Be a Catalyst! Reflections on Project-Based Learning

I remember standing in a glass corridor as one of my university professors mapped out the various pathways of the human brain on the window. We’d just bumped into each other in the hall and I had expressed frustration with the project he had assigned for that term; it was 2006, and for our Digital Humanities course, Dr. Kee had assigned us the task of constructing a hypertext essay in which we were expected to take an essay we had written for another course and argue all the other sides of the thesis. In addition, we had to present the information in such a way that the reader could navigate through the material in any order they wished and get to a logical conclusion based on the path that they found most compelling.

Dr. Kee smiled and explained the various ways different people make connections and how technology has restructured how young people think. He said that readers should be able to start anywhere in the ‘essay’ and follow paths based on what they find interesting, with no linear guidance from the author. It blew my mind. I remember thinking that I would have to unlearn everything I knew about writing– especially writing for instructional purposes.

In this process, readers would be intrinsically motivated to learn because they had the ability to move through the content in a way that matched their curiosity– much like surfing the web and getting side-tracked by interesting information.  Only in this case, they would be side-tracked by going deeper into the content that was of interest to them.   Their unique experiences and brain process would dictate the order in which they would select and absorb the material, or would prompt the reader to recover more information before they moved forward.

What a cool way to write for various levels and keep students engaged!  I’ve used this concept of non-linear communication in the courses that I write for Hekademia, but the real take-away for me was my engagement in the project itself.

That project was a game changer for me (or as Kevin Caroll would say, a catalyst in my life).  It rewired the way I think about communication.  I spent all of my free time creating a website that would present information to my readers without leading them through my thought process.  It was hard and uncomfortable, but I learned a lot.  It was a turning point for me, because now I ensure that students are engaging in non-linear project-based learning in every course I design.

For example, in a history course I’m working on, I have students design a museum website focusing on a historical period and topic of their choice for their final project.  They use (or a website builder of their choice). Throughout the course, students add various components to the website, such as a twitter feed with posts relating to their chosen time period, a blog post about historical commemoration, an artifact showcase and analysis, and an online special exhibit.  They conduct interviews with experts in the field, and/or people who lived through the event, and complete a career opportunities page, outlining various roles historians play in everyday life.  The project allows choice and gets students to invest in a meaningful task that can be added to their online portfolio.

I was struck by the scope of awesome project-based learning ideas from the educators presenting at ISTE.  Harlem High School in Illinois had students create documentaries of WWII Veterans in conjunction with a State-wide oral history project.  Students chose a war veteran based on their interviews, and spent time with them and their families.  They felt an immense sense of responsibility to tell the Veteran’s story well and chose to work through weekends to complete the project.  That’s intrinsic motivation.

Erin Klein from Michigan emphasized rewarding good questions and allowing students to research their passions– ask them what they want to share with people.  This is valuable at any age.  Then, have students share it in a blog, on YouTube, or on their website.  The take-away message at ISTE was: “if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”  Have students share their project and invite debate.  This is the essence of critical thinking.

These projects allow students to build knowledge and skills by following their own thinking process.  The element of creativity involved ignites the intrinsic motivation that every educator hopes for.  We engage in project-based learning all the time when we create lessons and projects.  Invite your students to participate in this process.

Please share your ideas for project-based learning below!


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