Weekly Reflection: Why I love (and hate) project based learning

Igloos from the milk bottle
Milk bottles from my class (image used under creative commons licence)

Over the last two two terms my class has been building a milk bottle igloo. I’d like to say I had some sort of concept-based outcome when I decided to take on this project.

But alas no.

I saw the idea on twitter via @annekenn, a couple of classes decided to give it a go. The project broadly fitted with my school-wide topic of sustainability so I thought why not?

I showed the class the how to video at the start of the term to get them inspired but in reality I think the kids thought not for the first time this year that their teacher has a touch of the crazy.

Nevertheless the kids started bringing milk bottles in. At one stage I had over 150 milk bottles strung up around my classroom.  But then I fell into a mild panic. What on earth were we going to build our structure on?

Was I going to have to abandon the project?

Weeks passed and the number of milk bottles being bought in started to drastically decrease. The construction work started on the school’s main building and I managed to salvage a piece of carpet from the demolition.

Once we had our base, building could finally commence.

Then about a third of the way through construction, we were facing a dangerous lack of milk bottles. We The kids were getting a bit sick of the project and I was again running out of steam. The end of the year was rapidly approaching and I didn’t want this project to fail.

I talked to my tutor teacher who came up with an idea to get the rest of the school involved, have a competition. Thus the great milk bottle competition  began. Slowly but surely kids from different classes started bringing in milk bottles and the most amazing thing happened.

As the construction of our igloo progressed, the number of kids coming into the class with spare milk bottles  started increasing. The kids in my class became a lot more excited about the project and we finally finished the project with a ribbon cutting ceremony that the students organized during their ‘morning stuff.

It was fantastic feeling seeing the kids finally finish the project and more importantly that the igloo is getting plenty of use from the kids. In fact the more I think about, the more I love that the class has created a cave space for the kids who crave less stimulation in the classroom.

But what has been really rewarding has been seeing kids list in their end of year reflection for their reports list building the igloo as a highlight of the year.

But what did all this igloo building teach my class.

First off  building the igloo taught us that we can transform everyday objects into works of art or something functional with a bit of creativity.

Secondly, the igloo taught my students the value of team work. I showed two students the basics of construction and then they passed on the lessons to other people.

Thirdly, we all learned that hot glue leaves a nasty burn and the best thing to do is run cold water on it and wait for it to peel off.

But the biggest lesson I hope that my students took away with them is the importance of collaboration. There’s no way we would have finished the igloo if students and teachers from other classes hadn’t pitched in. Having others help gave both myself and my class the motivation to finish the project.

But project based learning doesn’t come without its pitfalls. There were a number of times throughout construction where I fell into one of those pits of despair we all fall into when something you’ve invested a lot of time in isn’t going well.

Project based learning is also incredibly messy. There was a stage where the classroom felt like it was swimming in milk bottles and the project certainly didn’t fit into a nice ordered unit of work. I couldn’t tell you at the start of the term when we were going to finish the igloo or even if we were going to finish constructing the thing at all.

Project based learning sometimes results in failure. Our igloo is slowly collapsing. One of my students has already identified that we didn’t have any scaffolding and more importantly we got a bit sloppy with construction in parts. Important engineering lessons for youngsters.

Project based learning sometimes hurts. Yes I burned myself multiple times. Yes my students burned themselves too.

But when they look down at that scar, they’ll be able to tell the story of the igloo made of milk bottles.

6 thoughts on “Weekly Reflection: Why I love (and hate) project based learning

Add yours

  1. Ah, Stephanie, I feel your pain. I’ve gotten started on projects that turned out to be far greater than I imagined. Good work sticking with it!

    It seems like the project would also be a STEM-type project where student need to engineer a way to connect the milk jugs so that they could sustain a certain weight or hold a certain number of people. I’m sure there are a number of science and math objectives that would fit well with the project.

    My school has a new STEM coordinator and is getting me excited about projects like yours :).


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