Five Reasons Why Project Based Learning Works for My Students at Lower Levels

01 July 2016

Before we get into the *power of PBL*, this is a good time to remind you that I'm a special education teacher in an K-5 elementary building. I work with a wide variety of students with disabilities (learning and nonspecific) in their classes, my resource room, small group, and one-to-one. I teach with a variety of different tools, from replacement curriculum (direct instruction) to additional identified supports (reading fluency, comprehension, math) with supplemental content and base skills (per grade level). I've had students describe me a a multi-tasker.

Over the past few years I've been including more project based learning activities because I found it was a better way to reach my students and change their focus/mindset for positive outcomes.  Project based learning allowed students to focus on their strengths, which changing their entire mindset for learning. I'm a firm believer that project based learning is crucial for "lower level" learners because it allows students to think differently than how they are normally asked to and be successful (in a nontraditional way). 

Here are five reasons why project based learning works with my students, who learn at a lower levels (or receive special education services, or have an IEP, or are just those kids on the cusp that we're trying to reach). Honestly, there's a lot more reasons but these are the most crucial for my students.

PBL is Differentiation
The big buzz word: differentiation!  Yeah, I said it.  Project based learning allows my students to learn the same content but at different speeds and different depths. You might have some students gathering information from videos while others are reading doctor journals (maybe not that far advanced) but the students (and sometimes you) are deciding how they want to attack their own learning.

How do we hit all kids? How do we make it fair to all kids?  These are some of the tough questions that we face when we teach typical classes.  Well, PBL takes some of the guesswork out of it, asking students to problem solve, create, and research the best way they see fit.

PBL is Self-Paced
Many of our students who learn at lower levels have difficulty keeping up with pace.  Whether its reading speed, comprehension, or whatever--it doesn't matter.  If you're using PBL activities, you're basically letting the students pace themselves and take in content at their own speed. 

I cannot impress upon you how important it is for students to comprehend material at their own speed, not our preferred teaching speed. Right Now!--doesn't work for my kids.  Sometimes it's got to be a slow burn. If we give them the tools and the time, it will make their learning more meaningful. Allowing students to pace themselves is crucial and extremely rewarding.


PBL Can Focus Content 
I love that PBL focuses on content.  It's not always about how fast they can read at grade level or how many math problems they can solve in a minute. It's about the content, and understanding it, and then applying their knowledge.

I've had kids completely shut down (in the classroom or my room) because everything was based on skills, so I've made a fundamental shifts in how I approach students.  There's time for skills and skill building--but there needs to be time for content.  There has to be time for content--expand those life skills!

PBL Levels the Playing Field
Kids who learn at a lower level (whether they receive special education services or are just on the cusp) survive in school because they've learned to adapt, mask, and problem solve better than most kids. Their adaptation skills are strong and they evolve (wait, I don't know if I can use that word).

Then you've got some of the higher level (or above average) students who haven't had to struggle.  Many of these kids don't posses problem solving skills because they haven't had too. They are solely lacking in ability when asked to think outside the box or without limits.

This is where project based learning levels the playing field for everyone. Everyone's equal because everyone brings a different strength to work from.  PBL rewards those kids that problem solve and imagine. My kind of kids! Your lower level kids can thrive in this environment because they're accustomed to taking risks, finding shortcuts/work arounds, and problem-solving.  I can't tell you how many times I have talented and gifted students come up and ask the most specific questions because they're unaccustomed to thinking outside the box. They need each step spelled out and don't know what to do.

PBL is High Engagement
I want my students engaged.  I want them interested, intrigued, and asking questions like to find out more.  I want them to go home excited about school, telling their family how stock markets, running a business, and creating inventions relate to class work. Allowing my students to work in a PBL-format is critical for energizing their interests. I create lessons specifically tailored around my student's interests. Finding out a student's interest and developing a PBL activity about it is one of my favorite things to do.

Case in Point: Over the past few years I've had students obsessed with monsters.  Some of those students absolutely despised writing, so I had to develop project based learning activities that would engaged those kids so much, they didn't care they were writing.  In fact, when we were all done they wrote more in that three week PBL then they did their entire fourth grade year.  At the end, one student looked at me, beaming with pride, and asked, "can we do more?" Engage the student.
If you can't tell, I'm a firm believer in the power of project based learning (both in my classroom and yours).  I love the options it give the teachers, the flexibility for the students, plus the ability to bring real-world situations into a classroom.

Project based learning can come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone does it differently based on their class and teaching style. If you're looking to start it, but aren't sure where to begin check out my top ten tips to get started in your classroom.  


If you'd like to check out some of the projects that I use with my students, click on either link below.  It'll take you to my store, where each PBL is displayed and you can find more information.





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4 comments:

  1. Awesome tips, and so clear that they come from someone with such enormous experience with both project based learning and kids with different needs. Thanks, Matt!

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  2. Awesome post! I nodded along the entire time. My Dhh students are *those* kids. I am off to check out your PBL resources.

    Kelly

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  3. AMEN and well put!!! I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks for such a motivating post. Every teacher needs to read this :)
    Julie
    The Techie Teacher

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  4. This is great! Teaching 5th grade science has been a natural fit for Project-Based Learning in my classroom - but I've observed that it works well in ALL subjects! It works because, as you noted, it allows for natural differentiation and authentic connection to the passions and curiosities of each unique student. Instead of assuming every child is the same and will receive content in the same way, PBL grants students agency and ownership in their own learning. Have you heard of Expeditionary Learning yet? It is the model our school is moving toward - kind of like PBL-plus! You should check it out!

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