Education Opinion

Chat Wrap-Up: Project-Based Learning

March 07, 2006 4 min read
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Education Week sponsors regular online chats on its Web site, edweek.org. On Feb. 22, 2006, Theresa Gillyand Ben Daley, two teachers from San Diego’s High Tech High, a charter school that emphasizes project-based learning, answered readers’ questions about this type of instruction and the role technology can play in it. Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.

A full transcript of this chat is online at www.edweek.org/chat/project-based.

Question: What is meant by project-based learning? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

Daley: For me, project-based learning means getting kids making and building cool stuff. We believe that the biggest problem facing most high schools is that students are bored; they do not find listening to lectures to be engaging. So we begin by designing an interesting project that will get kids involved and interested in learning. Then we can pull in content that is relevant to the project. The disadvantage is that you cannot plow through as much of the curriculum when you teach in this way. In our high-stakes, frenzied world, it can be hard to go against the grain and teach in ways that engage students’ interests.

Question: What advice do you have for educators who know the value of technology-supported project-based learning but work in school settings that emphasize direct instruction, test scores, and accountability?

Daley: Project-based learning does not always require technology. Technology is used as a tool—as a means for making products look nice, or for research on the Internet. These things could be accomplished by having students do the research in libraries and having final products be handmade, rather than computer-generated. I believe project-based learning improves test scores, with or without technology.

Question: Can you suggest powerful ways to conduct project-based learning without technology?

Daley: One of our junior humanities teachers (U.S. history and American literature) had students write plays about the Vietnam War. The students picked the play they liked the best and staged a production of it, with the student who had written the play working as the director. Ninth grade students built roller coasters out of wood and glue to look at the physics principles involved. Other 9th grade students built boats that raced in a channel of water the teacher created. Much of the fantastic artwork in our school did not need technology to be created.

Question: How do you ensure that such activities prepare students for the questions they’ll face in a standardized-test situation?

Gilly: I try to incorporate as many standards as possible into the types of projects I create. While teaching chemistry, I taught gas laws through scuba diving. While teaching marine biology, I took students out into the field in Mexico to investigate marine turtles. I incorporated many standards into these projects. I did not cover all of the standards, nor do I worry about that fact. It is more important to get students developing a deep understanding in fewer areas than a broad knowledge that they often don’t remember.

Question: How do you ensure that standards and difficult concepts are mastered?

Daley: Ted Sizer often asks the important question, “Compared to what?” If you are teaching using traditional methods, how do you ensure that standards and difficult concepts are mastered? The answer is that you can’t, but teachers do their best job to teach the kids as well as they can, and then they create assessments they hope will measure whether the students have learned what they wanted them to learn. The same applies to project- based learning.

Question: Project-based learning, incorporating thematic units across various disciplines, has been around at least since the late ’80s, when I was teaching in a middle school. Why now, in this age of extreme emphasis on test scores, is this an idea whose time has come (again)? Will the school district buy-in be there?

Daley: Candidly, I don’t think district buy-in really will be there. Schools, for the most part, are locked into business as usual by school boards and teachers’ unions. I don’t know what to do about it, but that is why we are trying to change the system from outside a district. Perhaps we can show that, even in this standardized-test-focused era, project-based learning can work in a school whose principal has control of staff selection and the budget. Incidentally, I don’t think every school needs to be project-based. I would like to see a system of differentiated schools, where like-minded educators can work together toward common goals and families can pick the school that appeals most to them.

Question: There’s not a lot of written material available that is “teacher friendly.” Where does one go to find out how to better utilize the project-based approach?

Gilly: I would recommend taking an actual training [course] on project-based learning. I have not found any one “project based” paradigm that has become the sole one I use. As a teacher, I take from many different ways of designing projects.

Steps to designing integrated projects: (1) Be open to the opportunity to try, and know that you may need to give up something and be OK with that. Teach something you are passionate about. (2) Figure out a product you want to have in the end. Think of things that will help the greater community. (3) Create a “mind map” to get all the disciplines and their content on the map. (4) Start to develop your lesson plans from this mind map.

If you don’t know what to teach, ask the students what they want to learn about and to create. Then go back to step 2.


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