I love project based learning! When I started teaching over 25 years ago most of the curriculum that I was given consisted of flipping to the next two-pages in the textbook and working the problems that I selected. Not satisfied with this approach to teaching math, I was soon on the hunt for powerful math activities and projects that would infuse life into my math classroom. More on that quest in a moment.
Pendulum Swings of Curriculum Change
I’ve taught middle school math long enough to have been through several pendulum swings of curriculum change. From strictly using a traditional textbook to using a math book that was filled with activities but did not strengthen student’s basic skills, and everything in between, I’ve been there. While it is imperative for students to have a strong foundation in basic math skills, it is also very important for them to participate in meaningful, project based learning.
Benefits of Project Based Learning
Project based learning places mathematics into a context that is more meaningful to students. Instead of just solving a group of isolated problems in a textbook, students are involved in math work that carries them toward the project goal. Students are stretched intellectually when they have to take their math skills and apply them to a task or a problem. Such mathematical thinking is more difficult than solving isolated problems, but I believe that project based learning produces more interest on the part of students and a deeper sense of satisfaction when the project is completed.
Project based learning also promotes mathematical dialogue among students and often encourages students to work together. Teachers know that powerful learning can take place when students are able to clarify their thinking by talking to other students. Sometimes a student can share their thinking in a way that makes more sense to another student than what the teacher has said. Such communication is a part of working together, a skill that students will need as they eventually find themselves a part of the work force.
The main benefit of project based learning is that it allows students to learn at a deeper level as they make connections and practice mathematical skills in a real-life context.
The Results of My Search for Project Based Activities
As I mentioned earlier, as a beginning teacher it was important to me to find powerful math projects and activities that placed student math skills in a meaningful context and allowed the students to more fully engage with math. I found a few but I ended up creating many of them on my own. Sometimes I took an idea that I had seen and built up on it to create an activity that I was happy with. The result was the creation of this website, DigitalLesson.com.
DigitalLesson has given me the opportunity to share math games, lessons, and projects with middle school math teachers all over the world. It makes my day to receive an email from a teacher telling me how one of my lessons made a positive impact in their classroom.
Three of My Favorite Middle School Math Projects
The Amateur Architect Fraction Project is my favorite math project of all time. The project requires students to solve fraction operation problems to determine the dimensions for a house and a garage. Then, using the ruler skills practiced before the project began, students construct the house and garage on paper. They center windows, draw angles, partition the garage door, etc. Amateur Architect is a powerful fraction application and a welcome change from skill based lessons.
The Royal Reward Geometry Project is a group project, embedded in the context of a story, which requires students to find the area and perimeter of polygons, classify polygons, measure angles, investigate the sum of the interior angles of various polygons, and use the concept of scale. It is an engaging way for students to apply their geometry skills.
The Stained Glass Window Graphing Project is a project that requires students to graph linear equations in order to create a colorful (yet mathematical) display window. Each student selects and graphs at least twelve linear equations from the equation bank to create their own unique stained glass window. This visual/kinesthetic project will help students to clearly identify the equations of horizontal and vertical lines and to easily distinguish between positive and negative slope. Key graphing vocabulary can also be developed during the project.
The Teacher’s Role in Project Based Learning
The teacher’s role in projects, like those I mentioned above, is to be a facilitator and an expert who can help students to progress and to clarify their thinking. By guiding students and asking them questions the teacher can lead students to a successful and powerful mathematics experience. The teacher’s role is NOT to do the work for the students or just tell them the answers.
The Bottom Line with Project Based Learning
Project based learning can be more relevant and interesting to our students than another problem set out of the textbook. It puts mathematics into context, encourages students to collaborate, and fosters deeper learning. It can also be fun and challenging for students.
What is your experience with project based learning in the classroom? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. First time commenters will be moderated so it may be a few hours before I have the chance to look at the comment.