Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustin said, “Most innovations today involve large teams of people. We have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and with people from different cultures” (Wallis and Stepton 2006). Project-based instruction in ESL is a way to develop these skills, since it includes working in teams, communicating, and getting along with people from different backgrounds.
In the November 2006 Ventures enewsletter, Jan Jarrell wrote an article called, “Promising Practices to Promote Retention: Results of a Case Study Conducted by the San Diego Centers for Education and Technology (SDCCD).” Jarrell described a survey given to instructors (and their students) who had high-retention classes on why they thought they had high retention. One of the questions to the teachers was, “What do your students love?” Some of the answers were “Special projects," "Group work," "Being treated like adults.” Another question was, “What, in your opinion, accounts for high retention in your class?" Some of the answers were “Students feel good about themselves," "The lessons are useful" "They build self-esteem.” A question to the students was, “What do you like about your class?” One of the answers was, “Our class is like a family.” Another question to students was, “Your class has good attendance. Why do you think that is true?” A common answer was, “Many activities and interesting topics.”
The answers given by these instructors and their students are some of the components of project-based learning. What is project-based learning (PBL)? How does it relate to persistence? How does it help students succeed in the workplace and larger community? In this article, I will define PBL and how it relates to persistence and the workplace. I will also discuss some of the misconceptions about PBL that I have heard in the field.
What is project-based learning (PBL)?
PBL is a process that: can result in a variety of products or outcomes; integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing; varies in time and complexity; and builds on previous work. H.S. Wrigley (1998) describes project-based learning as “a group of learners taking on an issue close to their hearts, developing a response, and presenting the results to a wider audience.” Others (Auerbach 1992; Gaer 1998) describe PBL as a way to help students develop language skills while conducting meaningful projects. Projects can take weeks, days, or an hour. They can have a sociopolitical focus (e.g., starting up a local day-care center), a humanistic focus emphasizing individual growth (e.g., oral histories, cookbooks, or a description of one’s native country), or they can be integrated in lessons from a textbook to give students opportunities to gather information, use technology, and collaborate.
Other characteristics of project-based learning are that it:
- Integrates the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing)
- Involves collaborative group work as well as independent work
- Includes problem solving and negotiating
- Encourages students to use English outside the classroom
- May allow students to choose the project
- Involves students in acquiring new information that is relevant to them
How can PBL increase learner persistence?
According to research, there are several strategies to enhance learner persistence. These include: safety (creating an environment where learners feel safe to express themselves openly and feel equally valued in the program); community (learners feeling that they belong to a larger group); and self-efficacy (learners knowing that they can be successful) (Comings 2000). Project-based learning addresses these strategies, thus enhancing learner persistence. By placing learners in situations that require authentic use of language in order to communicate (e.g., being part of a team or interviewing others), PBL functions as a bridge between using English in class and using English in real-life situations outside of class. According to Stein (1995), when learners work in pairs or in teams, they find they need skills to plan, organize, negotiate, and make their points. Learners have identified these skills as important for living successful lives.
What does PBL have to do with the workplace?
PBL encourages students to work together to gather information and complete a product they are proud of. As Wrigley (1998) states, “In a society where companies are looking for employees who have people skills, are able to work in teams, and have the competence to make decisions and solve problems as they arise, project-based learning can serve as a powerful tool to prepare students for the world of work.” Instructors are feeling more and more pressure to bring their methods into line with what is happening in the “real world.” As Time magazine states, “That means putting a greater emphasis on teaching [adults] to collaborate and solve problems in small groups and apply what they’ve learned in the real world” (Wallis and Stepton 2006).
What are some misconceptions about PBL?
I have heard the following comments from colleagues over the years. I’d like to offer suggestions on how, in light of these comments, PBL can be used effectively.
“I can’t do projects in my beginning-level ESL class. The students don’t have enough language.”
Susan Gaer (1998) describes projects that she does with her beginning-level students at Centennial Education Center at Santa Ana. She integrates mini-projects into all her general ESOL classes. Projects that students choose to do are based on material in their textbook. For example, Gaer writes, “In my beginning class, we devote much time to learning how to talk about the family and daily life. The class produces a small book which includes stories about family, work, and weekend life. These types of projects require the students to use the material in a meaningful way.” She states that projects don’t need to be as extensive as creating a newspaper or cookbook.
