“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”
These words were penned by John Dewey, the 20th century educational reformer and philosopher.
The educational renegade of his day, Dewey proposed that learning should have a foundation in experience and be driven by student interest. He maintained that “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.”
Nearly a century later, educators around the world still hold fast to Dewey’s theory and have embraced the learning method that is now referred to as Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL boasts roots dating all the way back to illustrious educational figures such as Aristotle and Maria Montessori, and has modern educators tossing out their textbooks and turning to authentic, student-led learning experiences.
As Spanish educators, we are well aware of the benefits of authentic learning for high school Spanish students. The beauty of Project Based Learning is that it takes authentic experiences and evolves them into a whole new approach to the teaching and learning process.
What Is Project Based Learning (PBL)?
According to the Buck Institute for Education, Project Based Learning is a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”
In short, PBL is a shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-led discovery through projects. The idea is that students learn from experience and become engaged in a topic through inquiry, investigation and reflection. In the Spanish classroom, PBL provides students with the opportunity to interact with the culture and the language by being immersed in meaningful experiences.
The Essentials of Conducting a PBL Project
While there’s a lot of discussion out there on how projects should be conducted, I’m of the belief that you should do what works for your class. There aren’t rigid rules for how educators should implement Project Based Learning, but if you’re looking for some general guidelines, here are some things to look for:
- A focus on student learning goals. Obviously you’ll want class projects to be centered on student language learning goals.
- Pose a question/problem. Most projects begin with students inquiring about a subject or topic. Inquiry then leads to investigation.
- Investigation. Students are tasked with learning more in order to answer their question or solve their problem.
- Authenticity. Most projects employ authentic activities and materials. Researching real-world problems and asking real-life questions lead to well-rounded students and legitimate learning experiences.
- Student-led. Students take responsibility for their learning and study what interests them. They need to be motivated to reach their end product.
- Critical thinking. This comes with the territory when students are questioning and investigating new ideas. When students are in groups, they’re able to bounce ideas off of each other and conduct discussions that provoke higher-level thinking.
- Review/Assessment. Projects should be a way for teachers to assess student learning.
- Presentation. Projects and presentations are like peanut butter and jelly: they simply go together. Students should be given the opportunity to present their hard work and share their findings with the world. This is essential learning for high school students. Rarely are adults tested and given grades, but they are continually required to solve problems and present solutions in their daily life.
Why Use Project Based Learning in the Spanish Classroom?
- Students remember it. PBL employs higher-level thinking which ensures greater retention. Think Bloom’s Taxonomy and higher-order thinking processes like analysis, evaluation and creation.
- It’s more engaging for high school students. PBL gives students the opportunity to “get their hands dirty” by using real-world topics.
- It teaches life skills. Students take responsibility for their learning success and acquire problem-solving skills.
- It’s real. Project Based Learning provides authentic opportunities to work with Spanish language and Hispanic culture.
- It’s fulfilling for students and teachers. Instead of worksheets and rote memorization, students finish their projects with a sense of accomplishment and purpose—which also results in happy and fulfilled teachers. This is a win-win situation!
5 Awesomely Authentic Spanish Projects Your Students Will Cheer For!
All of these projects can easily be tailored to the specific needs and learning goals of your class. They are geared towards the needs and interests of high school students, but can be adapted for use with many different ages. Some changes you make may also affect the skill level or the time needed to complete the projects. The overarching goal here is to get students thinking critically and gain real-world experience.
Project #1: Survivor
Skill Level: Beginner to Advanced. The teacher can make this as detailed or simple as necessary.
Time Needed: 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on how detailed the teacher wants the project to be and how much time is allotted to students during class time.
This project is a “spin-off” of the hit TV show “Survivor.” On that show, teams are dropped off at remote locations around the world and have to work together to “survive” (i.e., win the game).
Much like the show, small groups in your class are given the name of an unfamiliar Latin American/Spanish city and are asked to investigate all aspects of the culture and life there, in order to survive and become a contributing individual in that society. Students are asked to investigate local foods, shelters, resources, occupations, etc. in order to form a survival plan.
Learning Goals: Study Hispanic culture. Conduct research about cities in Latin America/Spain. Understand different ways of life. Learn life skills for living in a new place.
Problem/Question: How do we survive and even thrive in this culture?
Investigation: Students should make a plan and support their ideas with true evidence. They should use travel blogs, maps, country profiles, etc. to make their plan.
Authenticity: Research authentic steps to survive in each place. Students should find actual places to stay, eat, make money, etc.
Presentation: Students present their location and their plan for survival to the class. They can choose how information is presented (e.g., poster, video, role play, etc.)
