Teaching Opinion

Project-Based Learning Is Here to Stay: Let’s Make Sure It’s High Quality (Part Two)

By Contributing Blogger — September 14, 2016 6 min read
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This post is by John Larmer, editor in chief of the Buck Institute for Education, and Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education. Follow them @JohnLBIE and @PBLBob.

In part one of this post, we introduced some common--and valid--concerns about project-based learning (PBL), and described how PBL teachers and schools are addressing the most frequent and important concern: does PBL teach content knowledge and skills, in addition to “soft skills?”

Here is how PBL teachers and school leaders are responding to other common concerns:

How do teachers assess project-based learning?

“Assess Student Learning” is an important project-based teaching practice, shown in the diagram below. As the student in our opening story explained, PBL teachers can still use traditional measures of student learning during a project, such as observations, assignments, performance tasks, quizzes, and tests to determine how well students have learned the targeted knowledge and skills.

To assess the application of knowledge and skills--what students can do, not simply know--t traditional assessment practices are not enough; a demonstration (a.k.a., performance-based assessment) is needed. This is even more true of success skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. Project-based learning provides multiple opportunities for such demonstrations.

Additionally, as John Dewey reminds us, “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” That’s why we made “Reflection” one of the Essential Project Design Elements. PBL teachers include many opportunities for reflection on learning in a project, in various formats, such as journaling, team and whole-group discussions, and when students present their work.

Does PBL personalize learning?

Personalized learning occurs in PBL, when projects are authentic to students’ lives and concerns and they are given opportunities for voice and choice. This is a different kind of personalization than the more commonly-promoted competency-based series of exercises done on a computer, but it’s just as important.

For an example of personalization in PBL, consider the “Resilience Café" project found at BIE’s PBLU.org. Teachers of eighth graders have used this project to teach standards for English Language Arts and U.S. History. Students learn about resilient heroes from the past and present, focusing on African-American history from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. They explore what it means to be resilient and learn about the music, art, literature, and work that can be born out of resilience. Then, students are asked to connect a resilient historical figure, a resilient community member they interview, and their own personal stories of resilience through writing and spoken word poetry, which they perform at a community celebration event.

Competence in the targeted knowledge and skills was individually assessed during the project by means of research assignments, worksheets for students to connect what they learned about resilience to themselves, and multiple drafts of their spoken word poetry--with a rubric and peer critique as well as teacher evaluation.

Do you need to do PBL 100 percent of the time in courses and schools?

Even in the more well-known PBL school models, it is not typically the case that students only do projects. Even if it is, there is plenty of room within a project to employ a variety of teaching strategies; the project is the “envelope” that contains them. By going deep into a topic, students gain more mastery than they do by more superficial “coverage” of the curriculum. And it is impossible in a given school year to teach students to a mastery level all that is required by typical sets of content standards; some standards have to be skipped or glossed over.

While competency-based learning often means measuring competencies with traditional tests of knowledge and skills on a device, to truly measure competency, knowledge and skills must be demonstrated on a performance task. PBL provides many opportunities for such demonstrations.

Even if students only do a few projects each year, they will reap many of the benefits PBL promises (e.g., building success skills, becoming more deeply engaged and empowered), which is more than they would get from traditional instruction alone.

How do we ensure all students do equal work and learn during a project?

PBL does not mean every project has to be done in teams--individual projects have their purposes, and collaborative features should be built into those as well. Collaboration is how most things get done in the world today. Students need to learn how to work in an effective team, and they can only do so by working in groups, even if it is difficult at times. We cannot just say it’s too hard for teachers to manage and there will always be the “free rider” problem of some students not do their fair share of the work, so let’s not teach collaboration skills.

The “free rider” problem in group work arises especially when teachers are new to PBL. When they gain more experience and learn how to scaffold and facilitate group work and build the right classroom culture, the problem becomes manageable. PBL teachers can design project products in ways that require all group members to contribute, and teach students how to set norms, make agreements, and hold each other accountable. Assessment and grading should be based predominantly on individual achievement, as opposed to “group grading,” which also helps ensure that everyone does their fair share of the workload in a project.

Are teachers prepared to teach PBL?

PBL does require a high level of skill on the part of the teacher, which is true for any pedagogy to be effective. Building the capacity of teachers to use PBL requires ongoing professional development and supportive school structures, such as collaborative planning time. But to say we must meet teachers “where they are” is selling them short. Many of the 15,000 teachers annually who attend BIE workshops say that PBL is “how they’ve always wanted to teach” but haven’t been able to. These teachers, who are not from “boutique” schools, return to their classrooms and carry out highly engaging yet rigorous projects with their students.

Other organizations are stepping up to build teacher capacity for PBL. The Knowledge in Action research project is being conducted by Lucas Education Research and funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation. In this project, teachers of high school Advanced Placement courses in U.S. Government and Environmental Science are being provided with PBL curriculum units designed by experts at the University of Washington’s College of Education. Training on how to implement the PBL units is being provided by the Buck Institute. More initiatives like this, in which teachers are given both professional development and high-quality project designs, will help meet the field’s needs.

All students deserve and need rigorous PBL

We do not believe that PBL is a panacea that will solve all of education’s problems; nor do we claim it by itself will meet every student’s every need. But we know that PBL, when it is done well, can be absolutely transformative for students, so it deserves a place in the opportunities given to all students today, no matter where they are or what their background.

Since project-based learning is here to stay and we share the above concerns, we need to work collectively with teachers, school and district leaders, the business community, philanthropists, researchers, and policy makers to ensure that PBL is implemented at a high quality. In partnership with the Hewlett Foundation and the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, the Buck Institute is coordinating an effort to establish a set of guidelines and indicators for high-quality PBL. We will be convening a wide group of stakeholders to gather their input, create an interactive website, and promulgate the guidelines and indicators for teachers, schools, districts, and other education organizations to use. Look for an invitation this fall to join the conversation.

For more, see www.BIE.org and follow @BIEpbl for all the latest news and resources on high quality project based learning and use hashtag #PBL.

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