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6 Ways to Guide Students to More Authentic Work in PBL

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While many educators agree that authenticity is a core feature of project-based learning (PBL), many of us have different ideas about what it looks like in practice. Fundamentally, something is true (or not) in relation to other references. For PBL, we can view references along several different aspects of the project, such as characters, issues, products, audience, impact, and our students themselves.
1. Support students to play real roles
Rather than maintaining traditional student roles, PBL has the potential to position students in other real and meaningful roles. Students can take on the role of mathematicians, creating mathematical models to make predictions, or become investigative journalists to identify and vet sources as they piece together a puzzle and spread a story. However, simply telling students that they are playing real characters does not make them feel real. To make it a reality, students need to be supported in doing the real work of these roles.

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For example, it is important for students to learn how to make predictions and observations like a scientist, or critically analyze primary sources like a historian. Teachers can model these practices, help students break them down, make them more accessible, create plenty of practice opportunities, and provide continuous feedback to students as they practice doing real work within their roles. What role do you support students in your next course project?
2. Encourage students to explore problems and questions
A complex problem, driving problem, interesting conundrum, or confusing dilemma drives PBL. In considering the actual work of historians, students might explore what really happened in the past. For example, students can learn what happened in Tulsa during the 1921 Tulsa Genocide by looking at firsthand accounts.
In playing the real-life role of an engineer, students can explore how to design a product that meets a need, such as how to create a compost bin to help the school deal with organic waste. If we want students to go into real jobs, then we need to support them to explore real issues and problems.
3. Make sure students create real products
While many forms of education require students to consume information and then share it with their teachers, PBL empowers students to design, create and produce — developing their knowledge and skills in the process. A typical PBL project might end up with a demo as the final product; However, traditional presentation may not be the truest product choice. Teachers can think more broadly about alternative products that are more in tune with the roles and issues students are exploring.
When students are exposed to the real practices of scientists, they can conduct real scientific investigations with real scientific findings. As photojournalists, students can create a photo essay that captures compelling images and conveys complex information. As political activists, students can make real policy proposals for their student union.
4. Encourage students to build relationships
Project-based learning is not only disconnected from students’ life experiences, but has the potential to bring their whole selves to work. Projects can create clear opportunities for students to draw on their own experiences, perspectives and values. Even if students are exploring the same fundamental issues and moving toward a common set of broad learning goals, PBL can create space and opportunities for them to explore how they are personally connected to the project.
To do this, students can choose a specific topic to explore or create products, or use their project experience to examine their own beliefs and values on a specific issue or problem. For example, in an English language arts program, students can create written works based on their own experiences and interests.
5. Promote impact on real audiences
In many classrooms, the only audience for students’ work is their teacher, and the only influence is grades or teacher feedback. In PBL driven classrooms, students can create products that have a real impact on real communities.