Q&A: Teacher Maggie Kays on How Project-Based Learning Works in her Classroom

Project-based learning (PBL) is hardly a new idea. Learning by doing has long been hailed as a highly successful learning strategy, dating back to some of the greatest thinkers in human history. It was Aristotle who said, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them," and Confucius who believed, "Every truth has four corners: as a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three." You can still see these ideas continue to be practiced in the project-based learning classrooms today.

Educator Maggie Kays can attest to this. As a seventh grade, social studies teacher at Delhi Middle School in Cincinnati, Ohio, she's spent the past nine years utilizing project-based learning in her own classroom.

Throughout her career, she's had the opportunity to share her expertise at conferences all over the country, discussing her professional experience with standards-based learning and the project-based learning program she co-facilitates called Action Hour. Kays' speaking resume includes two Ohio Middle Level Association conferences, the Asia Society conference in Los Angeles and the Global Education Forum in Philadelphia.

School Outfitters talked to Kays about how she designs her projects, how project-based learning works in her school and what advice she'd give to anyone interested in implementing the learning strategy in their own classroom.

How do you define Project-based learning?

Project-based learning is a type of learning in which teachers act as facilitators and students are really in charge of their own learning. In project-based learning, students get to make choices about how they learn while they solve a problem and create products for authentic audiences.

How does PBL learning work in your school? What is the average class like for your students?

Each teacher is responsible for implementing PBL if they want. When I am working on a PBL unit with my students, the average class period might seem chaotic to an outsider. Students are often working together in self-selected groups. They are all working on different parts of the project at the same time. There is very little direct instruction. As the teacher and facilitator, I am moving between groups, helping students with obstacles and encouraging them when they need it.

How long did it take to implement PBL learning in your school? How did you start?

The first time I implemented a PBL unit, I co-taught it with another teacher. We had an idea to combine our classes and have our students work on a PBL unit. We spoke with our principal and shared our idea. He fully supported our work and we got started!

The first thing we did was to reach out to community members who would be affected by our project. A staff member from the Cincinnati History Museum at Union Terminal presented to our students. She shared with our students that the museum wanted to increase teen attendance. Our students came up with ways to get more teens to come to the museum. From there, our students took the lead. The Museum Center representative came back to see our students' presentations. After seeing what a powerful learning experience this was for our students, we both have continued to implement PBL in our classrooms.

What tools are needed to operate a successful PBL learning program?

Teachers really don't need any special tools to implement a PBL learning program. All teachers really need to do is give up a little bit of control, which can be difficult! It definitely helps to have easy, internet access for students. However, there are definitely PBL units that can be implemented without computers as well.

What goes into creating projects for students to complete?

In some ways, creating PBL experiences are easy! As a teacher, you have to create a problem or central idea for students. It has to be authentic and related to real world experiences. Students have to create something for an audience besides just the teacher. Once you have a central problem or idea and an audience, the students really take it from there!

However, this can definitely be easier said than done. It's hard to let students go and not give them every detail of what we are thinking. But it is in these experiences - where students fail, try again and experiment - that they truly grow and become lifelong learners.

How is your classroom designed to facilitate project-based learning?

Project-based learning definitely requires a student-focused learning environment. Instead of having desks all lined up and facing one direction, I have tables that seat 4 students at each. I also have some flex spaces in my room that allow students to spread out and work in bigger groups.

Can you talk about a project result that stands out to you?

My favorite PBL unit I've implemented is something called Action Hour. It grew out of the 20 percent classroom idea, where students are given 20 percent of the total class time each week to research anything at all that they are passionate about. I collaborated on this project with a colleague. It has now evolved into a project in which my students spend 1 hour each week researching a topic that breaks their heart. Then, they find a way to make a positive impact in that area.

In the three years since I have implemented this PBL, I have seen students who were unmotivated and uninterested in school find something that ignites their passion. They email me on weekends and make phone calls to places they want to help. They have invited all kinds of people to come hear about their project at an Action Hour Fair at the end of the year.

I have seen students who constantly feel like failures finally hold their head up high and greet a member of our board of education and ask them to sign a petition! It has truly been PBL that has changed my life and my students'.

Do students present their projects once they are finished? What is that process like?

The final presentation is an important part of PBL. Students must have an authentic audience to present to. The final presentation doesn't necessarily have to be in the form of a traditional presentation.

For example, in a Spanish class, students could create picture books in Spanish and read them to an elementary class in Mexico via Skype.

Our Action Hour students have chosen to create presentations to share at a fair each year. As long as the students buy into the authentic audience, the format of the presentation is not super important.

Why do you think your students have responded well to this style of teaching?

I think my students have responded well to this style of teaching because they are in control and they clearly see the value and application of their learning. Everyone likes to feel like they are making decisions about what is happening in their life.

When you implement PBL in your classroom, you are telling your students that you think they are capable decision makers who have something to say. It's incredibly empowering for students. It can also be really scary for them if they haven't had this kind of responsibility before. It's important to keep that in mind and keep encouraging them to push through obstacles. The results will be worth it for them - and for the teacher.

What were new costs associated with implementing PBL learning at your school? How did the school pay for it?

We really didn't have any new costs associated with implementing PBL the first time. I have co-written a grant to get money for Action Hour. These funds help us provide students with supplies that they may need to execute their ideas. The great thing about PBL is that it doesn-t necessarily require any monetary investment; any teacher can do it.

What advice would you give a principal or teacher who wants to start PBL learning in their school?

My advice would be - do it! Just do it! PBL is something that you just have to try to really understand how it will work for you. It can be scary because you're giving up a lot of control in your classroom. However, I promise - everything you and your students will gain when you take on a facilitator role and let students take over the learning - makes it so worth it!

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