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What are the enablers and challenges to using a project-based learning approach in the classroom?

Here, Lisa Aitken – a learning designer and educator at the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at University of Technology Sydney – shares findings from her research.

In my time working with schools to support teachers in using a project-based learning (PBL) approach, I have seen many success stories – but also many tired and frustrated teachers.

I carried out research with 25 NSW schools and 135 teachers in the state, looking at the enablers and challenges for teachers using the PBL approach, with the aim to uncover how we can further support teachers to try using more inquiry-based pedagogy.

PBL is different to traditional methods of teaching in that the teacher takes on the role of facilitator and learning is a more collaborative, hands-on process driven by real-world connection. It uses authentic projects as vehicles to encourage deeper learning through collaboration and extended inquiry, and culminates in a final product or event.

What were the challenges?

The study uncovered that the more challenges teachers identified, the less frequently they used PBL. It also found that a teacher’s self-efficacy impacted the number of perceived challenges acknowledged.

The most frequently cited challenges in the quantitative questions included:

  • Lack of time to collaborate with colleagues;
  • Lack of access to technology;
  • Lack of resources;
  • Students lacking maturity to fully take part in PBL; and,
  • Lack of time to properly implement.

What were the enablers?

Ninety comments related to the theme ‘school support’ (including support from principal and school leadership team), the school culture, school plan and a feeling of autonomy over the pedagogy used.

Professional development also featured highly in the teacher comments. Collaboration was mentioned by a large proportion of survey participants. Finally, several teachers indicated that resources were enabling in their PBL programs. Most comments related to access to technology.

Less common enablers included individual teacher factors such as knowledge and enthusiasm, student factors such as interest and engagement, and classroom-based supports including specific subject syllabus suitability.

Implications for leaders and teachers

The survey data suggest there are several things school leaders and teachers can do to make it easier to adopt PBL in the classroom:

  • Prioritise time for teacher collaboration;
  • Build PBL into school plans and discuss at faculty meetings;
  • Consider how teacher efficacy can be developed through mastery of PBL;
  • Keep in mind that PBL can be a new way of learning and thinking for students;
  • Trust in your teachers;
  • If technology is an issue, consider using mobile phones as a source of technology or assign roles within groups responsible for researching or using technology;
  • Look into quality professional development;
  • Think outside the box for resources, you may be surprised how many people want to help;
  • Think about what motivates students at your school and tap into that. You could interview students or even co-design assessments or curricula;
  • Have fun with designing real world-based learning. It's an opportunity for you as an educator to get creative. Showcase what you and your students have produced.

This research has helped me to develop professional development that supports teachers to overcome some of the challenges in using PBL. This has also informed our Inspiring Teaching blog that shares teacher practice providing links to real world opportunities, inspiration for projects and shares how educators use innovative practice in schools.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit www.teachermagazine.com.au.