In the last two years I started working with projects. It all started with online courses I took in the beginning of 2011 with UMBC called Teaching Young Learners and more to the end of the same year I took Methods II on Project\Problem-Based Learning with University of Oregon. In these courses, I developed projects for the courses themselves and tried to synchronize assigned course tasks and the ones in my teaching practice. In this post I will address some of the challenges posed by project based learning while working on some projects with my students.
In my opinion one of the greatest challenges of working with projects is the tight schedules we have in our institutions. As a result, instructors are generally expected to teach a certain amount of content within a given time frame. In my case, most of the content is broken into units and lessons. Therefore, teachers know what lesson to cover in a given class or week. Besides that, a teacher has to keep an eye on the incoming test date which serves as a sort of time tracker that informs them that they have to squeeze content within certain deadlines. To cope with this limitation, the best approach is to work on mini projects, on something that will not take up more than two consecutive classes. A second solution would involve assigning tasks as homework. Doing so, the instructor saves valuable class time and adds authenticity to a project.
A second challenge has to do with the syllabus itself and the textbooks we have to use. Most of the textbooks adopted by schools are content-based. Being a teacher myself, I know that some teachers would certainly agree that task-based course books would make the perfect match for a project-based learning approach. However, we do not always have the luxury of inhabiting such perfect worlds. Besides that, I have grown to believe that a task-based syllabus has its own limitations. To win the battle between content versus task, an instructor has to carefully plan tasks that smoothly integrate the content taught into projects he or she plans to carry out. So, for every piece of content, we should try to think of a realistic task that could be inserted into a mini project. This approach makes the content more palatable and gets learners involved into more authentic activities.
A third challenge is the sharing of these so-called mini projects. Therefore, once you and your students have invested some precious time and effort into something such as a class project, it seems reasonable to come up with a way for displaying\sharing the work done. If schedule is a little tight, it certainly poses some limitations to the usual group by group presentation scheme. A possible solution is publishing the final result on the web. Such approach allows for the class members and its immediate community (parents and classmates) to check the outcomes beyond the classroom walls. Besides that, when you decide for this mode of sharing you force your student and yourself to acquire twenty first century learning skills (publishing and all the skills associated with this task). Finally, sharing project outcomes on the web also makes learners aware of the importance of building and online presence and is a valuable opportunity to teaching netiquette (some basic rules for good online behavior).
As a final remark, I would like to point out that this short post is in no way a complete inventory of all the challenges an educator might face when working on projects. I have
just tried to address some of the problems I had to deal with in my specific context - the one of an EFL instructor teaching at a binational language center in Brasilia - Brazil. Nevertheless, I do recommend setting aside some of your class time to work on projects. It is really rewarding and it does change the way you and your students engage with content and learn.