Preparing Learners in the Age of Automation: Project-Based Learning as a Pedagogical Approach

A Guest Column written by Ken Wojehowski, A Teacher and Dr. Joe Lloyd, an Admin

Dr. Joe Lloyd, Admin

Quite often, we hear that many of ‘tomorrow’s’ jobs have yet to be created. When ‘visioning’ what the field of education might look like in the near future, this can lead to intriguing ideas and also some inexactitude. Despite this ambiguity, Project-Based Learning features as a novel and compelling pedagogical approach.


Earlier this fall, on a sleepy Sunday morning, I found myself reading a fascinating article. Essentially, engineers in San Francisco were preparing to deploy a trash collection device in an effort to corral litter that is floating between California and Hawaii (one of the world’s largest garbage patches in the heart of the Pacific Ocean and twice the size of Texas).

While the problem of polluted waters is (unfortunately) not very new, I was excited to learn that the 2,000 foot, trash collection device was created by The Ocean Cleanup, an organization founded by Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old innovator from the Netherlands. Boyan first became passionate about cleaning the oceans when he went scuba diving at age 16, in the Mediterranean Sea, and found himself observing more plastic bags than fish.

Boyan’s work had provided me with an important ‘a-ha’ moment and featured several important ideas that we, as educators, can continue integrating into our work with students, such as:

  • exploring events and issues that present local/global problems
  • allocating time to work collaboratively, (not just cooperatively) with others in order to develop, revise & advance creative and practical solutions
  • promoting the sharing of ideas while enlisting the input and support of others

At 16 years old, Boyan encountered ocean pollution and, only a few years later, he had established ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ while working to tackle one of the world’s largest ocean pollutions- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In recognizing that we cannot precisely pinpoint what jobs the future will hold, we can find common ground in regards to the skills that students will require to be productive members of the workforce …

Effective communications, creative problem-solving, and relationship-building continue to be essential skills in which our students will undoubtedly require.

Enter Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered, inquiry-based and applied learning pedagogical approach that promotes the type of thinking as featured in Boyan’s story. More specifically, PBL encompasses: authenticity, student voice and choice, creativity, critical-thinking, collaboration, product development, and public presenting. Learning standards (as selected by instructors) drive PBL units, which are contextualized through real-world scenarios that students are charged with collaboratively tackling. O.K.- let’s stop here for a moment

It’s important to note that the PBL unit-design process will require: adaptability, planning, and great patience, which all are not easily available when you are serving as a classroom instructor who is tasked with increasing demands, including but not exhaustive to: ongoing lesson planning, classroom management issues, your family-life, parent phone calls, administrative expectations, district-wide initiatives, APPR, local/state testing … you get the point and so do we.

But Consider This …

Project-based Learning has the ability to actively engage students in mastering new standards because proficiency of these standards are essential to the development of a culminating public presentation in which they (not you) will be observed by peers and/or guests.

Because students are required to share their learning through a public presentation, they quickly realize the necessity in acquiring the unit’s new standards. Teachers are (theoretically) working with an engaged and attentive audience as the unit unfolds.

PBL promotes student ownership, as groups are typically provided with a guiding framework (embedded within an ‘entry event’) of what will be expected of them throughout a particular unit. A unit’s entry event not only serves to set-up expectations for student work, but ‘implicitly messages’ the learning standards and skills in which students will need to become proficient with.

Other components typically ‘front-loaded’ in a PBL-unit include: identifying specific learning standards, accompanying lessons/workshops, inviting guest speakers and establishing timelines, all of which can be time-consuming and tedious.

However, the work gradually shifts from instructional planning to student inquiry. Along the way, a given PBL Unit will have checkpoints, in which students are either allotted more time to learn specific standards/skills or they are “green-lighted” to continue advancing in their work.

The Transition

Several years ago, our school district had engaged in working together with students, parents, and staff members as part of an ongoing strategic planning process. Through this work, one underlying objective was to provide students with opportunities to engage in authentic learning experiences.

Moreover, our district recognized the importance of hiring an innovative, passionate, and experienced instructor who had regularly demonstrated the ability to bring district and community resources together, while providing authentic learning experiences for all students (K-12).

In seeking such an individual, our district selected our school’s Physical Education Instructor, Ken Wojehowski, to serve as the newly designated Project Based Learning (PBL) Specialist. In this initial year, he has been working with a cadre of instructors, spanning Grades 4-12. Together, Ken and our PBL Cohort are integrating this pedagogical approach into their classrooms.  

Ken Wojehowski, Teacher

Having thoroughly enjoyed twenty years of teaching physical education at Sloatsburg Elementary School, I was certain that I would finish my career nowhere else but there. The students, teachers, administrators, and community members were all people who I respected immensely and were a major reason why my job was so special to me. Aside from the village of Sloatsburg, I had become very active in The New York State Association For Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (NYSAHPERD)– presenting statewide, serving as zone president, chairing committees, etc. Physical Education was my identity and I thrived on pursuing innovative ways to teach it to my students.  

