Teaching Opinion

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

By Contributing Blogger — September 12, 2016 4 min read
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This post is by Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, and John Larmer, editor-in-chief of the Buck Institute for Education. Follow them @PBLBob and @JohnLBIE.

A panel of ninth and tenth grade students sit at on stage fielding questions after the premiere of their Ken Burns-style documentary on historical factors leading to ride of Germany Nationalism and their involvement in World War I. This is the concluding exhibition of learning for a World History, English Language Arts and Digital Media project called “State of the World.” One audience member asks, “I love your film AND I am concerned that you only know about the history of Germany and not the other countries--especially the United States--during that period of time, and I am not sure who knows what since this is a group project. Should I be concerned?”

Without a pause, one student answered, “No, you should not be concerned--I wish you could be concerned because we had a ton of content we had to learn before we were able to make our film (audience laughter). We had to write an individual research paper on Germany. We read the novel Things Fall Apart in Language Arts, and our World History teacher facilitated many lessons on ALL of World History during this period and we took several quizzes and a final test. Even during the production of the film, we were assessed on our individual contributions to the film--mine was the script. Our group is graded on our ability to collaborate, but the rest of the grade is based on our individual contribution. I think we learned more content than my friends who do not do projects because I needed to not only take the test and write the paper, I also created a film that demonstrates my understanding of the content and I have to answer hard questions like yours!”

In her August 3, 2016 post on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “Flypaper” blog, Gisele Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, expressed support for efforts to transform education and “leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm.” She then offered a critique of Project Based Learning (PBL) that raised valid concerns about its implementation--like the one raised by the community member in the story above. We share Giselle’s concern that as teachers, schools and districts increasingly move to redesign learning for students using PBL, the quality of projects will not meet the high standards for project design and Project Based Teaching we hold at the Buck Institute for Education.

The world has changed dramatically since most of us were in school--it is connected, automated, complex, collaborative, and competitive; however, for the most part schools have not changed. We and tens of thousands of educators all over the country and world believe high quality project-based learning is one of the most important ways we can engage students and teach the content, understanding, and success skills that prepare them for success in college, career, and life. We believe project-based learning is here to stay--and we have a moral imperative to support teachers, schools, and districts in implementing it at a high level of quality. (For more about the changing economy and how PBL prepares students for it, see “It’s a Project-Based World,” a recent paper and blog series by Bonnie Lathram and Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart and Bob Lenz of the Buck Institute for Education.)

Some questions people have about PBL might be based on older models or stereotypes, which we confront often in our work with teachers, schools, and districts. The legitimate questions concerned colleagues raise about lack of rigor, assessment, and the pitfalls of group work also arise when PBL is done poorly, or when teachers are first trying to use PBL. (Some common myths about PBL are debunked in blog posts here, here, and here.)

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

Are students learning academic content and skills while doing project-based learning?

The framework for Project Based Learning developed and promoted by the Buck Institute for Education--which for the past five years has been used successfully by thousands of K-12 teachers in “regular” schools, not “boutique” settings--puts the acquisition of content knowledge and skills front and center. Our framework is supported by a body of research, summaries of which can be found at bie.org. We also lay out the evidence and rationale for PBL in our book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning (ASCD 2015).

Teachers and school leaders are using our framework for “Gold Standard PBL” and put the focus on student learning goals: key knowledge, understanding, and success skills. It’s important to point out that success skills--a.k.a., 21st century skills or soft skills--should not be taught apart from content. Take, for example, critical thinking and problem solving: students need something to think critically about, and use knowledge and understanding to solve problems. To meet these goals for student learning, we believe effective PBL must have the seven Essential Project Design Elements shown on the diagram below.

In Part Two of this post, we will discuss how PBL teachers and schools are addressing other concerns, such as those about assessment, personalization, group work, and teacher capacity. We will also invite other educators to join us in an effort to create and promulgate guidelines and indicators for high-quality PBL.

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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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.