How project-based learning revolutionized my teaching

By Mary-Owen Holmes, Maury County Public Schools

Over the past few years, Tennessee has been committed to making bold changes to our educational landscape. We’ve seen shifts in what our students are learning, and are striving to ensure all students receive a high-quality education. Project-based learning (PBL) is a natural extension of our state’s focus on reform. A renewed emphasis on college and career readiness has encouraged teachers and schools to incorporate strategies such as project-based learning and technology integration, while also providing more opportunities for early-work experience. Across Tennessee, students are learning to broadcast news, lead research efforts, build websites, code programs, and analyze data, while embedding math and literacy into their work. PBL has allowed me to better connect the past to the present, as well as bring fun back into history class. When we connect our classroom learning to real-world examples, as well as necessary critical thinking and problem-solving skills, everyone wins.

It may seem daunting to start, but here are a few tips I’ve learned while creating a project-based learning classroom:

  1. Ask big, meaningful questions – Creating a high-quality essential question is key in PBL. Ideally, your driving question will make classroom content relevant for students. When studying the Crusades during the Middle Ages, I ask students how religion and other cultural characteristics influence or cause conflict. This can lead to investigating various cultural conflicts, even those we see on the news today. Writing driving questions can be difficult, but the Buck Institute for Education has numerous resources to help you begin. To offset any potential obstacles, ensure you have plenty of time to plan. Check your calendar and map out days. Don’t worry if it feels like your PBL is taking longer than expected; use that time as an opportunity to integrate more standards. Remember, key phrase is big, meaningful question(s), not one project per standard. For example, the driving question for the Crusades unit opened our study to incorporate standards discussing the Catholic Church, feudalism, and other cultural characteristic of medieval Europe, while also reviewing southeast Asian civilizations.
  2. Let students lead the way – As an educator, I sometimes struggle with letting students exert more control within the classroom. It can be difficult to let go and allow students to drive the learning experience. Student choice plays a large role in PBL and means that students need to be leading their own learning. Some strategies I use to teach responsible leadership include student-created group contracts, inquiry brainstorming, modeling planning meetings and time management, and incorporating frequent reflection and goal-setting.

Additionally, many of my students take over teaching responsibilities at least once during the year. Occasionally the topic is assigned by me, but more frequently students propose their own topic and connect to our seventh-grade social studies standards. Through encouraging student choice, students have expanded standards to learn about things like Renaissance fashion, and even allowed us to travel along on a family trip to Colombia over the winter break. Their excitement to learn and lead makes class more fun for everyone.

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail – Not all of your projects will work perfectly at first. There have been numerous times when my students and I have revised our learning mid-project. Being honest with students about when we fail, as well as how we dealt with that failure, is an important lesson. If we’re ashamed and give up, that teaches students to do the same. Failure can be reframed as our First Attempt In Learning (FAIL). Teach resilience by modeling resilience, and let students know that failure isn’t the end. Allow students to suggest modifications or improvements. It’s their class, so use their input.
  2. Encourage community involvement – If we want to connect classroom learning to real-world context, then we need to be open to frequently hosting visitors in our classrooms. Throughout the year, I reach out to parents, legislators, and other community members and invite them to come learn with us as we explore history. Our visitors have served as project supervisors, experts to provide feedback, guest speakers, or even students for a day.

One of my proudest teaching moments happened because of an interaction on Twitter. I saw an article referencing a bill that had been introduced by our state representative. The bill happened to connect with what we were learning at the time, so I took a chance and asked Representative Sheila Butt if she’d be willing to visit and learn more about food deserts with us. She graciously accepted and spent the morning teaching students about her role, as well as listening to seventh graders explain the impact of food deserts on communities. It was incredibly inspiring to hear them share ideas, and make content real for students.

Project-based learning has revolutionized my teaching. It is no longer “my” classroom, but instead it is a place for all students to grow, take risks, and have fun while learning. When completing our end-of-year survey, my students reported a positive change in how they felt about social studies from August to May, and they often cited PBL as the reason for that change. Let’s keep the momentum going, connect learning to the world, and inspire students to dream big.


Mary-Owen Holmes is a seventh grade social studies teacher and PBL coach at Spring Hill Middle School in Maury County Public Schools. She is a Tennessee Teacher Fellow with Hope Street Group, as well as an alumna of the SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellowship. You can follow Mary-Owen’s classroom on Twitter @MsHolmesTeach.

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