Project Based Learning and Modeling Instruction: are they compatible?

Those who have read all of my posts to date (yes, all seven of them) will have noticed that I have enthusiastically discussed two different teaching methods: Project Based Learning (as done at High Tech High) and Modeling Instruction. You may be wondering, how can I be so enthusiastic about two different methods? Aren’t they mutually exclusive?

The reason I can be so enthusiastic about both of these teaching strategies, is that whilst they have areas where they are fundamentally different there are also similarities. Both of these are student-centred methods for teaching, and whilst PBL is broadly applicable to all subject areas both methods can be used for teaching science specifically. Importantly, both methods work well at engaging students in science and developing deeper understanding.

However, I also don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive: if you used one you could possibly implement the other as well. As I noted when I discussed Project Based Learning at High Tech High, most of the teachers there used a combination of projects and direct instruction to teach their students. However, the ‘direct instruction’ they implemented was still largely student-centred, and I suspect had some elements of Modeling Instruction embedded in it. I noticed a large number of student whiteboards propped up around Physics classrooms at HTH, usually with student explanations and representations still recorded on them. Now this doesn’t mean that the teachers were fully implementing Modeling Instruction; however, some elements of Modeling had definitely crept into some of their teaching.

I think that the two strategies could be combined within a Physics or Science classroom. That may mean the implementation would not fully reflect either method, but it could borrow the strengths of both. I envisage it could work as follows:

  1. Teacher opens the unit with a specific, thought-provoking project topic which structures the unit, provides relevance for the students, and connects with the world outside school. For example, perhaps students need to design a working prototype of a solar powered car which can meet certain requirements for speed and acceleration and car safety.
  2. Each week, students spend a few lessons doing experiments, developing conceptual models and explaining them using the whiteboards. This is the Modeling component, where students will be completing structured tasks to develop their understanding of the theoretical ideas. For the example solar car project, students would be learning about motion and electricity in order to design and build their cars.
  3. Students work on their projects for a lesson or two a week. In this time, they are getting hands-on experience with the materials and using the design process to develop, test and modify their work. The teacher would need to provide plenty of opportunity for whole-class testing and critiques of each others designs.
  4. By the end of the unit, students complete their models and create a display, which are displayed in a school exhibition for parents and the community. The final display serves a culmination of all the knowledge they have developed and would be the major basis for assessment.

In this way, I think a combined approach could work. However, I also think that the two teaching methods actually each lend themselves to different ends of the Australian high school spectrum. The fact that the sciences are mixed from years 7 to 10 would allow some interesting, relevant projects to be developed, and these could even include other subject areas where possible. The reasonably flexible NSW 7-10 science syllabus would allow for teachers to develop interesting projects which cover the dot points in meaningful ways.

In contrast, once the sciences separate in years 11 and 12, the senior syllabuses are very content-rich and the high-stakes HSC examination at the end places pressure on the teacher and students. As such, Project Based Learning could be too time consuming at this end of school. However, Modeling Instruction could be implemented at this stage, and would be particularly useful in year 11 Physics. Although Modeling Instruction does take a little more time that lecture-style delivery, it could help students have a good understanding of the fundamental concepts covered in year 11 in order to ensure they perform strongly in year 12.

There are definitely possible applications of both Project Based Learning and Modeling Instruction, and I think they could be successfully implemented either individually or together in Australian schools.


One response to “Project Based Learning and Modeling Instruction: are they compatible?

  1. I find your blogposts very insightful about Modeling Instruction and project-based instruction. You are right; they can be combined. Many teachers in Arizona who use Modeling Instruction also do project-based learning; they start their first project after students develop three or four models in mechanics. Teachers say, “Models must guide the projects, so that students can succeed in them.” By the way, a modeling cycle is described at .

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