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In inclusive classrooms, where students of all abilities and learning styles aim for the same goals, providing a variety of options leads to increased student achievement. Project-based learning (PBL) offers classrooms freedom to design projects, learning pathways and assessment criteria to match individual needs and interests.

Project-Based Learning

When teachers use project-based learning as a foundation for student achievement, the project is not simply tacked onto the end of a unit to demonstrate mastery or understanding. The project itself is the centerpiece of learning as students discover answers and solutions to real-world questions and problems. A true project-based learning environment includes the following elements:

  • A challenging problem or question to investigate and solve, either concrete or abstract.
  • A sustained inquiry process involving more than “googling the answer.”
  • An authentic, real-world problem or question.
  • Substantial student voice and input, including project organization and process.
  • Student reflection on the learning process.
  • Constructive peer criticism and group or individual revisions.
  • Presentation of process and results.

The Benefits of PBL for Students With Special Needs

Students with special needs receive instruction in two general places: the general education classroom and the special education, self-contained classroom. Using the PBL approach to learning in each of these settings offers benefits to students with either academic or social/emotional disabilities.

In the general education setting, students with special needs often feel either left out or incapable of keeping up with their peers. Although they may be included in a diverse ability group for collaborative work designed by the teacher, they are generally reluctant to speak up for fear of being wrong. When students are involved in true PBL, they are invested in the topic and solution because it is authentic. When students of all academic abilities work together, they find strengths in each other and learn to depend on these strengths to create a successful project.

In the self-contained or pull-out classroom, PBL allows the special education or general education teacher to structure support for each student. At the same time, the PBL model allows students the freedom to expand their strengths by engaging in something that matters to them. When they can design the learning plan and pace, students are able to reveal hidden or underdeveloped talents that may have never been discovered without the freedom of PBL.

How PBL Prepares Students for the Future

Too often, the problems designed for students with special needs are simplistic and do not require multiple steps to solve. When classes or groups select the PBL problem or question, it consists of complex, real-world issues.

For example, an adaptive physical education class in Crawfordsville, Indiana, used the PBL model when the first springtime walk was ruined by broken and dangerous sidewalks, which were inaccessible for their classmates in wheelchairs. During the project, as students developed questions and found answers to make their community more walkable, “the combination of taking community field trips, using audiovisual equipment, researching on the computer, sharing in interpersonal groups, and working on solitary activities within the groups allowed all learners to work in their comfort zones and even venture out of their comfort zones at times.”

In addition to solving real-world problems, students develop social and presentation skills. When working with peers of various abilities and learning styles, students with a shared goal learn about working cooperatively with those who may do things differently. They learn how to speak up when they have an idea and how to defer to others who may have different ideas. They also learn how to present ideas, whether at a culminating celebration or during group work.

Finally, one thing students with learning or social disabilities have in common is a reluctance to search out answers on their own. They often look to teachers for guidance and support and resist working independently for fear of being wrong or getting stuck.

In the real world, however, there is no “one-stop shop” for answers to a question. The students in Crawfordsville found this to be true very quickly when their teachers could not answer questions like “Who do we call to complain?” or “How much will it cost to fix @the sidewalks?” In this hands-on learning project, students had to find answers by trial and error and research, just as they will have to do as they continue their education, find a meaningful career and join the community as adults.

Earning a Master of Education in Special Education from a prestigious school like Mississippi College will help experienced teachers “plan effective teaching and learning experiences for diverse learners,” including project-based learning, a proven method that effectively supports students with special needs to succeed both academically and socially.

Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Special Education program.


Buck Institute for Education: Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements

Teaching Exceptional Children Plus: Empowering Students With Special Needs to Help Others: How Problem Based Learning Made It Possible

ThoughtCo.: Project-Based Learning for Special Education and Inclusion

Defined STEM Educator Blog: 3 Benefits of Using PBL in a Special Education Classroom

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