Integrate Project-Based Language Learning and Show Students Why Learning a Language Is Relevant

May 9, 2019
Laura Sexton
Founder of PBL in the TL

Whenever I ask a group of language teachers what they wish for their students after their school year ends, I usually get about three responses:

  1. For them to love the culture,
  2. For them to travel the world, and
  3. For them to USE the language.

They never seem to say anything about conjugation. Huh.

The truth is that what we all want for our students is lifelong learning—we want passion. We want them to find something they can’t resist exploring—and to explore it! Language learning can multiply their exploration possibilities, and that is its true power. Learning another language expands where and how passionate people can immerse themselves in their passions, whether or not you end up sounding like a native speaker.

Now, there are a select few students whose passions will line up with ours: wordplay, culture, and wandering the world—you know, language teacher stuff. It’s easy to nurture the passions we understand and identify with! It’s easy when those passions are what drew us to teaching languages in the first place, because it means we can keep doing what worked for us when we started on the same path.

It’s those darn kids that have the nerve to love learning about something that doesn’t make sense to us, that doesn’t fit with what we consider worthy of passion or “academic pursuit.”

But the truth is, everyone loves learning something. And that love is what can keep them growing all their lives, what can help them find joy throughout life, even when the usual sources seem to run dry. Who cares if it’s service to their fellow man or sneakers or even selfies? If you can find something that makes a kid want more, then you can use that passion to find something that the world needs, to help that kid fill—or CREATE—a niche that needs occupying! Maybe they’ll even travel the world and discover other cultures while they’re doing it! But if you can tap into whatever it is that really does make them tick, then they can really see and believe they’re a part of that world that you’re trying to show them.

But the truth is that everyone loves learning something.

Now, I’m not saying every kid who’s passionate about basketball is going to make it to the NBA just because that’s their passion. There are dreams and then there are fantasies, right? But for that boy who wants to make it to the majors, or the girl who wants to draw for Disney: if they find the right questions, then they can also find the right answers, the right dream for them. And maybe they WILL be the next big YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat sensation. (Are Snapchat sensations a thing?)

But it won’t be just because they wanted it.

It will be because they kept growing, because they found something they could stick with long enough to get better at something they could contribute to. Then if an injury knocks them out of the game before their college ball career is even over, they will still have something that they can do with the game that they feel really matters.

You know, I often say that we have it harder as language teachers when it comes to Project-Based Learning and real-world applications, mostly because our students are starting from scratch and have extra work to do to connect their abilities to their desires. But in another sense, we really have it easy:

Our students can use language for ANYTHING they love.

Now, we could channel those loves into any number of stories for Comprehensible Input (CI) or performance assessments—integrated or otherwise. We could have students develop personalized vocabulary lists full of words that are only “high-frequency” because of their strange (yet school-appropriate) obsessions, with or without projects. Heck, we could have projects without Project-Based Learning—and most of us have for years.

The reason I, personally, latched onto Project-Based Language Learning (PBLL) is because of how each of our brains are made. The drive for instant gratification isn’t just some adolescent character flaw to be beaten out of young people: it’s a legitimate stage of neural maturity. Current research suggests that connectivity within the prefrontal cortex increases through adolescence, a connectivity that is necessary to higher-order functions like planning ahead and weighing risks and rewards. It’s not smartphones or social media that make “SOME DAY,” as in “SOME DAY you may want to travel the world,” “SOME DAY this could get you into your dream school,” or “SOME DAY this will help you get a better job with better money,” seem so far away. SOME DAY really is far away according to adolescent reality!

The drive for instant gratification isn’t just some adolescent character flaw to be beaten out of young people: it’s a legitimate stage of neural maturity.

In short: the real world is NOW, and it makes no sense to pretend teenagers should just consider their futures for them to succeed today.

No. I subscribe to PBLL practices because students can and should use language before they leave my class, and the only way I can ensure that they do is to make it part of my class. Moreover, if I really believe that they need to believe it, I need to make it the most important part of my class. It can’t be something tacked on as an afterthought, but something they are constantly building toward, something I scaffold, something for which I prepare them throughout the course.

They have to have a real, attainable goal that exists in their reality—not just their high school Spanish teacher’s reality.

We have to actively demonstrate the connection between language and what Daniel Pink identified in his bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Matters to Us, as the three most important factors in motivation: mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

It’s not the poster boards, the PowerPoints®, or the in-class skits that make the learning real. They can make the learning fun and engaging, to be sure. But it’s the tangible goal and the authentic audience that make learning a language NECESSARY. It’s the scaffolded input leading to actual interaction with other people that makes a project PURPOSEFUL.

Students can and should use language before they leave my class, and the only way I can ensure that they do is to make it part of my class.

Can your students find a love for culture and language without Project-Based Language Learning? Without a doubt.

Try Project-Based Language Learning to motivate more students to take that love further.

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