When Project-Based Learning Works

We know that all students do not learn the same. They have different learning styles and learn at different paces. We once educated students around a core set of knowledge. Now the needs of the 21st century workforce require students to learn in a new way that opens up more possibilities. What they’ll need to know for their future jobs has not even been imagined yet.

This is leading high-performing schools to bring technical education to the center of the building and reimagine how they can provide interactive learning opportunities for students interested in pursuing everything from high-demand trades such as welding to specialized engineering degrees.

Schools continue to broaden opportunities for students interested in business, marketing, operations and the arts by developing student-run businesses and partnering with local organizations.

In many cases, the teachers who oversee these student-run businesses have made them self-sustaining and generate revenue each year to invest in new equipment. They take the concept of “project-based learning” to a new level that’s producing even better outcomes for students.

Through applied experiences, these educators – turn CEOs – teach students to solve problems, work as a team, communicate and learn a whole series of necessary soft skills. Students explore real-world problems and challenges by working on a specific project over an extended period of time. Research also shows that project-based learning lowers absenteeism and increases student achievement.

Rooted in experiential education, project-based learning emerged as a response to developments in learning theory over the past 25 years. Some schools have created truly integrated, inter-disciplinary spaces that bring together teachers and students from across the building into a centralized space.

While a new facility or expansion opens up the possibilities, we’ve worked with school leaders to find opportunities in key areas of their existing buildings:

  • Media centers
  • Computer labs
  • Industrial art rooms
  • Parking lots
  • Hallways
  • Technology

Finding Opportunities
Here are some ways that schools are transforming spaces to create more project-based and integrated learning opportunities for students:

  • Collaboration spaces
    When building new schools, collaborative spaces are designed into the classrooms as well as right outside with glass wall separations for visibility. Hallways are no longer seen as pathways between classes. They are well-lit (often with natural light), have more lounge-like areas for students to gather and tend to be wider overall. In some cases, stairways are being designed wider and deeper to create small group and studying space outside of passing time.In existing facilities, schools reimagine their “common spaces” and hallways to make room for students to work in small groups. They may even replace traditional classroom walls to hallways with glass walls or large windows to allow groups to spread out and enable teachers to monitor all of them.
  • Maker spaces
    It may start with reconfiguring classroom space or turning a computer lab into a high-tech video production studio where students can create, edit and share videos and animated movies. From there, it grows to extensive building areas where students can test theories, apply multiple skills and build new creations.
  • Fab labs
    These spaces are being designed as the central focal point in new schools and are becoming more and more extensive. In some cases, schools build a new wing, erect standalone facilities on-site or lease and build out nearby space for their “fab labs” and student-run businesses.The scope of these spaces varies. The movement has been to bigger and broader spaces where students can do everything from design and create a prototype to manufacture, market and sell it.

Eventually, schools will be completely designed around this teaching model. How can you reimagine your spaces to provide immersive project-based learning opportunities for students? Schools gaining the best results for students keep asking themselves this question and are finding ways to answer it.

While school leaders do not have a crystal ball, they can take steps to prepare and adapt their spaces to meet the needs of 21st century learners. It can start with conducting facility assessments and integrate these concepts into their long-range facility plans to better position their students for success in this new workforce.