In Brazil, our very own Paulo Freire decried the imperative to center learning on students’ realities and needs. Currently, many higher education institutions use some form of inquiry-based learning in science courses and even business courses. It seems like Project-Based Learning is a perfect fit for the 21st-century classroom: it explores students’ world views, giving them a voice; it makes learning an authentic experience, and it is powered by critical thinking and cooperation. It also seems like all that a language teacher could want in their classrooms. So why does it still feel like a risk? And is it compatible with language learning?
How does it work?
First, let us take a step back and identify the key characteristics of Project-Based Learning. Keeping in mind that there are many different approaches to it, you could round them down to 4 different aspects:
- There is a complex problem that relates to real-world issues. Ideally, it is something that is negotiated between teachers and students.
- Teachers lay down the framework for the project, as well as guidelines and success criteria.
- Students work cooperatively on the solutions.
- Assessment is holistic, related to a student’s performance, and is not just about getting the right answers.
With Project-Based Learning, students only have the big picture in mind – and the teacher must be aware of teachable moments to focus on key concepts in their field of study. It is clear here how assessment must be an integral part of the design of a Project-Based Learning course. If the teacher
does not have the idea of formative assessment in mind, they will not be able to properly support students. It is essential that teachers constantly monitor class discussions and provide students with self-reflection tools. That way, teachers may course-correct and offer input sessions to clarify key concepts and assumptions of the content focus. This is imperative for the success of the approach. After all, one of the criticisms of Project Based Learning is that although students become highly successful in tasks that involve problem-solving and planning, they don’t necessarily grasp the key concepts involved.
How do you know when it does not work?
You might have all the elements there – the perfect coursebook, exciting resources such as a makerspace, digital devices, knowledgeable staff – and still end up with a failed attempt at PBL. Improperly guided, students will most likely develop a false sense of understanding connected to their autonomy, even if they come up with an impressive end product. This project might, to the general public, be seen as an accomplishment; however, it will certainly lack academic success markers.
That is why one must not consider Project-Based Learning a regular sequence of lessons with a project in the end. More than that, it must be part of an inquiry cycle with a project both as a track and as the culminating evidence of learning. Its development process must be laid bare in classroom experiences and with the aid of constant feedback and self-assessment protocols mediated by a knowledgeable and assertive teacher.
It is often said that the teacher is only a facilitator in active methodologies and student-centered approaches. However, in practice, to be able to develop a project-based learning experience, the teacher must be an expert in their field. That is because it demands a certain kind of self-confident professional that stands on their solid knowledge.
This self-confidence also reveals itself in how they can let students find a way to approach core concepts without feeling insecure. It implies being able to predict the possible lines of inquiry which students will likely pursue, and the support they will need with each new development.
The open-endedness of PBL in the EFL classroom elicits, therefore, some resistance due to the lack of a linear train of thought or guidance. This freedom will most definitely make teachers feel as if they are losing control. This is especially true for the ones who don’t believe in communicative approaches, or who only adhere to them superficially. Using textbooks in this scenario proves to be an enormous challenge. It is important not to see traditional materials as manuals that must be followed page by page. Rather, a teacher must be able to see the book content for what is key to the course objectives, having the best interest of achieving the learning goals set for each lesson. Having a strong attachment to communicative practices – where a student’s performance is outlined as the course objective, instead of a laundry list of grammar points and vocabulary – is what makes Project-Based Language Learning possible. Paulo Freire’s perspective on education is also revealed in the idea that what students bring to the classroom is what will motivate them to go beyond – which is the very center of Project-Based Learning in the first place.
Neither teachers nor students are immediately open to so many changes, which take time to become routine, and helping students become autonomous and accountable may be a slow process. This change implies a shift from the ingrained idea that teachers provide everything – and students must only participate when asked to, and only in a limited fashion. It is also important to keep students constantly aware of their gains within the process of learning. It will be terribly frustrating to have the teacher struggle to convince students that taking part in the project is worthwhile. More than ever, knowing students’ personalities, perspectives and preferences is key to framing the learning experiences into something meaningful.
Not only that, students’ psychological needs should also be taken into account. After all, it is not a methodology that delivers content – it sees learners as individuals, members of the school community, and actors in society.
Implications for the language learning process
If you have ever witnessed the development of a project in a language class, you must have felt the energy. Inviting students to develop podcasts, websites, 3D models and more is certainly a guarantee of engagement. Most often, though, students get so excited about the project that they only use L1. This might make parents and students not see the point of what they are doing, as it might not feel like an “English class”, but like an after-school program. This is also an idea that contaminates the minds of other members of the school community.
