Then and Now: Project Based Learning

Part two of a three part series (Click here for Part I):  How I implemented Project-Based Learning in my first year of teaching with minimal tech and how I do it now in a 1:1 environment. This small little series will look at different learning strategies, how I implemented them year 1 of teaching (with minimal technology) and year 12 teaching (with 1:1) and reflect on what has changed and what has stayed the same.

Year 1, Grade 9 Geography at St. Joseph Academy in Brownsville, Texas, 2001,

The defining moment of my first year of teaching was September 11th. I’ve blogged about what that day felt like and when I close my eyes I can put myself back in that classroom quite easily. As anyone who survived first year of teaching can tell you, it’s impossible to make it through first year without making a lot of mistakes. But one thing I did right was after 9/11 I threw out the curriculum and spent several weeks learning with my students about Afghanistan. This was perhaps my first practice of project based learning. I checked out any book in our small library that mentioned Afghanistan. I printed up stuff from the internet*. And then my grade 9 students did a project about Afghanistan. From what I remember**, I came up with some questions but students also could come up with their own. Prior to 9/11 my own knowledge of Afghanistan was limited. However, I did know that I needed to build empathy for the people of Afghanistan with my students as I saw the rhetoric become an Us vs. Them in the days after 9/11.  Some focused on physical geography, others history, some looked at the situation of women, others looked at education. I don’t know how we found the information, but we made it work. They created oral presentations with some visual support (printed in the computer lab). It was important work, it was messy, it was student-driven and it was chaotic. But it was some of my best teaching. And a real turning point in my teaching philosophy. I started to believe that I could let the students control their own learning and I didn’t always have to know everything. This is a big lesson for a first year teacher.

And as I look at the Buck Institute for Education requirements for project-based learning, I think First-Year-Teacher-Me stumbled across PBL.

  • Recognize students’ inherent drive to learn, their capability to do important work, and their need to be taken seriously by putting them at the center of the learning process. CHECK
  • Engage students in the central concepts and principles of a discipline. The project work is central rather than peripheral to the curriculum. CHECK
  • Highlight provocative issues or questions that lead students to in-depth exploration of authentic and important topics. CHECK
  • Use performance-based assessments that communicate high expectations, present rigorous challenges, and require a range of skills and knowledge. CHECK
  • Encourage collaboration in some form, either through small groups, student-led presentations, or whole-class evaluations CHECK

Year 12, Grade 6-9 Humanities at Yokohama International School,  Yokohama, Japan 2012

I try to have my class be as project based as possible. I’ve blogged a lot about different projects I’ve done and if you walk into my classroom it’s often messy, chaotic, but (hopefully) important work is going on. For the most part, projects don’t come at the end of a unit of study but are actually how my students learn the concepts in humanities. But new technology has added several new layer to my work.

1) Research is harder. After 9/11 we had about seven books and Wikipedia was in its infancy. That limited scope of research made it easier to process all the information. I know that after the March 11th earthquake we were almost paralyzed by all the different information coming from so many different places. With project based learning, my job is to help facilitate research and help student evaluate the validity of the sources. This is much harder now. And probably one of the most important things I do.

2) My students now have an audience. In my mind a good project is one my students want to share. They do a lot of work on their projects and if it’s not worth sharing, then its been a waste of time***. Moreover, the best project is one they share because by sharing they can make a difference.


I spent a lot of my first year teaching trying to control things, probably because I felt out of control so much of the time. I enforced dressed code assiduously. I was uptight about how they turned in their work, how they stapled their work, and when they were allowed to leave their chairs. I did lots of tests that had kids memorizing random facts and lots of busy work. But I also integrated projects and I experimented with different ways of teaching. I truly believe my students liked my class, I know I loved my students, and I was the best teacher I could be. I do also think First-Year-Teacher-Me would be appalled at how slack I now appear. But in the chaos that is M103, I have a mission and an plan and I am by no means out-of-control in my class. I’m no more perfect now that I was as a first year teacher, but I am still working hard, experimenting, and focusing on my students’ learning. And I truly believe my teaching philosophy comes from my experiences as a first year teacher, struggling to teach students about what was going on in the world.


* According to Wikipedia history the first wikipedia entry on Afghanistan was November 2001. So I’m not entirely sure what I printed up.

**Again, seriously annoying I don’t have any evidence that I can easily lay my hands on.

***What they share can be different each time. It doesn’t have to be the whole project, but at least an aspect of their work should be “sharable”.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
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4 Responses to Then and Now: Project Based Learning

  1. alexguenther says:

    Great post! I agree with your point that research is in some ways harder than it used to be for students. I think for them it’s often basically Olympic Hide and Seek
    And I do think helping students navigate research is definitely one of the most important things teachers do now.

    …You know, after all these years I’ve just realized I still know almost nothing at all about Afghanistan.

  2. Pingback: Then and Now: Game Based Learning | Rebekah Madrid

  3. This is why you’re an awesome teacher.

  4. Grace Yamato says:

    As I have moved toward more Project-based learning, I often think about, “how do students view me as a teacher?” Because education is changing, more and more teachers are lecturing less and leading students into enquiry and project-based learning environments, but how do students view teachers who don’t lecture and they don’t take notes and memorize facts? I hope students appreciate the effort that it takes for a teacher to plan a PBL lesson and not think the teacher is unprepared or unknowledgeable in their subject area because the student is more engaged in their own learning. But I don’t know if students really get it yet that there is a good reason for this new direction.

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