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Empower learners through project-based learning

By Rachelle Dene Poth
August 15, 2018
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Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: A teacher wants her students to engage in project-based learning (PBL) and also demonstrate their learning. So at the end of a chapter or unit, she assigns them to research a topic, collect some images and present their slideshows to the class. As students present their projects, it dawns on her that all the projects sound the same.

This scenario played out in my class term after term until I came to the realization that I had not been doing authentic PBL with my students at all. I provided a rubric and list of requirements for students to follow because I believed this was a good way to assess their learning. But in doing so, they had very little leeway to create something authentic and personal.

Then I came across this Chris Lehmann quote in the book Launch:  “If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.” This is when it hit me that I was missing some key elements of PBL, and I vowed to do PBL differently.

I did some research and learned about authentic PBL from resources such as the Buck Institute for Education, Suzie Boss and Hacking PBL by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy. Then I set out to do it the right way.

Get students involved in the planning

The first step to embarking on PBL comes long before the project is assigned. Because this will be a different way of showing their learning, students will need to know exactly what you expect. I had students take notes on the “essential elements” and then set up a plan for when they would work on their independent PBL projects.

For my Spanish 3, 4 and 5 classes, which were combined into the same class period, I wanted students to explore topics related to culture, family, education, sports and, more importantly, global issues related to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I wanted to expand not only what students were learning, but how they were learning by creating connections with peers in Spanish speaking countries in a safe online space.

Students could select their own topics; they only needed to connect it with something related to the language or the culture. Students explored topics related to their personal interests or future studies in college, such as health and well-being, sports, economics, food and culture, and even architecture.

Students delved into weighty topics, like poverty, economic relations, stereotypes and equality. By connecting their topics with the SDGs, students were able to really expand their understanding of global issues and make connections within their own communities.

Poth topics

Steps to becoming connected

The best way to begin a global collaboration project is to reach out to others. Here are a few ways to tap into your professional learning network (PLN) to find classrooms to connect with:

1.Find educators to collaborate with.

I used Edmodo to find educators who might want to collaborate. If you don’t use Edmodo, there are always opportunities available through the ISTE Professional Learning Networks or Google+ communities.

Post a message explaining the type of collaboration you’re looking for. I created a “PBL and Global Collaborations” group on Edmodo, shared the code with the other teachers, and we posted initial welcome messages. We started by sharing our backgrounds and information about our schools, then we discussed our projects and activities, and asked for feedback from one another.

2. Select the appropriate communication tool.

Poth Global colab

The schools we collaborated with were in Argentina, Mexico and Spain. Due to differences in time zones and school schedules, we used Flipgrid because it enabled us to record videos and access them whenever it was convenient for us, eliminating the problem of connecting between time zones and locations. Students recorded videos where they introduced themselves, shared information about their schools and even gave tours of their buildings. Creating and viewing these videos took their authentic learning to a whole new level as they could now see the students they had been corresponding with.

3. Collaborate on projects.

Poth essential question

As our global group grew, I created a Global PBL Padlet so that students could post photos, audio, surveys and other media that they created and invite others to collaborate. Creating their own padlets allowed students to design their own learning path.

Presenting their work

Determining their own learning path was exhilarating, but it was also unsettling at times because students were unsure about how to present their “products.”

In the past, students had been told what the end product should look like. Most projects had a specific format, whether it be poster, PowerPoint presentation, document or similar format. The end result was that students were turning in products that looked the same, without much room for their own choices for creating.

Determining how to create a product on their own was uncomfortable at first. But through peer collaboration and teacher facilitation, the nerves diminished and the students flourished.

While students worked independently, they shared ideas and encouraged one another to explore different options for how to display their learning. Students in their second year of PBL helped those new to the process get the hang of it.


Students were very creative in how they presented, using different tools together and even creating their own websites to curate their information in an accessible way. Some students simply spoke about what they had learned and showed a few images to the class. One student created a book of watercolor drawings to illustrate the connection between climate, elevation and types of coffee. Another student used clay to create a replica of a building, and others chose to use different digital tools that enabled them to present their information in a visual and authentic way.

Poth product

Each time they presented, you could see and feel excitement and passion for what they had learned. Several students said they wished that all classes included a component of PBL, where they explore something of interest, connect to the real world and feel empowered in their learning.

Lessons learned

Both the students and I had to make adjustments throughout the year. Determining accountability for student work, finding the right resources, and learning to craft an essential question were a few of the issues we had to address along the way.  

One of the biggest takeaways for me was the need to have some guidelines in place. Giving students choice of topics and ownership of their learning does not mean letting them figure it all out on their own. They need guidance and support. Make sure students set goals, and then check on their progress to make sure they aren’t stuck.

Another approach is to set aside time every few weeks for students to share their progress with their peers. I had students post their essential questions on the wall so classmates could read the essential questions and add notes with feedback or pose an “I wonder…” or other questions they had about the topic.

I believe it is very important to connect students with global learning opportunities so they can learn how to express themselves appropriately and develop their advocacy skills.

These skills are all aspects of the ISTE Standards for Students, and this project addressed many of those standards, including:  

Empowered Learner: Students build networks and customize their learning environments in ways that support the learning process. 1.c. Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.

Global Collaborator: Students use digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, engaging with them in ways that broaden mutual understanding and learning. 7.c. Students contribute constructively to project teams, assuming various roles and responsibilities to work effectively toward a common goal.

Digital Citizen: Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.

The learning and its impact

We need to involve students in designing and driving their learning. Promoting student choice and voice in learning will engage students in more authentic and personalized learning experiences. And students agree. Here is some of the feedback they provided:

“I can learn by watching videos and reading from books, but having these classmates to talk with and to interact with in this way really made a difference and gave me truly authentic information.”

“Seeing what school is like in other countries and being able to connect directly with a student my own age helped me to sculpt my project in a way unlike anything I have experienced.”

“We were able to teach others about our school, to share some new technology tools and I am amazed at the power of technology for making a world so big, seem so small, where possibilities for learning are everywhere.”

“I had no idea what it was like for students in other countries and how school systems work. I am so thankful for the opportunities we have.”


As I listened to their presentations and feedback, I knew this new approach to PBL was making a difference. One of the most rewarding parts was seeing students excited about putting a face with their global connection.

Moving beyond the traditional classroom time and place is easier with technology, and it only takes that first step to begin creating these opportunities for students. As educators, we should model lifelong learning, risk-taking and be constantly seeking new ways to expand how, where and what students learn.

Rachelle Dene Poth is a Spanish and STEAM teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. She has a master’s degree in instructional technology and is president of ISTE’s Teacher Education Network and communications chair for the ISTE Mobile Learning Network.