Project #2: Shark Tank
Skill Level: Advanced.
Time Needed: Approximately one week.
This project is also based off of a popular reality TV show called “Shark Tank.” In that show, contestants are inventors who try to “sell” their product to high-profile investors. After explaining their product to the panel of investors, they try to convince the investors to get on board and invest in their product in order for everyone to make a bigger profit.
Similarly, in this project, the whole class is given a cursory introduction to a difficult Spanish unit (such as a subjunctive tense). Small groups are then tasked with learning the material completely, and then in turn must figure out the best way to teach the material to lower-level Spanish students.
Learning Goals: Truly understand new grammar by applying what they’ve learned and presenting it clearly and accurately. Basically, students employ the “Flipped Teaching” method.
Problem/Question: This unit or tense has been extremely difficult for students to learn in the past. What is the best way to present the material to students in the future?
Investigation: How have others taught this material? What can we do to effectively teach this theme?
Authenticity: Researching real methods and applying them in order to transfer knowledge and teach information to lower-level students.
Presentation: Small groups present, “Shark Tank” style, to a group of lower-level Spanish students. The lower-level students vote on which group’s method is most understandable and who they want to “invest in.”
Project #3: Would You Rather?
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced.
Time Needed: Approximately one week.
I believe Project Based Learning can be very open-ended. This project allows students to create Spanish-related “Would you rather…?” questions that appeal to them. They can be fun or serious.
Some examples (in English) include:
- “Would you rather run with the bulls in Spain or attend a Posada (a nine-day religious celebration) in Mexico?”
- “Would you rather eat Spanish Paella or Costa Rican Mondongo (tripe soup)?”
- “Would you rather hike to Iguazu Falls in Argentina or Machu Picchu in Peru?”
Learning Goals: Improve speaking fluency. Students should complete and present all work in Spanish.
Problem/Question: Whatever the students/teacher come up with.
Investigation: Students are required to weigh the pros and cons of their decision. They are required to conduct research and then decide how to accurately convince their classmates to make the same decision.
Authenticity: You or your students choose real-life situations that students have to investigate and evaluate.
Presentation: Present findings and opinions to the class (in Spanish). Have the class vote on whether they agree or disagree, and if they were persuaded by the presenter’s research.
Bonus: For a much quicker version of this project, the questions could be turned into a card game (in fact, there’s even an English card game with the same name). Students would draw a card and explain to the class why they would rather do one thing over another. It’s a simple but fun way to get students talking!
Project #4: Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced.
Time Needed: 2 to 4 weeks.
This is a humanitarian project. Every Hispanic country has some humanitarian crisis or problematic social issue. Small groups must choose their country and create a character who is living through that particular crisis. The goal is to come up with ways to alleviate the crisis and proactively “help” their character.
Learning Goals: Writing fluency. Students are asked to write an “article” to raise awareness about their crisis.
Problem/Question: What is the issue? How can we help?
Investigation: Students need to conduct research and find statistics. They should evaluate what things are currently being done to deal with the situation.
Authenticity: Students are involved in proactively looking for solutions to real-world problems.
Presentation: Present findings to the class and write an article in order to raise awareness. Send those articles to newspapers or post them on a class blog.
Project #5: Advertisement
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced.
Time Needed: Approximately 2 weeks.
This is a fun project that allows students to try new things. Students will need to research a certain food product from a Latin American country. The goal is to find a food that is actually sold online (or at a local ethnic grocery store), which isn’t well-known in the U.S. and which can be purchased for a reasonable price. Students then purchase their item, test it out and try to convince others they should also purchase the product.
Learning Goals: Improve speaking fluency. Students take their products and create a sales pitch to get their community interested in their product.
Problem/Question: What ethnic product would sell well in my community? How can I get more people interested?
Investigation: Find information about the product. Investigate ways to use social media to advertise the product.
Authenticity: Students try real products enjoyed in Hispanic cultures. They also investigate how to use social media outlets and engage with the community around them.
Presentation: Students are asked to present their products and create a sales pitch for their product. They should incorporate social media, visual aides and a short video to sell their product.
While Project Based Learning may not seem like a traditional teaching method, our old friends and mentors Dewey and Aristotle might beg to differ.
Exposing students to life though project learning isn’t a radical concept—it’s a practical and effective method that begets positive results. When we start challenging students to take ownership of their learning, we see that education doesn’t have to be preparation for life, but indeed, education is life itself.
Hats off to you, Mr. Dewey.
Tricia Wegman Contreras has spent the last seven years in Costa Rica working as a bilingual Learning Specialist with students of all ages. She enjoys using her background as an Intervention Specialist to help all types of language learners succeed.
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