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Enhancing the “L” in PBL

Implementing Project-Based Learning for the first time can be a daunting and confusing process. It is challenging and often hard to know where to start in terms of what to include, who to teach it, and what learning outcomes students will achieve. With effective guidance, well-planned resources, and professional development, staff can gain the confidence to tackle any challenges that may arise.

At Epping Boys High School, a large comprehensive boys’ school in Sydney’s North-West, a purely Project-Based Learning elective subject was offered at Stage 5 (Years 9 & 10) for the first time in 2020. The purpose was to offer a different-themed elective, aiming to incorporate STEM components and focus on developing 21st century skills that are essential to learning in today’s world. Our subject, Innovative Solutions, ensures students develop their collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills. The teaching and learning program must include a range of tasks that vary from explicit teaching through to inquiry-based group presentations. As we teach this elective over four terms, we are lucky to have clearly divided “projects” each term, and within this we have sufficient time to incorporate both explicit teaching and discovery learning.

Jaye Dunn - Team Leader (Enrichment and Engagement)

Explicitly teaching content

A common misconception with PBL is that it is entirely student led. At Epping, however, we found that explicit teaching was crucial to equip students with the knowledge to tackle the project with certainty. A clearly constructed teaching and learning program is therefore the first essential tool to have in place. Our recommendation is to backward map and have the final product (or at least, parameters for what the product must be, have, or do) decided on and communicated to students from the start to ensure students know what they are working towards.

Students building their skills to use in the prototyping stage

It is important to give the students a clear direction and the ability to understand how the entire project fits together and what the end result will look like. This also helps structure the students’ inquiry process to help them develop questions which are more relevant to the project and to the content which is to be taught. By identifying the gap between what they know now and what they will need to know to solve the problem or fulfil the project brief, this creates the space for the teaching and discovery of knowledge to help them progress.

Using the “need to know” list from student inquiry as a basis, teachers gain a clearer understanding of what needs to be explicitly taught and how the students’ inquiry questions map to the content that needs to be covered across a unit. If you are running PBL in an ‘elective’, like we did, it is advised that the teacher/s select content to explicitly teach that is not directly covered in other subjects.

For example, in the mining PBL unit at Epping Boys High School, we created models and posters of the rock cycle and explicitly taught students about the processes involved in mining extraction. Within this we used real life examples of mines in operation that can be imitated by students in the eventual design of their own ‘sustainable’ mine – part of their end product - and to encourage innovation as students have the depth of knowledge needed to approach the ideation part of the project with confidence.

Additionally, when deciding on what and when to explicitly teach, we recommend a deliberate incorporation of hands-on activities that give students something different to the structured group inquiry-based tasks. Some of the more highly successful examples were creating mine cross-sections on Google Earth, bringing physical examples of minerals such as coal to class (and then examining the geological process through which it was formed), general lessons on debating skills and the regular use of media articles both as fact providers and exemplar models in the use of persuasive language (which was was helpful in preparing students for the final presentation of a public awareness campaign). Lastly, when planning, it is suggested that teachers alternate lessons between project and explicit teaching to give a broad and differentiated curriculum. This is successful in increasing engagement and keeping students interested and excited about what is coming next.

Students conducting an experiment to simulate a mining technique

Engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate

At Epping, the teaching program incorporates expert teaching from a Social Science and Science teacher and each lesson has the following structure - Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate - using a variety of teaching styles and learning activities.

  • Engage activities act as a hook and introduction to the content. This may be an exploration of key definitions, a group discussion to incite interest, or analysis of one aspect of the real-world problem;

  • Explore guides students through an examination of the content by engaging in practical activities; examples include using microscopes to inspect minerals and rocks as part of our PBL unit on mining;

  • Explain gives students the depth of information, often explicitly taught, that is required to understand the topic further and transfer knowledge to the project;

  • Elaborate takes the key concepts a little further by consolidating knowledge using diagrams and visible learning strategies; and

  • Evaluate has students consider where this information can be used in their project and answer questions to conundrums posed by teachers to further encourage critical and transfer thinking.

Explicitly teaching ‘soft’ skills

The essential skills of collaboration, communication and time management can also be explicitly taught to students. PBL is often a team activity and thus a contract between team members is essential at the start of the Project. The development of expectations within each group is the responsibility of team members. This gives students a sense of ownership and encourages thinking about what makes a good team member. In addition, it fosters collaboration which is a vital skill for learning at school and beyond.

Group dynamics cannot be underestimated in a PBL setting. This has been highlighted at Epping due to the broad range of students selecting Innovative Solutions, thus requiring a good mix of ability and skillset within each team. Having a strong group leader is an important element for organisation and a positive group experience. It is recommended that teachers select one student per team as a group leader at the outset.

In addition to Innovative Solutions, Epping Boys High School offers an Enrichment Stream in Stage 4 where students participate in a cross-curriculum PBL opportunity. Within this project, key 21st century skills are taught through a range of carefully constructed tasks. These include lessons on the importance of thinking and how to think; time management and collaboration; written, verbal and persuasive communication and data collection and analysis. The different lesson outcomes are visible and relevant to students. Project success is determined by both individual and group performance in relation to the final product.

Project-Based Learning is essential both within and in tandem to traditional learning. It offers students an opportunity that is uniquely different in its ability to embed meaningful work with the development of real-life skills and mastery. At Epping Boys High School, a combination of teacher passion, engagement and carefully planned learning programs has led to PBL being successful and a challenge worth embarking on, both for educators and students.

Jaye Dunn is the Team Leader - Enrichment and Engagement and a Social Science teacher at Epping Boys High School. Mitchell Leggo is the STEM Coordinator and a Science Teacher at Epping Boys High School.

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