How can I empower learners through a project-based learning approach?

Read this article by Ahisha Haneef, which explores how to empower learners using a project-based learning (PBL) approach in the classroom.

Young learners in Vietnam working together in class

These days, it is increasingly important that our learners are aware of global challenges. Project-based learning (PBL) is one way to raise awareness of real-life problems in the classroom. In this article, we look at the incorporation of PBL into English language teaching (ELT). Inspired by the British Council's Primary Plus magazine 'My Music', the project tasked learners with designing soundproof headphones, using a PBL approach. By sharing this experience, I aim to inspire fellow teachers to enrich their ELT curriculum, integrating meaningful content and fostering a generation of language learners with a heightened sense of responsibility. 

Why PBL? 

Project-based Learning (PBL) sessions blend language learning with vital 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. They prepare learners for real-world challenges, going beyond traditional academic exercises. Research underscores the importance of these skills for success in college and careers (Conley, 2005; Larmer et al., 2015).  

Constructionism is a learning theory that forms part of Seymour Papert's pedagogical approach. Constructionism proposes that the best way to ensure that learners acquire knowledge is through the active construction of something shareable – a poem, programme, model or idea – in other words, hands-on experiences and problem solving (Stager, 2016). This project draws inspiration from Papert's principles by engaging learners as active participants in solving challenges.  

The project 

The project addressed the challenge of sound pollution in Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, and in-class activities spanned an eight-week course. Initially, the problem was presented and defined, framing learners as sound engineers. This introduction involved watching a YouTube video and subsequent personalised discussions to create a context for engagement. 

Following that, teamwork was encouraged by assigning roles within the group, promoting collaboration, negotiation and boosting confidence as learners stepped into the shoes of sound engineers. In the research phase, learners used a KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned) grid to explore their existing knowledge, identify gaps and document new insights. 

Next, learners focused on 'My world' activities aimed at raising awareness of their surroundings based on the research findings, including aspects such as decibel levels and conductors of sound. Learners then had to create and evaluate prototypes in the design and testing phase. This was followed by an iterative process of improvement based on feedback. This cycle was repeated to further improve the prototype and ultimately produce the final product, which was then retested for effectiveness.  

Feedback throughout the project was mainly given by learners themselves, fostering self-assessment and ownership of their learning journey. This feedback was given through project portfolios, where learners documented their progress, challenges and reflections, enabling them to track their growth and contributions to the project. 


Various formative assessment techniques were used, including peer feedback, self-assessment, exit tickets and KWL grids. These assessed language proficiency and measured learners' understanding of global issues. These techniques also helped evaluate the learners' ability to propose sustainable solutions effectively.  


While learners found the project enriching, there were some challenges, notably in the initial stages of problem framing and research, where learners had to navigate unfamiliar territory. Encouraging learners to ask probing questions and providing scaffolding for research skills really helped with these stages. Additionally, learners needed constant guidance and motivation throughout the iterative design and testing phases to persevere through setbacks and revisions. 

If you are considering implementing a similar PBL approach, it's crucial to establish clear expectations and scaffolding to support learners in navigating complex problems. Providing plenty of opportunities for collaboration and peer feedback can enhance learning outcomes and build a supportive learning community in your class. By adapting the project to learners' interests and abilities, you can ensure that learners are more meaningfully engaged in the project. Lastly, incorporating reflective practices at various stages increases metacognitive awareness and enhances learning transfer beyond the scope of the project itself. 

Overall, while there are some challenges with this approach, the rewards are substantial, fostering critical thinking, collaboration and real-world application of language skills, all of which are hugely motivating for learners. 


Conley, D. T., 2005. College knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready. Jossey-Bass. 

Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J., Boss, S., 2015. Setting the standard for project based learning. Alexandria, ASCD. 

Stager, G., 2016. Seymour Papert, 1928–2016. Nature, 537 (7620), 308. 


Ahisha Haneef is an experienced educator, holding certifications in Cambridge CELTA, DELTA and Trinity TYLEC. She has been actively involved in teaching since 2017. Her teaching portfolio includes a diverse range of learners, spanning various backgrounds, nationalities and age groups. Her expertise extends to preparing learners for Cambridge IGCSE examinations. Passionate about creating dynamic and meaningful learning experiences, she is dedicated to engaging her learners through interactive lessons tailored to their everyday lives. Ahisha's innovative teaching approach contributes to a positive and empowering learning environment. 

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