Project-Based Learning Meets Maker

As you’ve read in our previous posts, the MakerEd movement is built on a philosophy that students learn by doing. Teachers are letting their students get their hands dirty (literally and figuratively) through exploratory and discovery based activities as well as giving them the tools and technical skills to make their designs come to life. So what happens when the MakerEd philosophy collides with the world of standards-based assessment?

One answer: Project-Based Learning (PBL).

The Buck Institute for Education ( has become the go-to resource for those of us interested in PBL. Their Essentials Checklist highlights the elements of a well-designed project, many of which are aligned with the MakerEd philosophy such as in-depth student inquiry, developing 21st-century skills, and an iterative design process. The element of PBL that may be missing from some maker projects is the direct link to content standards.

The design of a PBL unit acknowledges that the end product is only one part of the process. In Project-Based Assessment, for example, students are taught content standards per usual, and instead of having a test or quiz, they demonstrate their knowledge and skills through a more creative and individualized end product. This model does provide an opportunity for a Maker style project. However, the reason I believe Project-Based Learning may be a better fit is that PBL brings together the content standards with the design process - the Maker project becomes the vehicle by which students learn the content. Thus, it provides more opportunity for learning that is authentic and student-driven while addressing specific content standards. Most importantly for a healthy Maker environment, PBL is also driven by student inquiry.

A well designed PBL unit will have inherent structures to insure students are meeting your expectations in terms of content standards: design logs, tasks which require the use of specific skills or knowledge, benchmark assessments. However, that does not mean the death of student creativity. PBL begins with an open-ended, essential question which might be phrased as a problem that needs solving or a big idea that is open for debate. For example, a biology project could be guided by the question “is our drinking water safe to drink?” From there, students generate unique solutions to the question. In the process of experimentation and developing a method of answering the question, students will learn new content and skills while engaging in the creativity of designing and making.

Using “projects” to assess student learning used to mean asking students to digest rote knowledge onto posters, dioramas, or tri-fold brochures. However, the times have changed. With access to more efficient and powerful tools and technology, students can generate much more robust products. Developing 21st century skills is a worthy goal in teaching and the MakerEd philosophy is a great way to do just that. When it really comes down to it, what the future makers of the world will need is creativity and a willingness to tinker until they find what works.

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