• We are currently in an unexpected time of stress and isolation. Even my own children, who are usually steadfast and unfazed by much, are feeling the impact of world-wide panic and the prospect of a fast-spreading and strong virus shutting down almost everything for an undetermined amount of time. We’ve had times of big crisis before. Weather-related events, natural disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks – sometimes it feels like it’s one thing after another. Then there is personal crisis- a divorce, a diagnosis, a death- that doesn’t stop the whole world, but devastates our own. The surest way to cope with a crisis is to carry on with anything you can. Consistency is comforting and the distraction of routines can often help us move through crisis while we deal with any trauma.

    Right now, there are many families scrambling to figure out how to approach learning at home, and many families who already home educate are trying to figure out the spaces that are left by cancelled classes, park days, and field trips. Some families will need to meet the requirements of their child’s school with online learning, and some will adjust whatever they were doing before. In either case, one of the most productive and meaningful things families can do right now is take on a project. While I am obviously a proponent of project-based learning at any time, there are a few reasons why project-based learning is particularly helpful to learning during a crisis:

    • Project-Based Learning can be done anywhere.

    I would argue that all learning can happen anywhere, but project-based learning is undoubtedly suited to the task. Because the focus is on the driving question, problem, or challenge, you can adjust your project to research and activities based on where you are and what you have at your disposal. Materials can be ordered or you can figure out how to use what you have. Mentors can be reached by email or video conference and if you don’t have regular Internet access, writing a letter is still a thing. In times of crisis, showing that learning can happen anywhere removes the mental barriers that go up when our routine is altered and we can no longer access the places we used to count on.

    • Project-Based Learning can be tailored for an individual or for multiple children.

    While some learners may have specific ideas about what kind of projects they’d like to tackle, others may benefit from a group project in which they can play a role. Group projects allow everyone to contribute to a united goal, and provide an opportunity for each student to use their strengths and interest in service of the projects and their community- both at home or in the classroom and in the larger sense. In fact, you may have separate projects running for each student because each had a different interest, but consider finding a way for them to play some part in another project. Perhaps it’s testing a prototype, editing a blog post, teaching a skill, or helping with the final presentation. You can even put online groups together, because as I pointed out above, project-based learning can happen anywhere. In times of crisis, finding ways to connect with each other is important so we don’t feel isolated. Knowing others are also going through the same emotions and limitations can help us through. Working on a project with or near your family can create new bonds and help overcome feelings of boredom or annoyance with each other. Working on or sharing a project with friends helps us stay connected even if we can’t see them in person. Reaching out to mentors, even if they can’t help us at the moment, reminds them that their work is important, creates new relationships, and sets up future possibilities.

    • Project-based Learning is interest-driven and multi-disciplinary.

    I am a big fan of working smarter, not harder. Project-based learning has always helped me with that. Project-based learning is interest-driven, so the motivation is intrinsic. During times of crisis, having a project that a student is willingly and enthusiastically working on will occupy their time and their mind. The projects are naturally multi-disciplinary, so you are covering many subjects at once. Tying many academic and vocational skills into a project can help students see those subjects differently, perhaps with more interest and joy, especially if they are topics required by a school or teacher. If it works to do so, and your student is emotionally up for it, they could also integrate the current crisis into their project, making it even more relevant and giving them a sense of control over the information they find and how they would like to process it.

    • Project-Based Learning gives learners control.

    One of the hardest parts about a crisis is the feeling that you have no control. This drives people to behavior that is unusual at best, dangerous at worst. Kids feel this lack of control the most, as their world is effectively controlled by the decisions adults make. Providing an environment in which some autonomy and control can be given back to children can be incredibly empowering. Everything about a project, from how to approach the driving question to creating an outcome that is deeply personal and meaningful, can be centered around the learner. The experience of project-based learning makes kids feel in control of at least one aspect of their life during a crisis, providing a needed distraction from the onslaught of constant information and opinions. In fact, at a time of crisis, when all the other things that the student used to do to be or feel productive have been put on hold, project-based learning can reveal to them new ways of looking at learning, productivity, and possibilities that they hadn’t thought of before.

    • Project-Based Learning can be healing.

    Both adults and children will end up experiencing the trauma created by a crisis to varying degrees. What is important is that we recognize the ways in which we are affected and take steps to cope and heal.  There are some significant commonalities we can support to make sure we and our children heal from our experience with a crisis. Making sure we don’t feel isolated by connecting with our community can be served by taking on a project in which we work collaboratively, or bring in mentors and help as needed. In fact, mentors can not only lend an experienced point of view, but also offer intellectual and emotional support when we need it. Project-based learning builds a consistent routine in which we are dedicated to the process of moving towards a meaningful outcome. These small steps we take every day as we work on our project give us regular progress and a focus that acts much like a meditation. When we center our learning on something we are interested in and that has real-world application, we feel empowered and whole. Project-based learning encourages us to listen to ourselves, and to others, to figure out what we can control and what we can’t, and to prioritize what is important through the lens of the subject we have chosen. Everything we learn in a project can be applied in a larger context to help us process and heal from crisis and trauma. And while this experience does not take the place of professional mental health treatment when or if it is needed, it can provide some respite at home as we try to go about our daily lives.

    Honestly, if you’ve ever wanted to try project-based learning, now is a perfect time. If you are unsure or inexperienced, start with a small project, plan it well, and go for it. It might take a few projects to become comfortable and confident.

    My own hope is that everyone reading this stays safe and well during this current crisis. I also hope that the time spent with your children during this time, whether you plan to continue homeschooling or not, opens up a new understanding in the family about how learning best happens, how to center your and your child’s interests, and how we are all capable of more than we thought.

    Note: If you’d like help with designing and implementing projects, the book I wrote with Blair Lee is available in print and e-book versions here. We also have a Facebook page and group to support our project-based learning community.