However, just as in what Paulo Freire preached – bringing students’ reality and knowledge into the classroom – Project-Based Learning must start from something students already know. This means that it is more appropriate to think of a bilingual environment. Students should be seen as being able to transfer their knowledge of how language works into new codes. They must see how language helps them interact and access information – from materials, authentic resources, and classmates. The constant exchange from L1 to L2 is a fact, and we should be fair to students in that regard. From the perspective of bilingual education, Project-Based Learning is therefore just a development of Content and Language Integrated Learning.
Centering the experience on Language Learning
In a project developed by the NFLRC, language learners were invited to write books, and therefore practice their language skills, to impact the lives of real children in Brazil. In the process of developing the books, students were asked to investigate the cultural aspects of their target audience. The use of technology was key, and so was the idea that experiences, more than textbook pages, are central to the approach. Another characteristic of the project was a mixed-ability group of students. The NFLRC features examples of how Project-Based Language Learning can be used at any level because it is adaptable to a student’s circumstances.
Looking at the features of Gold Standard PBL, for example, the framework designed by PBLworks, you can see how language development is key to making learning visible. If students must, for example, negotiate, defend their point of view, iterate, and organize group work, language is certainly the mediator of every step of the process. Understanding that the language functions – giving and receiving instructions, advice, feedback; comparing and contrasting; etc – are an essential part of language learning, and are also transferable skills, is essential for the design of a Project-Based Language Learning course. The implication for language learners is that they will not only learn English – as in grammar and vocabulary – but also other linguistic competencies. This environment demands a teacher be aware of the nature of language acquisition and development.
Where do we go from here?
Almost a century ago, a few avant-garde educators envisioned a learning environment that would stimulate student autonomy. Today, educators seek to foster skills such as inquiry, collaboration, decision making, giving and receiving feedback to help learners achieve success. By exposing students to real world issues, teachers guide students to develop solutions, all the while seeking teachable moments to cater to a curriculum. However, when applied to language learning, open-ended projects present a challenge to the use of traditional material, such as course books. These must be selected and adapted to fit the purpose of the project, which can be a difficult transition for teachers more used to following coursebooks page by page. But when Project based learning is integrated into a Content and Language Integrated Learning environment, language development becomes the focus. This Project Based Language Learning methodology based on a communicative approach provides teachers with the scaffolding they need to work on language content, all the while freeing students to follow inquiry-based learning.
Bender, William N. Project-Based Learning: Differentiating Instruction for the 21st Century. Corwin Press. 2012. Buck Institute for Education. PBLWorks. Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements. Accessed in February 2022.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogia da Autonomia. Saberes necessários à prática educativa. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1996. Harvard Graduate School of Education- Project Zero – Toolbox: Thinking routines. Accessed in February 2022.
PBS: Frontline. What is Project-based learning? [Online] July 17, 2012, Accessed in February 2022.
The University of Hawai’i National Foreign Language Resource Center at Manoa. Project-Based Language Learning: Promoting Child Literacy in Brazil. Accessed in February 2022. https://nflrc.hawaii.edu/about/13/
WIDDOWSON, H. G. O ensino de línguas para a comunicação. Trad. José Carlos P. de Almeida Filho. Campinas, Pontes, 1991.
Bárbara Duarte is a Course Designer at Casa Thomas Jefferson, a learner experience designer with a background in Design and Art and a passion for language learning. Since 2017, she has designed the Fine Arts course for Casa Thomas Jefferson’s high school program with a combination of CLIL and PBL. She has also been part of the pedagogical team at Thomas Bilíngue for Schools. Currently, she’s working with the Casa Thomas Jefferson’s advanced course teachers to further improve the use of PBL practices for language learning.
Tatiana Faria is a teacher at Casa Thomas Jefferson, passionate about new technologies and active methodologies. She is a certified Maker Educator by Thomas Maker with over 30 years of experience in English Language Teaching. She has been working as an Innovation Mentor at Casa Thomas Jefferson since 2019, helping and training teachers to implement PBL practices in EFL classrooms.
Marcelo Hosannah is a teacher at Casa Thomas Jefferson, Google Certified Educator, Trainer, and Coach with a background in Pedagogy, Business Administration, and Marketing. Since 2019, he has been part of Casa Thomas Jefferson’s Innovation Team, training teachers to incorporate technology and PBL into their classrooms. Since 2021, he has designed the Computer Education course for Casa Thomas Jefferson’s high school program, using a combination of CLIL and PBL.