Roughly two years ago, my building principal, Dr. Joe Lloyd, approached me about something called Project Based Learning. My response was that I had never heard of it (which was surprising to me because I prided myself on being ahead of the curve) and didn’t know what it had to do with P.E. Joe shared with me his knowledge of PBL and, much to my surprise, he asked me to consider the possibility of implementing this in our district.  When I realized this was outside of the scope of P.E, I had immediate doubts. I was not pressured further and we left the topic alone for a while.

I began to conduct my own research at home, reading every article, and watching as many informative videos as I could get my hands on. What is Project Based Learning all about?  Could I possibly do this? I progressed to seeking out national PBL pioneers and “cold-called” a few of them to get more insight.

Before I knew it, I was hooked!  

Autonomous learning, 21st century skills, and authentic teaching were just a few of the key components that made PBL so appealing to me. Following my initial research, I met with Joe again and the district administration soon thereafter. Suddenly, the prospect of leaving P.E. and entering a whole new role was becoming very real.

The district allotted me a budget to be used for conferencing, traveling, attending workshops, etc.  I knew that I only wanted to seek out “the best in the business” and was very interested in learning from experienced teachers, schools, and PBL organizations that were not only successful, but proven to be sustainable as well. The Buck Institute of Education, New Tech Network, Tech Valley High School and The Think Global PBL Academy were among the list of resources I sought out for learning and guidance.  

After approximately one year of training and researching, our district was now on the cusp of introducing PBL as a new educational philosophy that would revolutionize teaching and learning as we knew it.  I spent time meeting with each building principal and sharing with them the PBL vision (one that will prove to be sustainable like the schools and professionals I learned from). After meeting several times with principals, our Assistant Superintendent, and the Deputy Superintendent, a PBL cohort of eight teachers was selected.

During this time I recognized the importance of “getting my feet wet” and pitched a project so that I could relate my experience to the newly selected PBL team of teachers.  With Joe’s guidance, I worked with a 5th grade teacher at Sloatsburg Elementary School, Mr. Brad Sahlstrom, on a project, which utilized everything that I had learned up to that point. Targeting Geometry, argumentative writing, and engineering skills, Mr. Sahlstrom’s students worked in small groups with the purpose of re-designing the village of Sloatsburg in order to boost the local economy. It was a big hit as we were able to involve the mayor, a building inspector, as well as a local engineer, during this project.  

At the conclusion of Mr. Sahlstrom’s five-week project, I met with the district’s PBL cohort for the first time. We discussed the project that we had just completed and talked about “lessons learned” from this initial PBL unit. During this meeting, I provided a general overview outlining the fundamentals of PBL:

  • How to effectively identify content and teaching standards
  • Project ideation
  • Rubrics
  • “Knows and Need to Knows”
  • Establishing an essential and driving question
  • Creating a project calendar
  • Utilizing benchmarks and assessments
  • Culture Building
  • Group Roles
  • Entry events and documents
  • Business/Community connections
  • Presentation Day/21st Century Skills
  • “Critical Friends” feedback tool

Following this meeting, the next step was for our cohort to view PBL in action. I scheduled a trip upstate to Tech Valley High, a school that fully integrates Project Based Learning (they only teach through projects and there is no “traditional” teaching at all). Our team was encouraged to ask teachers and students questions, observe, etc. It was another healthy step for the cohort to take, which helped them gain a better understanding of what was expected.  

To be accepted into the district’s PBL cohort, each teacher was required to attend a week long summer training in upstate New York. During this five-day training, team members not only learned the basics of PBL, but began to create their first project as teachers. Additionally, they had the opportunity to experience a project from a student’s vantage point.  Teachers were grouped together and taken through a PBL journey (the same way they were going to lead their students on). This enabled our conference attendees to experience two different projects in one week.

Following this conference, I met with each teacher individually for half day before the school year began. The purpose of this meeting was to assist in further developing our project calendars, discussing possible expert guests (who would add authenticity) and to formulate the project storyline (entry document). No more than three projects were scheduled per month district-wide. As part of our projects, we also scheduled culture-building lessons with each class that preceded each project launch. The focus of culture building is to foster 21st Century skills, collaboration, and to establish group roles.

The Teacher & The Admin.
At the completion of this guest-piece, Ken and the district’s PBL cohort have concluded several units spanning fourth, fifth and ninth Grade. Together, their work has enhanced a fourth grade unit that integrated Engineering, Math, and Science through the modeling of an “All-Ability Playground Design Challenge,” another Fourth Grade Social Studies Unit emphasizing Native American Living and New York State Geography, and a Ninth Grade Writing Seminar in which freshmen students partnered with fifth grade students.

With learning experiences guided by standards and marked with the skills of collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking, we trek forward on the promising trail of Project-Based Learning.

About the Guest Authors

Ken Wojehowski is the newly appointed Project Based Learning Specialist in the Suffern Central School District. He has worked in education for 22 years and was recognized as the Elementary Physical Education Teacher of the Year by NYSAHPERD in 2013.  Ken is passionate about innovative teaching. He enjoys exploring ways to accentuate content learning while improving the culture within schools.

Joe Lloyd is the principal of Sloatsburg Elementary School. He has worked in the field of education for 17 years. Prior to joining the Suffern Central School District in 2014, he was an assistant principal for seven years and a classroom teacher for five years in the North Rockland Central School District. Joe is honored to be working alongside a dedicated faculty, staff & community.