Project Based Instruction: 
An opportunity to develop learner´s autonomy 


Claudia Luz Morales Brieño 
ENP Plantel 6 “Antonio Caso” 
Dirección General de Tecnologías de 
la Información y Comunicación (DGTIC) 
Colegio de Inglés 

Abstract

The aim of this article is to propose Project Based Instruction and Learning as an approach to develop learner’s autonomy in the language classroom. We share an ICT tool which aim is to encourage young students to work with projects, in order to use language in real situations and become aware of current issues around the world. Project Based Instruction focuses on a specific form of work that promotes independent work, reflective thinking and self-evaluation. The name of the Web page proposed is Taking IT Global, and its mission is to empower youth to understand and act on the world's greatest challenges.

Key words: Project Based Instruction, Language Instruction, Autonomy, Self-evaluation, Teenagers, ICT tools.

 

Introduction

Nowadays it is believed that teenagers must learn how to be responsible for their own learning, capable of planning, thinking critically, and managing their own learning process.  But how do we promote that? Benson states that “in order to foster autonomy in the classroom, teachers need to provide learners with the opportunity to make significant choices and decisions about their learning. They also need to help them develop abilities that will allow learners to make these choices and decisions in an informed way.” (Benson, 2001)

Benson (2001) states that English language instruction should encourage learner autonomy while building a sense of self-esteem, as well as cultural identity. In addition, effective instruction must incorporate different learning styles and multiple intelligences. Then, how can we include all these concepts in our language lessons?

According to recent theories on language teaching, some aspects that teachers might consider are: recognizing the importance of learner autonomy for teenagers in the language learning process; developing activities that are effective for learning English while also building teenagers self-esteem and cultural identity, self-assessing their own learning styles and intelligences and becoming skilled at incorporating a variety of themes in English Language Instruction; creating a more learner centered English class by focusing on the particular needs of teenagers; being actively involved in the students’ learning, providing a range of learning options and resources, offering choices and decision making opportunities, supporting the learners and encouraging reflection.

Project Based Instruction

The aim of this article is to propose the use of a specific Web page to promote Project Based Instruction in the classroom, which is at the same time based on the Content Based Instruction Approach.

The Content Based Instruction Approach works with at least two main categories: content and language. Within the content it takes into account the learning strategies, skills development, objectives, technology skills, social skills, and cultural objectives.  In relation to the language objectives, it focuses on the linguistic concepts, vocabulary, communicative functions, and grammatical structures. The Content-obligatory language is a term used to describe the vocabulary, grammatical structures and functional expressions that learners need in order to gain knowledge of a curricular subject, to communicate that subject and to take part in classroom tasks in a non-native language.

There are a wide range of project types—service learning projects, work-based projects, and so forth, but authentic projects all have in common these defining features (Dickinson et al., 1998; Katz & Chard, 1989; Martin & Baker, 2000; Thomas, 1998): they develop a thematic unit plan that engages teens in projects which are meaningful and fun, are student centered, include a beginning, middle, and end; deal with real world problems where students do first hand investigation. Promote sensitivity to local culture, have specific goals related to curriculum, ask for tangible products, establish connections among academic life and work skills, offer the opportunity for feedback and assessment and for reflective thinking & self-assessment.

 

Railsback (2002) mentions the advantages of Project-based Instruction:

It prepares children for workplace, increases their motivation, connects learning at school with reality, provides collaborative opportunities to  construct knowledge, increases social and communicative skills, increases problem solving skills, sees connections between disciplines, provides opportunities to contribute, uses individual learning strengths and it is a practical real world way to learn.

 

To include Project-based instruction, teachers have to examine curriculum standards and required units for the class, choose a theme that is meaningful and relevant to students, brainstorm ideas to incorporate real-life situation and tasks, choose, organize and order the activities and incorporate projects that can encourage learner choice and autonomy.

 

To outline the project goals, the class must define the situation or problem of their interest, write the project description and purpose, determine the performance specifications, establish the rules for work, have a list of project participants with roles assigned, and define the type of assessment.

 

Railsback (2002) defines eleven steps for working with projects:

1. Students and teacher agree on a theme for the project. 

2. Students determine which the final product will be. 

3. Students and teacher structure the project. 

4. Teacher prepares students for the language demands and copes them with what they know. 

5. Students do the research on the topic. 

6. Teacher helps students to select relevant information. 

7. Students compile and analyze the information to identify the most relevant. 

8. Teacher prepares language improvement activities to help students succeed with the presentation of their final product.

9. Students present their final project.

10. Students evaluate their projects.

11. Students reflect on their experience.


Herman, Aschbacher and Winters (1992) have identified five questions to consider when determining learning goals:

1. What important cognitive skills do I want my students to develop?

2. What social and affective skills do I want my students to develop?

3. What metacognitive skills do I want my students to develop?

4. What types of problems do I want my students to be able to solve?

5. What concepts and principles do I want my students to be able to apply? 

There are some elements that must be part of the projects in order to be successful, and for the students to take advantage of the time invested in their research. Steinberg (1998) established The Six A’s of Project-Based Learning Checklist (adapted from Steinberg’s Six A’s of Successful Projects in Steinberg):

1.     Authenticity

2.     Academic rigor

3.     Adult relationships

4.     Applied learning

5.     Active exploration

6.     Assessment practices.


It is important to mention that students in high school are teenagers who may no be as responsible as an adult, but if we want them to become autonomous learners, it is necessary to star to encourage self-awareness on what they do. When working with projects, is it is important that everyone has a role in their team and that he/she is engaged with what is meant to do.

