A good Project-Based Learning unit experience provides students with an opportunity to make an impact on a community, person, or organization. It’s real–goes beyond the world known as “school.” While this idea has resonance for many educators it’s often felt as an abstract concept. How do teachers consistently bring about an authentic purpose that will be meaningful to an audience?
Identifying key concepts and skills
Every effective PBL unit is based on the essential concepts and skills that students must develop. Without such a base, the work completed lacks substance and focus. These key learning components will enable developing a clear map for structuring checkpoints and supports throughout the experience. It also leads to creating a strong final product or performance for the end of the unit. But here is where we need to be careful. That final artifact needs to have purpose for an audience, beyond being an observer.
If students master the key concepts and skills, how might an audience benefit?
Answering this question is the link to developing rich authentic experiences. How we answer helps identify the audience, revise the driving question, and refine the final product or performance. There are many audiences we can invite. Parents are a popular choice. Their presence has a positive impact on their children, as well as the other students. Yet, parents tend to be a secondary audience. They attend to provide moral support and see the growth of their children, no matter what the academic topic or product may be.
What if students studied simple machines, and then designed playground equipment that reflects those concepts for the school playground. Who could benefit from learning about their designs for possible use? Answer: Principal, School Board, PTO, Playground designers/builders, and engineers. Not parents.
When deciding on a product or performance, use these four guidelines to help determine the purpose for your primary audience:
- Solve a problem
- Advocate for a need
- Raise awareness about a concern or idea
These guidelines are ways for designing the final product that meets the needs of an authentic audience.
Solve a problem
There are issues and situation that need fixing. Students explore solutions to a problem that a community, individual, or organization needs help. Sometimes the audience may not be aware that there is a problem or an innovative way to improve a system, service, or product that they own. For example, small businesses may lack a social network presence or have gaps in one that currently exists. I discovered this in a bakery in Texarkana, AR. As I stood inside the shop, I got no search results of the store’s existence on Yelp, an app that helps travelers find places to visit. They had a Facebook presence, but that might not be how new customers would find them. Students can work on finding or developing solutions that require them to use their understanding of essential concepts and skills. The final product is now tied to genuine needs by the audience.
Advocate for a need
Sometimes there are needs for effecting a change in behavior, focus, or perspective, such as healthy eating and exercise. Based on the key concepts and skills, what is a change that’s needed for a community, whether it be the school, parents, businesses, local, national, or an international entity? Living a healthy lifestyle could be advocated to the school or local community by providing nutritional menus that are easy to grocery shop and provide minimal preparation. Another focus might be convincing and teaching local communities how to design and build indoor gardens helps reduce the impact of urban food deserts while providing access to fresh vegetables, such as the Green Bronx Machine project.
Raise awareness about a concern or idea
Oftentimes during researching content, students learn about issues and ideas that can have an impact on their lives or that of others. Yet, their target audience may not be aware of the concern or have little understanding. In these instances, students create an awareness product or performance that their audience would be responsive. For example, ease the fear of the public about Ebola by providing persuasive messaging to help the general public understand the disease and it’s means of transmission. Help a community understand the work of a local hospital’s children’s cancer ward cancer so that they might donate money to support cancer research. This was done at Dupont-Hadley MS in Metro Nashville Public Schools. What’s important in each instance, students are not just reporting their research findings, they are using the information to express an informed opinion to persuade their target audience.
Making student work public is critical for the learners to find value in what they do. What’s the point of doing all this work if the target audience never sees the results. Publishing is inherent when focusing on any of the previous guidelines. Sometimes, we may publish for its own sake. This could happen for art (physical or virtual gallery for art lovers) and such ELA tasks as literary analysis (online literary magazine or classroom website of analysis) and writing that is narrative, informational, and/or persuasive (online e-zines, review sites, and classroom websites). In all of these cases there is a target audience—although it just may be more generalized.
Putting a Face to the Audience
When students know whom they are communicating with, their work becomes more targeted and has the potential for becoming more substantive and nuanced. The work must go beyond research, towards application via evaluation and synthesis. This occurs as they reflect and revise their communications to meet the needs of their audience. An expert on this idea is Dayna Laur, who writes extensively about authenticity of work via her blog and a book. Use the four guidelines to find the best audience for the students’ work. It will also result in revising or refining the final product or performance and Driving Question so that all are aligned. There is no better feeling when the primary audience in the crowd nod in appreciation of what the students have shared. When students see the response, they want to do more.