Background of PBL
PBL in a Nutshell
Program staff members recognize that making changes to school curriculum alone will not change children’s futures. A more holistic approach is necessary. Specific goals of the program include increasing reading proficiency and student engagement, to enhance teacher understanding of PBL, PBCP, and to nurture community and school partnerships. Through projects, students explore elements of past and contemporary cultural connections so to strengthen their sense of identity within a robust literacy-based framework. These services strive to support and connect student interest to meaningful experiences in the community through place-based cultural projects aligned with standards.
Through the PBL approach, students are exposed to literacy-based instruction and projects that cultivate reading and writing skills. Teacher interviewees suggest PBL instruction helps students to develop skills beyond reading and writing as well. In addition to promoting teamwork among students, interviewees boast seeing positive changes in verbal, observation, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. For example, first-grade students participated in a variety of activities to help them gain an understanding of Hawaiian history and culture through the exploration of symbols, mo’olelo (story), mele (song), and native plants. Over the duration of the project, students developed various writing pieces using the plant and Hawaiian cultural knowledge as schema for their literacy work. The project demanded for students to expand their knowledge outside of the classroom and promoted learning through art and in the garden setting. Students displayed their learning during a culminating event where they shared writings, artwork, demonstrations, performances, and garden tours with family and community members. Similarly, each of the grade level projects integrate literacy-focused instruction with art, data collection, exploration, creation, and hands on learning to provide a well rounded learning experience. One focus group member highlighted how PBL helps to motivate students with proficiency challenges, saying,
I think we’ve always been a school that’s been heavily focused on reading, writing, and math so it’s nice to kind of give those areas a purpose ...where the kids can use the skills that we’re trying to teach them and they can apply them. I think that we see kids who are either hesitant to read or hesitant to write are now more motivated – [PBL] supports this. In the past, they didn’t know how to write but now that we have our artifacts and we talked about it. I think they try harder, because it’s for the purpose of the project.
Strengths of PBL
Strengthened Building Relationships
While discussing the changes observed in student-to-student relationships, an interviewee shared, “It gives [students] a chance to learn how to cooperate with one another, to work together.” Another focus group member mentioned, “The kid’s attitude might be the best evidence [the program is working]. They cheer each other on and don’t ridicule or tease one another.” The unique bonds created are making an impact on adults who participate in the building as well, with one stakeholder sharing, “Kids come to me and ask questions. It gives me a chance to have a more direct relationship with students. I can see what they are capable of.”
PBL programs have made an impact on students both in and out of the classroom, specifically observable via a reported peaked level of student interest in learning, greater participation during classroom instruction, and, according to focus group participants, an increase in school attendance and homework completion. One educator shared their experience, saying, “I see student’s ideas developing. They are better presenters and sharers of their own work. It gives them lots of chances to practice presentation and speaking skills.” Additionally, the hands-on program design has been identified by some to “meet the needs of students not typically successful at school” and offers “kids the chance to be successful as a learner in a learning setting.” One staff member reflected, “Our students are visual, hands-on learners. This program offers all the motivation to start there, but to go beyond.”
Finally, researchers collected Hawaii State Assessment (HSA) reading scores for all 4th - 6th-grade students involved in the programs. We examined group differences between PALS participants and their non-PALS classmates. Analyses showed that a greater percentage of PALS participants met or exceeded reading proficiency targets than their non-PALS classmates at all elementary grade levels.
PALS (After-school) PBL
Researchers gained direct insight about their project from Animation group students during a site visit to one of the elementary schools. Students were busy writing a student-created script based on a true story, as relayed by a grandmother of one of the student’s. The story revolved around the grandmother whom, as a child, was hiding in a closet with her siblings during a military invasion. An opposing soldier found the young children hiding and allowed them to live. Students relayed the story with enthusiasm and a sense of seriousness that seemed beyond their elementary years. Some students diligently worked on creating a “set” made out of construction paper and shoeboxes, while other students tweaked the storyline or created “people” out of Popsicle sticks and clay. Other students sat at computers to design and adjust the animated sections. Their work was not only thoughtful, intricate, and elaborate, but was meaningful because it came from a true experience and was interesting. It became obvious to researchers during the course of the visit that the students were not only engaged in their project, but were motivated to make the necessary adjustments to the scripts, thereby practicing their reading, editing, and critical thinking skills over the course of the program.
PLACES (In-School) PBL
Field trip opportunities not only provide students with project-related hands-on learning experiences, but also aide in linking classroom learning to real-world cultural and educational connections. For example, students traveled around the island to seek out native food sources, went to the local university for a campus tour, learned about monarchs at a historic palace, studied art at the art museum, and participated in a pasta cook-off. Teachers and students alike raved about these activities, with some recognizing the fact that such opportunities are rare for many of the students and have “opened their eyes to the world beyond their neighborhood.”
Although the two programs we evaluated have a specific focus on increasing student literacy, cross-content teachers worked together to also integrate mathematical, scientific, artistic, and historical elements into project work. Educators suggested their participation in the program helped to increase communication among staff members, as grade-level teachers collaborated during Professional Learning Community (PLC) time to discuss guiding questions, reflection activities, and to plan project logistics. Depending on the complexity of the project, project work lasted anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months, with some grade levels completing more than one project in a school year.
Impact on Teachers
You have to learn to let go of the control of a class and let your children lead their own learning. For most teachers that is the hardest part. Once you tell [students] what to do, they tend to daydream or get off-task, but if they're in control of what they're doing, they're going to definitely be more engaged. So, I think these are definitely qualities that, as teachers, we have to realize. You have to let go.
I feel like there’s a lot more engagement versus a teacher-centered teaching style to a student-centered teaching style. Kids are taking more initiative to do work, especially in my class when we’re trying to make this adobe and trying to teach them what composting is about. To have them participate and then actually putting standards [with it] is pretty amazing. It’s kind of like tricking kids into learning.
Elements of Successful PBL Implementation
Teachers in both the PALS and PLACES programs participated in a variety of professional development opportunities that addressed the planning and implementation of PBL and included ways to integrate standards-based literacy teaching in project instruction. Experts from the Buck Institute provided teachers and community partners with professional development dedicated to project-based learning. Other trainings revolved around small group instruction and insight on how to align standards to project goals. A small handful of teachers involved with both programs traveled to Evergreen Academy in Asheville, North Carolina as part of a three day Site Seminar. Staff members observed project based learning practices in action during their visit to this highly acclaimed program.
Community Connections and Support
Projects in both programs revolve around a range of place-based culturally relevant topics. Projects integrate elements of PBL strategies including the investigation of local and cultural issues and the use of community resources for investigative purposes, field trips to project-relevant locations, and the presentation of final works to family and community members. In order for projects to run smoothly, staff members collaborate and coordinate with community members to provide services that support projects and enhance learning opportunities for students. This collaboration has helped to strengthen connections between school and community members and helps students to learn in settings outside of the classroom.