the classroom
  3. The work HAS VALUE to someone outside of the classroom

An authentic task requires students to demonstrate proficiency by APPLYING existing knowledge to solve a real world problem.

Whenever I am fortunate enough to provide a ProjectLearn Academy to teachers, I like to begin to explore authentic work with a technology “project” most people are familiar with – the state report. Often this takes the form of a PowerPoint(less) presentation that shows a picture of the state map with the capital, a slide with the state song, the state bird, etc. The report contains information that can be located online in about a minute.

But what makes a state unique? What makes life in Massachusetts different from Arizona? Why do some families prefer to live in the South, while others prefer life in the West? Who cares?

“Who cares?” is a great way to figure out a real world connection! In the case of a state, who does care what they are like? A family would care if they have to choose whether to move there. The state’s tourism board cares because they are responsible for getting people to visit.

So what could a problem or task for a state report PBL project look like? There are many right answers! (like most of life’s most important questions).

You might ask students to take the role of a member of the state board of tourism to create an advertising campaign (presentation/video/website/print materials) to encourage others to visit a state. If you are concerned about meeting specific standards, set up the task so that students have to research geography, ecology, economy, and politics. You might even want to have them establish itineraries through a state for families with a budget of X time and X dollars.

You might ask students to take the role of a member of a family where one parent has been offered a very important, high-paying job in another state. Should the family move?  What is the economy like in the new state? Will the other parent be able to find a job? Or even need to? What opportunities for recreation are there? Do they match the family member’s current interests? How much does housing cost? What is the city or surrounding are like?

There are many other, and better, ways to approach a state report, but this gives you and idea of the difference in the student work. Authentic projects tend to be complex and rather than spending time hunting for correct answer, students spend their time asking lots and lots of questions!

To ensure that the students in our classrooms from all walks of life (both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds) can complete in our techno-centric global society, our classrooms must engage them and provide them with high level skills they can use in the world outside of the classroom. While project-based learning is certainly not the only way to do this, it is definitely a highly-effective strategy.

Look for future posts about using the tenets of PBL, and the spirit of authentic work, to engage learners in your classroom, even when you aren’t working on full-blown projects!

Topics: creativity, engage, literacy, students, learn, 21st century classroom, technology integration, multimedia, constructivism, adolescence