It’s easy to do project-based learning, it’s just hard to do it well.
Project-based learning is a great way to engage students, to encourage collaboration and creativity, and to promote authentic work and assessment. But it’s hard to:
set a high bar for high quality project deliverables; assess projects objectively especially when they're all different; help students with low level skills engage in challenging projects; mitigate the free rider problem of loafing team members; provide enough but not too much formative feedback and support; avoid big knowledge gaps resulting from a string of projects.
A new generation of schools are blending the best of personalized learning and project-based learning to address these challenges. They value deeper learning and development of success skills (growth mindset and social emotional learning) and track competency in all outcome areas. They use a variety of grouping and scheduling strategies to offer a rich and varied learning experience. They provide customized supports to build individualized skill fluency to allow students with learning gaps to fully engage in challenging projects.
Following are 10 U.S. K-12 next generation school networks representing about 275 schools (two thirds of them in school districts). The blended environments combine personalized learning strategies and tools with challenging and integrated projects.
In higher education, Olin College of Engineering, in western metro Boston, offers an “interdisciplinary, project-based approach emphasizing entrepreneurship, liberal arts, and rigorous science and engineering fundamentals.” A summer Kern Family Foundation sponsored Collaboratory makes lessons learned available to other colleges.
Worcester Politech is a great example of a 150 year old institution transformed by a 40 year commitment to problem-based learning organized in seven week terms. WPI is a member of the Kern sponsored KEEN Network, engineering schools seeking to unleash entrepreneurship.
College for America, a program of nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University, uses a couple dozen projects to help students develop 120 competencies to earn a degree. There is no failure in the competency-based system-just “mastery” and “not yet.” Students can re-submit work and benefit from feedback from the adjunct faculty members. Learners have a coach that serves as an academic advisor and helps construct and monitor an academic plan. There is a fast and slow path with more individualized supports for struggling students.
Stanford physicist Carl Wieman is a leading advocate for project-based learning in HigherEd (listen to his recent NPR interview).
5 Big Advances
All of these next generation models combine blended learning environments with the Buck Institute Gold Standard for project-based learning. They start with learning goals that include core knowledge and include key success skills. They, in unique ways, incorporate Buck’s Essential Project Design Elements: challenging problem, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, and public product.
A combination of five new tools and strategies is powering personalized project-based learning:
1. Diagnostic and adaptive tools. The most important advancement of the last five years is the development and widespread K-8 adoption of adaptive math and reading software including i-Ready and Dreambox.
2. PBL tools. New platforms (New Tech Echo, Summit PLP, LAB Cortex, Empower Learning, Project Foundry) help teachers adapt or develop projects, build assessment rubrics and support the process with personalized learning.
3. Mastery-tracking. Next-gen models combine project and other assessments into competency tracking systems. Some mastery trackers are incorporated into learning platforms (#2) while others incorporate formative assessment (MasteryConnect, Edmodo Snapshot) or are standards-based gradebooks (Engrade, Jumprope, Kickboard).
4. Public product. Producing, publishing, and/or presenting a final product is distinguishing part of project-based learning (and part of the Buck Gold Standard). Collaborative authoring (in Google docs or Office 365) facilitates team projects. Blogging is a great way to express a commitment to writing across the curriculum. Online journals and magazines give students valuable publication experience (see Palo Alto High example).
5. Dynamic scheduling. Schools that feature personalized project-based learning feature big blocks of flexible time. Every day includes a variety of learning experiences, for example:
Advisory (heterogeneous group) Personalized learning time (individual) Small group instruction (performance level group) Project time (heterogeneous project team) Literature circle (heterogeneous group)
Inside what looks like a traditional class on the master schedule you’ll also find a combination of personalized learning and project based learning in many next-gen networks. DSISD uses a classroom rotation model where teachers alternate on a weekly basis between facilitating Personal Learning Time (PLT) and Project Based Learning (PBL) using daily formative data to provide small group instruction tailored to students’ Personal Learning Plans.
Class Rotation at DSID
|PLT: Students work at their own pace to acquire knowledge and skills through personal playlists including skill building software, online lectures, videos, reading, annotating text, writing, independent projects and enrichment opportunities.||PBL: Students work collaboratively applying knowledge and skills from playlists on projects, products and performance demonstrations of learning|
Around the Corner
New technologies are making student led inquiry-based approaches more common and more meaningful. Virtual and immersive experiences are powering the growth of exploration-based learning (see Planet3, Google Expeditions). Life science lab simulators (like Labster) utilize immersive 3D virtual worlds to extend exploration (listen to Michael Bodekaer’s TED Talk).
The shift to next-gen models that combine personalized and project-based learning will require big upgrades to the talent development system. New resources include:
For more, see:
The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation 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.