 

A proposal for Project Based work

As we mentioned before, this article has the intention to share and promote the use of a Web page to work with projects in the English Classroom. The name of the Web page is Taking It Global.

Taking IT Global is a world-leading network of young people which mission is to empower youth to understand and act on the world's greatest challenges. These young people use the power of online communities to facilitate global education, social entrepreneurship, and civic engagement for millions of youth worldwide. Their vision is:

To work with youth everywhere actively engaged and connected in shaping a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world. They serve youth primarily between the ages of 13 to 30. They offer global online social network and hub for civic participation, content & tools for educators to facilitate rich, interactive learning experiences, outreach & collaboration tools for events, networks, campaigns, and causes, research, development, and sharing of best practices on youth engagement. Facilitated learning experiences through workshops, webinars, and e-courses.[1]

 

From my experience, working with this Web page has been an interesting and worth doing activity; one cannot imagine where the student’s interests will lead to, and the wide range of topics they will research about. Some of them are really worried about current issues and make the connections with their own environment. The social networks have a new different use for them and they seem to be happy to share what they learn and invite their friends to become part of their projects. A percentage of their grade consists on evaluating how many people has read their projects. We discuss in class if they think they have started making some difference with their projects. Last year some of my students chose topics as garbage recycling, animal welfare and human rights.

To start working with our students we just need to join the Web page in the following URL: http://en.tigweb.org/ Once an account has been created, the different tabs of the Web page can be explored. There is a tab about the Community, another with Action Tools where an action guide can be downloaded (it helps readers to explore issues they care about, and suggests ways they can take action and involve others in making a positive difference). There are other tabs with resources and organizations; for example, in the Youth Media tab students can create their own blogs, post information and link their social networks with their projects in order to share and have an impact in their communities.

The kinds of global issues which students can work with are: Culture, Education, Environment, Globalization, Health, Human Rights, Media, Peace and Technology. 

The idea of this Web page is to lead and guide students to develop their own projects while joining other projects founded by already organized associations in order to get ideas, to participate in debates about the different issues and to become committed with the society. Students do research about their topic of interest, select information; discover what has been done about the topic around the world and in their country. At the end of the project, students present their products and their evaluation has to do with the attention they gained in their communities, the amount of people that became aware of any of the issues by reading about their research, and by sharing their final product, which can be a video, a blog, a web page or a poster.

Once students finish working with their projects, they can self-evaluate. Some questions the students can answer in a reflection piece are (Edwards, 2000):

  • ü  What were the project’s successes?
  • ü  What might I do to improve the project?
  • ü  How well did I meet the goals?
  • ü  What was the most difficult about meeting the goals?
  • ü  What surprised me most?
  • ü  What was my group best team effort?
  • ü  Worst team effort?
  • ü  What were the skills I used?
  • ü  How can I practice these skills in the future?
  • ü  What was my final project evaluation?

 

Conclusion

Nowadays the ICT offer a wide variety of tools which can be used in the English classroom. Web pages like Taking It Global promote the use of language in real situations. They encourage young students to get involved in different kinds of issues which will also contribute to educate sensitive human beings prepared to interact in our high demanding societies. The projects that our students build up will also develop their autonomy by having them work on topics of their own interest. As the web page is easy to use, teenagers have no problems to find and post information; the “Action Guide” is a brief document which shows them how to start and develop a project.  The different tools provided by the  page are really helpful whenever participants have any doubts in deciding what follows on the development of their projects. Teachers are guides and monitors who can help with the correct use of language, with providing them with ideas on how to organize the information and with motivation to be active participants in their projects.

 

 

Bibliography

Anderson G. (n.d.). Teaching Teenagers. Retrieved from http://www.cambridge.org/servlet/file1E;M+LALL +Art+AndersonTeachingTeenagers.pdf?ITEM_ENT_ID=2421966&ITEM_VERSION=1&COLLSPEC_ENT_ID7

Benson, P.  (2001). Learner autonomy in the classroom. In D. Nunan (Ed). Practical English Language Teaching. (pp.289-308). New York, NY: Mc Graw Hill

Ralisback, J. (2002). Project Based Instruction: Creating Excitement for Learning, Portland, Oregon. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Shin, J.K. (2007). Developing Dynamic Units for EFL. English Teaching Forum, 44 (2), pp. 2-8.

Stoller, F.L. (1997). Project Work: A Means to Promote Language Content. English Teaching Forum, 35 (4).

Taking It Gobal. (2013). Recovered on September 2013, from http://www.tigweb.org

 



[1] Taking It Gobal. http://www.tigweb.org