8 Takeaways on Project-Based Learning from Catch a Fire

While project-based learning, or PBL, isn’t exactly a new concept in education, it also isn’t mainstream. Catch a Fire: Fuelling Inquiry and Passion Through Project-Based Learning, is a collection of insights edited by Matt Henderson. The book combines the perspectives of fourteen educators on the power of PBL. In every chapter, each writer presents a new angle on PBL—from the ways it can accommodate different learning styles to success stories. Here are eight intriguing takeaways for educators from Catch a Fire.

1. PBL can improve outcomes for students who struggle with traditional models.

The success of a PBL teaching model isn’t based on the method itself. It’s about how teachers can combine relationship-building, inclusivity, and engaging work. The frameworks at play in PBL are conducive to these experiences, but it still takes good teachers to drive results.

“All learners deserve the opportunity to be in the most engaging learning environment as possible,” says Catch a Fire’s editor, Matt Henderson. “As educators, it is our responsibility and obligation to include all learners and to ensure that we have high expectations for all learners. Good teaching, whether PBL or not, includes all learners. Good teaching allows all learners to see themselves within that community. Good teaching allows learners to have voice, to exercise agency, and to feel what they are doing has a purpose.”

2. The key strength of the PBL model is the relationship between student and educator.

In the essay “How Does Project-Based Learning Allow for the Development of the Whole Student?”, Bonnie Powers and Tom Lake describe the experience of a student named Julia. Julia transitioned from a traditional classroom setting to a PBL-modelled learning environment. The PBL approach, and the support of great teachers, motivated her to do amazing things.  

“Julia’s story is compelling because it reveals how critical the relationship between learner and mentor is, and how powerful learning is generated through passion, interest, and relevance,” says Henderson. 

3. An adjustment period between traditional teaching models and PBL is to be expected.

Julia’s story also draws attention to the challenges of being a PBL student coming from a non-PBL school. In the PBL environment, Julia is in control of the direction of her learning outcomes. This is challenging at first, as Julia finds this structure disorienting. With the support of her teachers, Julia succeeds when she’s able to pursue her talents and interests.

“Her story is less about the transition from a traditional school to a project-based school, and more of a testament to the transition from an environment where school was done to her to an environment that was loving, enriching, challenging, and about her,” says Henderson. “This speaks to the difference between schooling and education. One is a system and the other is a relational process of transformation.”

4. Traditional classrooms prepare students for tests, but PBL prepares them for life.

As students graduate, standardized tests become a distant memory. Relationship-building, problem-solving, and coordination become skills paramount to success. PBL allows students to build these skills before they launch into independent living.

“Properly conceived, PBL allows learners to do adult work,” says Henderson. “In helping to create this book, a bunch of us came together to develop a final product that we thought helped solve a problem. We collaborated, we researched, we thought, we wrote, we came together and created something that was authentic and created meaning for us. This is what experiential education and PBL can do. It can allow for learners to engage in deep inquiry that has purpose and meaning.”

5. Engaged educators make the difference.

Effective education isn’t a formula. Henderson says a teacher’s effectiveness relies on the “bring it” factor.

“Poorly designed projects can be just as oppressive or disengaging as any other methodology,” he says. “What is critical in any teaching is that educators fundamentally love kids, that they are passionate about what they are teaching, and that they have the “bring it” factor. That is, that they come to their learning community each and every day ready to bring it—to blow the minds of their learners, to cause disequilibrium, and to channel the inherent curiosity that exists in all our learners.”

6. PBL is a great tool, but not a fail-safe.

In the same way that no textbook has a 100% success rate at teaching a concept, PBL is not a foolproof method. While it’s a powerful framework for diverse student groups, it’s not a cure-all. High-quality supplementary materials and awesome teaching are vital for great results.

“I think another major misconception about PBL is that it is better than direct instruction or other modes of teaching,” says Henderson. “This is absolutely not the case. In my practice, good PBL involves direct instruction. It needs lectures. It needs essay writing. It needs novel study. It needs field experience. It needs research in libraries and archives. It needs mentorship, experts, effective assessment, and everything else required for excellent teaching and learning. There can be a tendency to create false dichotomies in teaching, but good teaching equates to expertise, passion, relationships, and bringing it every day.”

7. Projects allow kids to do their work, not “our” work, and the results can be incredible.

Sometimes, you need to witness a group of kids united in a shared mission to appreciate the power of projects. Henderson had such an opportunity while working with a group of local youth to develop CKUW’s Radio Camp. This was one of his first teaching experiences, and a pivotal moment in his understanding of PBL.

“Given my inexperience with kids and with formal teaching, I really had no expectations. But what transpired was amazing,” he says. “Through the practice of making radio on a daily basis, these incredible kids were able to tell their stories, work side-by-side with caring and passionate adults, and develop their literacy skills for a real audience. I was blown away by how much we all learned. I was struck by how when young people are allowed to do their work, not our work, they are able to go deep into relevant content, develop incredible literacy skills, and fundamentally become transformed. And all of this learning was predicated on relationships.”

8. There’s no limit to what can be achieved with engaged students and educators.

Projects are collaborative by nature. When students and teachers come together, they can build anything—even another school.

“Three years ago, 60 learners and five adults came together to start the Maples Met School,” Matt recalls fondly. “The kids were given the opportunity to make their own school. While the educators set high expectations, the kids found their internships and mentors, they designed their projects, they planned their field experience, and set the tone for their learning community. The connections we have as a school community are deep and allow for rich learning. Everyone knows we have each other’s backs, but we also expect the best from each other. This was the ultimate student-driven project.”

Get more ideas for using PBL in your classroom – order Catch a Fire today.


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