Equity & Diversity Opinion

Project-Based Learning With an Equity Lens

By Contributing Blogger — August 22, 2016 6 min read
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Bob Lenz is executive director of the Buck Institute for Education. Follow him @PBLBob.

Kaleb, Alan, and Aaron all chose to attend an Envision Education project-based learning school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aaron grew up in a middle class home with two college graduate parents with successful careers and tested in the 99th percentile on standardized tests. Alan’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when Alan was very young to find economic and education opportunities. Kaleb, African American and, like Alan, the first in his family to graduate from college, came to the school because he was failing in his traditional comprehensive high school. Which one of them, if any, will succeed in a project-based learning school?

At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), our vision is that all students--no matter where they live or what their background--will have access to high quality project-based earning so they deepen their learning and achieve success in college, career and life.

Why do we believe that all students should have access to project-based learning--especially students further from opportunity?

Project-based learning transforms students by inspiring them to think differently about themselves as learners, collaborators, and leaders. First-generation college students often report that when they arrive at college that they are sure that they other students are better prepared for college than they are. First Gen students from project-based schools that require high-stakes exhibitions and presentations of learning report the same feeling; however, this dissolves quickly when they begin college coursework that requires project-management skills or public speaking and all of their classmates from supposedly “better” schools are less prepared. The First Gen students are often better prepared to manage complex and longer-term coursework that college requires than their peers. Not surprisingly, project-based learning high schools are reporting significantly higher first year college persistence rates than traditional high schools.

Project-based learning prepares students for academic, personal, and career success; what’s more, it readies young people to rise to the challenges of their lives and the world they will inherit. Quality PBL is anchored in the key knowledge, understanding, and success skills that are necessary but not sufficient for success after high school. By drawing on students’ individual culture and experience as well as posing local challenges in their community to be solved, well-designed projects allow students to not only tackle the challenge of academic learning but also allow students to see themselves as agents of change in their own lives and in their communities and schools.

Project-based learning leads students to master core academic content and builds critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management skills. Research and our experience in school and life shows us that deeper learning outcomes like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, problem solving, self-management and persistence, and being able to transfer learning to new and different situations lead to college and career success. Standardized test scores are not predictive of success in college and career. It turns out that GPA and overall engagement in school, as measured by attendance and on-time grade progressions, are much better predictors of future success, as New York Times bestselling author Paul Tough writes in his book Helping Children Succeed. Quality project-based learning facilitates the learning of these deeper learning outcomes. Consequently, ALL students deserve access to high quality project-based learning so that they can reach college and career success.

Project-based learning enables teachers to make a difference in their students’ lives --academically, socially, and emotionally--and to experience the joy of teaching. We know that the world has changed dramatically and that schools have not. Teachers are challenged to engage and prepare students who are not connecting to rote learning driven by standardized tests--especially students further from opportunity. At BIE we survey all of our participants in our professional development, and time and time again, teachers report that facilitating and designing project-based learning reconnects them with why they decided to become a teacher. PBL is as good for teachers as it is for students.

During our recent strategic planning process, the Buck Institute for Education established lofty ambitions. Among several other long-term goals, we strive to see project-based learning widely used and recognized as a tool to address educational inequity and to empower youth furthest from opportunity.

To help meet this goal, we are looking at our work with an equity lens. We are working for all students--especially students further from opportunity--to have increased access to quality PBL, because it is their right. We need to make quality PBL more accessible for students lacking basic skills and dealing with challenges of poverty. Finally, we need to be courageous in insisting that our colleagues hold all students and their work to the same high level of expectations for success--PBL is not about engagement (although students are highly engaged). PBL is about learning the key knowledge, understandings, and success skills for college, career, and life. ALL students deserve this opportunity, not just those from privilege and/or who are currently academically proficient.

At BIE, our equity lens looks like a pair of glasses. One lens is reactive. We are building our internal capacity and that of our partners to have the courage as an organization and as individuals to interrupt inequity when we confront it in our work. No longer will we stand by silently when teachers, schools and districts only want to provide PBL opportunities for students closest to opportunity. Our other lens is proactive. We will be working with key partners like E3 - Education, Excellence and Equity, the National Equity Project, the Deeper Learning Network, and other educational equity organizations to create curriculum and services to support teachers, schools, and districts to meet the challenge of providing quality PBL opportunities to students furthest from opportunity. It is essential that we tackle this challenge.

Who succeeded, Aaron, Alan or Kaleb? Not surprisingly, ALL three:

Aaron went on to Stanford and graduated with honors in the top 25 of his class. He interned at Apple and worked on the team that wrote the code for Siri. He is now the CEO and founder of an artificial intelligence technology start-up in the Silicon Valley.

Alan went to community college and achieved his AA degree and navigated the process to get his Green Card. Alan excelled in video projects in high school and now runs his own successful video production company in his home town.

Kaleb went on to graduate from college and is now a vice president of regional bank in the Bay Area and serving on local non-profit boards that serve students furthest from opportunity.

With quality project-based learning, we do not have to choose one group of students over another to focus our efforts. Quality project-based learning provides equity for students furthest from opportunity while enhancing the opportunities of those who already have it. We call that a win/win.


This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.