Project Based Learning and the Arts

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EducationCloset founder Susan Riley and PBL consultant Andrew Miller share what PBL is (and isn’t), and how to integrate it with the arts. From project to problem to process, integrating PBL and the arts is more natural than you might think.

– [Andrew] So when we think about projects in this lens of the arts, they really compliment each other because the arts bring that natural lens of improvement and mastery in terms of assessment and then the project adds even more engagement to it. So I just firmly believe that projects are both great learning tools as well as assessments of student learning.

– Many of the processes and skills that are used in teaching ELA and math, social studies and science contents are easily and often transferred into the teaching of art, music, drama, dance. Once we gain a better understanding of how to authentically use inquiry based approaches in a way that honors the inquiry process, as well as the teaching of arts contents, we provide students with an opportunity to make their learning more authentic. To gain knowledge based in standards and to develop 21st century learning skills. Arts educators can ramp up the rigor of arts contents by infusing the inquiry process into the teaching of the arts, and allowing students to enjoy more voice and choice in the creation of their artistic products. We can make manageable adjustments to our own teaching to include authentic, cross-curricular connections in a real world context without sacrificing time or the integrity of the explicit teaching of the arts. So intersecting the arts and PBL can be a really natural fit. Whether it’s implementing a PBL scenario in the arts classroom or using the arts in a general education classroom PBL. It doesn’t have to be a challenge. The connections should be natural. Arts integration strategies can be utilized in a PBL, and the arts themselves might be at the heart of the problem like in the Landfill Harmonic Project, that had a real life PBL application of how to provide instruments to children, who had none. For example, I know a wonderful elementary program in Las Vegas, who saw that many of their own students came to school without breakfast everyday. So they took a patch of their outdoor space and created a school garden with raised beds. They brought in local chefs to help run a before-school junior culinary arts program, and students were in charge of the gardens. What to plant, how to cultivate and harvest, and then worked with the junior chefs and the local chefs to create healthy breakfasts for students in the school. This would be considered a great PBL project. That’s because it meets all the requirements for moving from just projects to project based learning. It requires collaboration and teacher guidance. It’s about the process and not just the product. It’s student directed, and students make choices that determine the outcome. And the products are presented to an authentic audience, and are based on a real world problem in the school, and the real learning happens through the project, not after it’s over.

– [Andrew] It’s the unit of instruction, where we do a variety of activities. We do workshops, we do discussions, we do interviews, yes we build, we create, we draft. We also assess along the way and there’s ongoing reflection and revision embedded in this. And yes there is kind of a culminating event or presentation. As you can see on the bottom, very much in arts based class, which you might go on there and say, “You know, I wonder if there’s some things I might add to maybe launch the unit with a project instead of just giving it to them. Why not launch launch my arts unit with a project as opposed to just having it at the end.

– So how exactly do you go about creating a PBL lesson like this? There are seven steps that you’re gonna wanna go through. Number one, the teacher provides an entry event. In our example that would be sharing with students that they would be designing, cultivating, and harvesting from a school garden in order to make sure no student goes hungry. Number two, the students take on the project and may even assign roles to each other. Number three, the students then gather background knowledge needed for the project. Number four, the teacher and the students work collaboratively together to develop criteria for evaluating the projects. Number five, is that students then design, create and prepare the projects for presentation. Number six, is that students present the project. And finally number seven, is that the students reflect on the process and evaluate the projects.

– [Andrew] And a video of some of the projects that students at my school have created to kind of show their learning in their arts class. As you can see from these examples, there’s really some interesting combination of content. Not only the arts content, there’s technology as well, there’s even I would say some English language arts, some aspects of theme interpretation, maybe even some social studies, but there’s a lot going on in these products that show not only arts content, but maybe content from other areas and what they’ve drawn on from all their different areas of learning.

– Students still need time to learn the fundamentals of all the content areas. However, to begin the shift towards PBL and arts integration, we can begin to frame things as problems for kids to solve or answer. These problems are guided through driving questions of artistic inquiry. A driving question is presented at the beginning of an inquiry based learning experience as the frame for the project. A good driving question is one that focuses all other questions toward a solution or a product, that comes from It is an open-ended piece and engages high-level thinking and requires students to synthesize information from multiple sources, experiences and activities. So for example, in visual art, you might pose the question, how can the principle of rhythm be incorporated into an art composition? So through student investigation they can explore examples from various artists and movements. Create a composition of their own to demonstrate their understanding of the element of rhythm. They might also provide a critique of various examples of rhythm in existing artwork. It’s up to you how you wanna frame what your students are doing to demonstrate their learning.

– [Andrew] Remember that in addition to the authentic products that students create that might be more arts based or integrate the arts, remember assessment along the way is just as important. And maybe it might be that you integrate arts into your PBL projects as formative moments, or check-ins along the way. How might they create literally a photo album of experience? I think that assessment isn’t just one photo of the experience, it’s the album. Remember I’m all about the process of a project, it’s not just the product. So how might you integrate the arts along the way and showing what they know? Yeah they do, maybe the infographic isn’t a final product, maybe it’s just a formative product. Maybe there is a website that captures all the learning. Maybe use Instagram and take photos of their learning along the way and show their learning. Maybe they do some sort of video montage to capture the overall process of the project. Think of different ways, not just the end to integrate art into formative moments of a project.

– PBL places the emphasis on how we come to know something and less on what we know. And it’s a shift away from teaching to the test. So while it is rooted in standards, it is process and inquiry based. PBL employs creative processes like the design process, which naturally aligns to creative processes used in the arts. The arts are project based by their very nature and encourage skills that have been identified as those essential for students to be college and career ready. Things like, creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. So as students work to create works and performances in art, music, drama and dance, they generate original ideas. They make inferences, they ask questions, they create, refine and evaluate their own work. What more could we ask for in our classrooms? We are preparing students for a future we cannot predict for jobs that don’t exist yet, and with that in mind, it is essential that we are preparing students for lifelong learning in all content areas and for all kinds of careers including those in the arts.

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This groundbreaking learning experience explores arts-integrated ideas both in isolation and as part of the whole school community.  Each session includes a video, article and resources designed to help passionate educators go deeply into a cutting-edge concept. New sessions added each month.





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