Home Project Based Learning Bringing Project Based Learning to Life in the Social Studies Classroom

Bringing Project Based Learning to Life in the Social Studies Classroom



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Project Based Learning can Enhance Learning in any Subject – Here we Check out an Approach for Social Studies

Most adults today, even many educators, were never exposed to project-based learning during their own schooling years. And so, it can be a bit hard to grasp the concept and to understand its benefits. After all, there is a curriculum timeline to meet, and certain knowledge and skills that kids must master; there are those tests coming in the spring.

The world of technology is changing what we really need to teach kids in school. Unfortunately, it seems that our state legislators and testing “gurus” haven’t gotten the memo yet. We are still trying to fit our schooling into old non-tech and non-reality-based models, when we should be preparing kids for the skills they will need to become lifelong learners and meet the demands of a workplace that is changing more rapidly than we can adjust to. If you want to know the contributions of the ancient Babylonians to society, you don’t need to memorize them and spit them out for a teacher. You can get online and find that information in minutes.

Here’s Where Project-Based Learning Comes In

In the grand scheme of teaching and learning, a project-based model is a relatively new innovation, and most student’s school projects, like making a poster, writing a report, etc., are not project-based learning. Perhaps the closest we come to project-based learning in our schools today are the annual science fair projects that some of our students participate in.

Here are the elements of real project-based learning:

  • They provide student with experience in solving real world problems
  • Curriculum is structured around themes and projects
  • Problems to be solved are multi-step and often involve complex questions with more than a simple concrete answer
  • Students are forced to conduct real research and engage in both critical thinking and trial and error approaches
  • Projects involve teams of students working together who become responsible for their own learning.
  • Projects are NOT used as a means to reinforce teaching and learning that has occurred – they ARE the teaching and the learning.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Most of the benefits have already been cited. But here they are enumerated.

  1. They bring the academic world into the real world. Our society and its technology-based work place means that work is largely completed through projects. Whether it is developing new banking software or designing a “smart” city, these are the work environments in which our kids will have to operate. Developing expertise in problem-solving is what project-based learning is all about.
  2. Project-based learning assists students in developing critical interpersonal skills. In their future work places, they will have to relate to a diverse community. Learning to communicate, to delegate, to resolve disagreements, and to compromise are key skills.
  3. Students gain real world experience in high-level time management, especially when tasks are delegated, must be monitored, and benchmarks met. Gaining skills in taking long-term projects and breaking them down into manageable chunks is a critical skill for adult success.

Incorporating Project-Based Learning into the Social Studies Classroom

Social studies is an excellent curriculum for project-based learning. Whether it is formulating solutions to world hunger, climate change, or answering a critical question, such as the purposes and goals of the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict, each project must begin with a question to be investigated and answered. The answer is then presented in any number of ways – a play, a video, artwork, music, a podcast, etc.

The Role of the Teacher

Teachers must understand that the success of any project-based learning results from careful and thorough planning. Simply throwing students into groups with a question and a deadline is not project-based learning. At the same time, micro-managing every step of the way defeats the purpose of such an activity. There is a lot of pre-planning, however, so that students have very clear understandings of what they are to accomplish, the resources to be used, the benchmarks, and the expected product.

Dividing students into teams for their projects should be a teacher decision, and the reasons are obvious. Diversity of personalities and talents/skills need to be spread as evenly as possible among the groups – something that ensures a more equal opportunity for all groups to meet with success and that fosters developing relationships with those with whom students might not normally associate.

Example History Project – Hunger

The Hunger Games has been a wildly popular film series, spanning 2012-2015. But hunger is not a game, as so much of history tells us. It is real and it impacts the social, economic, and political stability of entire nations, sometimes the world.

  1. Teacher-Directed Introduction: Explanation of hunger; hunger statistics; periods of history during which hunger impacted domestic and international affairs (Depression, Potato Famine in Ireland, revolutions, etc.); hunger today. Many students may be surprised to learn that 14 million children in the U.S. face food insecurity.
  2. The Project: Each group will decide upon a project that provides solutions to hunger. The most ambitious project would be solutions to world hunger; however, most groups will select an option of solutions for individual countries. Their options might include the one of the top 10 countries where hunger is an issue or hunger in the U.S., which is not one of these 10.
  3. The project will involve thorough and detailed research into their selection and then a considered and structured problem-solving process to determine potential solutions. Solutions must be plausible and long-term.
  4. Options for presentation can be given, within certain boundaries. A written report should not be an option. Art or music projects, plays, animated videos, movies, podcasts, “interviews,” etc. are all options. There can also be co-curricular activities, if the scheduling structure is conducive.
  5. Rubric Assessment: A rubric should be provided to students so that they understand the expectations and the factors of evaluation.

Justification of PBL Relative to Curricular Requirements

One of the things that deters teachers from project-based learning is the concern that not all of the adopted curriculum will be “covered” if time is taken for PBL. Interestingly, when teachers begin to plan these projects, they discover that there are many curricular goals that are met, especially critical thinking skills that are now built into all course performance objectives. State-wide curricular goals and learner outcomes are often even less specific and lean towards such statements as, “Students will develop an understanding of and appreciation for the diversity of peoples of the world” – objective met by the hunger project, at least partially.

Releasing Control

It is hard for many teachers to institute project-based learning on a regular basis. Part of the reason is that they grew up in classrooms of high dependency upon the teacher. We tend to feel that we are not doing our jobs if we are not in the front of the classroom with our smart boards, controlling what happens every minute of instructional time. It is much like a parent, allowing a child to walk to the bus stop for the first time. It’s hard to let go. But let go we must.

Our kids face an unknown future. We have to give them the tools to be independent learners and problem-solvers, or we are preparing them for dysfunctional futures as adults. No one will really care if they remember the order of the Amendments to the Constitution. If it’s important, they will look it up. What people, including future employers, will care about is their ability to engage in critical thinking and to have mental processes in place to engage in thoughtful problem-solving. PBL can be a great way to give students experience with those skills, while achieving desired learning outcomes.




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