Another example of a project that can be done in a beginning-level ESL class is to have students make an address book with their classmates’ contact information. This type of project reinforces the grammar and language for personal information that is usually taught in a beginning-level ESL class in the first week. Students ask each other their last names, first names, telephone numbers (optional), and e-mail addresses. They put this information in a chart in alphabetical order. For more ideas on short projects for beginning-level ESL classes, see Ventures Student Book 1.
In the beginning levels, the instructor usually chooses the project that students will complete depending on the language and themes they have studied in class. In higher levels, students could decide for themselves what they would like to do because they have more language to be able to do this.
“I can’t do projects in my ESL class because we have open enrollment, and I never know who’s going to be there. I usually have different students every day (evening).”
Many textbooks include projects at the end of units. Most of these projects can be completed in one or two class sessions. These include making an address book, creating a list of fun things to do in the community, developing a list of important places in the community, etc. An interesting comment that I have heard from instructors is that when students do a meaningful project that lasts an entire week, they have higher retention, because the students are motivated and excited to see the end product. Of course there are students who can’t attend class because of work or family, but generally students do not want to miss class when there is a project due. See www.otan.dni.us/webfarm/emailproject/email.htm for a list of project ideas from Susan Gaer.
“I can’t do projects in my ESL class because they won’t help my students score better on standardized tests.”
Instructors and students are sometimes concerned that literacy gains are made from practicing basic skills rather than from discussion and exploration of issues in project-based instruction. Parrish (2004) describes a teacher who wondered how project-based learning could prepare his students for CASAS tests. Parrish describes a class project on learning about the neighborhood and identified some of the CASAS outcomes addressed in the project. A correlation chart and lesson plan shows how a project students did to create a booklet for class and for members of the school directly corresponds to the competencies on standardized tests related to giving directions, recognizing signs, and using maps.
As Wrigley (1998) explains in her article, “Evidence suggests that learners involved in project-based learning often spend significant amounts of time writing down ideas, reading and commenting on what others have written, and shaping the work the group is producing.” She goes on to explain that instructors report that students are more motivated to edit their work when learners know a real audience will be reading the project. Wrigley writes, “It seems clear that learners who participate in project work do not obtain lower scores on tests than do their classmates who are part of a more conventional approach.”
PBL is a way to encourage students to work together to complete a task that is relevant to their lives. The project could take one hour or three weeks. It can be a simple project, such as making a directory with a list of e-mail addresses of classmates, or it can be a more complex one, such as starting up a day-care center in the neighborhood. Projects encourage persistence because students feel safe about expressing themselves and successful when the project is completed. They build work skills because students work in teams to problem-solve and complete a task. As Gaer (1998) states, “Using a project-based approach has helped motivate students to learn language for a purpose. This methodology promotes community among class members.”
We’d love to hear from you. If you would like to share a project that you have worked on with your students, please email email@example.com
Auerbach, E. 1992. Making Meaning, Making Change. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Bitterlin, G., D. Johnson, D. Price, S. Ramirez, and L. Savage. 2007. Ventures Student Book 1. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Comings, J. 2000. Helping adults persist: four supports. Focus on Basics 4A: 1–7.
Gaer, S. 1998. Less teaching and more learning. Focus on Basics 2D.
Jarrell, J. 2006. Ventures eNewsletter (November). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Moss, D., and C. Van Duzer. 1998. Project-Based Learning for Adult English Language Learners. National Center for ESL Literacy Education.
Parrish, B. 2004. Teaching Adult ESL. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stein, S. 1995. Equipped for the future: A customer-driven vision for adult literacy and lifelong learning. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy (ED 384 792).
Wallis, C., and S.Stepton. 2006. How to bring our schools out of the 20th century. Time (December 18, 2006).
Wrigley, H.S. 1998. Knowledge in action: The promise of project-based learning. Focus on Basics 2D: 13–18.
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