I sat yesterday, sighing a sense of accomplishment as my children completed their final reflections for our first big project of the year. We embarked on a learning journey surrounding two- and three-dimensional shapes, identifying these in buildings around the neighborhood to eventually construct models, all as a result of our theme of getting to know ourselves, our school, our families, and our community.
The children named their buildings and cut out cards with pictures of various shapes, pasting them to the reflection to show which shapes, specifically, they saw within their respective buildings, citing rectangular prisms, cubes, cones, and hexagons, to name a few.
“This was hard!” one of them said to me. “It took us a really long time to do!”
“It did,” I replied. “But how good does it feel now that you’re done?”
“It feels great!” my little one retorted.
It did feel “great,” to say the least, but I wouldn’t say I had these same feelings just a week prior. In fact, it felt chaotic: the classroom was an absolute mess, conflicts erupted between group members, and we missed the originally proposed deadline for the project, causing us to move back our date for exhibition. I wasn’t even sure to what degree the children had learned the intended objectives for the unit, specifically with regard to identifying a variety of two- and three-dimensional shapes. My frustration mounted, and I was tempted to give up.
No one really tells you this about project-based learning, though. Few convey just how messy a student-driven process is, that it can be incredibly frustrating, or that it, quite possibly, requires more grit and resilience for the educators than it does for the children. Instead, you see the incredible products, the sense of community built around learning exhibitions, and the faces of excited children.
This frustrating cadence of events, however, was not unique to this project. It happens nearly every single time. I spend hours and hours preparing myself and the children for the project, anticipating misconceptions and setting up tools for executive functioning, intended to help children navigate the process quasi-independently. The beginning always feels so centered and grounded. Then individual children’s paths divulge, and I’m suddenly managing the chaos of twenty or more different learning journeys.
Yesterday, though, I witnessed the fruits of our labor, helping me to reflect on just what made this project-based experience so enriching for our children. I pulled up our baseline data, where our assessments suggested that students were able to identify only 9 of the 20 shapes (including basic shapes like squares and circles to more complex shapes like hexagons, trapezoids, and three-dimensional shapes). At the end of the unit, children were, on average, able to identify about 16 of the 20 shapes, showing upwards of a 70% increase in the number of shapes identified.
Through the chaos, I was also able to see the serendipitous opportunities for social and emotional learning. My co-teacher and I facilitated small social groups where we authentically navigated conflicts around collaboration and sharing materials; we thought aloud when students conquered obstacles, helping to perpetually build a sense of resilience and persistence throughout the course of the project; we helped them become metacognitive, connecting these foundational academic skills to this relevant and authentic experience.
It helped me see that this process–the process of not knowing, the process of resolving dissonance, the process of cleaning up the mess–was far more important than the products themselves. The products, while certainly something to be proud of, are but a snapshot, a brief moment in time, whereas the story we can tell through the projects is the true manifestation of the visceral and ever-evolving human condition of learning.
This is, perhaps, project-based learning’s most unsung strength. Project-based learning, by nature and by name, connotes that the project sits at the center–that it is very literally based in the project–but we forget that we don’t commit to project-based learning for the content or the project itself. We, instead, put the practice of PBL on a pedestal because it immerses children in the process of learning, helping them navigate tricky situations, all the while engendering a literacy for the world within them, incorporating foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
The project itself simply functions as an artifact: a culmination of moments, both serendipitous and intentionally planned, that convey a narrative of the learning process. It provides us a reference point through which we can have the very reflective conversations I mentioned earlier, helping children and educators alike witness the role of persistence and resilience in building a lifelong love for learning. There is, in fact, a magic to project-based learning, one that can neither be fully described nor quantified through objective data; its almost entirely intuitive and emotional, but it is, without a doubt, there to be witnessed.