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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Building Parent Support for Project-Based Learning

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

When a teacher, school or district tells parents, "We're going to do project-based learning," the response may vary. You're lucky if some say, "Great news! Students need to be taught differently these days!" But a more typical response might be:

  1. What's project-based learning?
  2. That's not how I was taught. Why do we need PBL if (a) our school is already doing well, or (b) what we really need is a better literacy/math program to raise test scores?
  3. Isn't that just a trendy new thing that doesn't really work?
  4. How is this going to affect my child (and me)?

Basically, they're asking for the what, why and how. Here are some successful strategies that we at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) have seen for answering these questions.

What Schools and Districts Can Do

Rather than begin by explaining what PBL is, start with the "why."

Ken Kay, CEO of EdLeader21, made a good point about this when he spoke at BIE's PBL World conference in June 2013. He noted that non-educator audiences will not respond to an appeal for a new pedagogy -- but they will respond to the needs of students. So take some time to explore what it means to be college- and career-ready in today's world. Help parents see that, in addition to traditional subject-area knowledge and skills, students joining the modern workforce need to be good critical thinkers, problem solvers and creative innovators. They have to know how to work well in teams. They must be able to communicate in a variety of media and to various audiences, often across cultures and borders. Discuss how competency in these areas will help students in college, too, and in their lives as citizens.

To help make the case, have parents reflect on their own work. Bring in speakers from the business world to explain what they look for in an employee. Check out readings and resources from organizations such as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Conduct discussions to establish a shared vision of an ideal graduate from a 21st century school. When we have participants in our PBL workshops go through this exercise, the responses are usually the same wherever we go -- it's the "4 C's" described above, plus some attitudinal goals like "eager to learn" or "persistent" or "takes responsibility." It becomes immediately apparent that these competencies and habits of mind and work cannot be adequately built using only traditional teaching methods -- even if your school is strong by traditional measures.

Another argument you could make has to do with student engagement. Even parents of high-achieving students would admit that their children are often given low-level assignments and are bored by school. They don't find it personally relevant or don't see the connection between their classes and the real world. Parents of students who are at risk for dropping out might say the same thing.

Technology is also an angle. In the 21st century, students enjoy using tech tools, expect quick access to information, and won't sit still for yesterday's process of learning by listening to lectures and reading textbooks.

Now that you've established the need, you can introduce the way to meet it: PBL.

Explain what PBL is using concrete examples, not educational jargon.

BIE's PBL Toolkit series and other books on PBL describe many different projects. Videos of projects, like those found at bie.org, can be very powerful. Also our short animated video called "PBL Explained" is very useful for non-educator audiences, since it moves from the world of work to a science classroom. If possible, bring a delegation to a school that has a well-developed PBL program so that parents can see it in action. Later, when your own PBL effort is underway, enlist students to make presentations and describe their project work.

Reassure parents and other community stakeholders that PBL works.

Some parents might remember "projects" they did in school as powerful learning experiences. But others may remember the hours they or their children spent building a model of the pyramids or mindlessly copying information from a book to put on a poster, and ask, "Do students learn enough with PBL? How will this affect test scores? Will students still learn the basics?" The short answer: "PBL, when done well, can teach both content and 21st century skills. And we intend to do it well." For a longer answer, see the research section at bie.org.

Respond to questions about how PBL will affect students and parents by giving specific details.

Some parents will be full of questions as you launch a PBL implementation effort, and some may just wait and see. Some may not attend an event but will want to find the information later, so create a "Frequently Asked Questions" document to post on your school or district website. Questions will likely arise about grading policy ("Will my child be graded based on how creative he or she is?") and working in teams ("What if my child has to do all the work for the group?"). Parents will want to know if all classes will be doing projects all the time, or only some classes once in a while. They will want to know if and how they are expected to support their child when it comes to homework for a project. And you hope parents will ask, "How can I help?" -- because PBL has roles for them as mentors, experts, presentation audiences and so on. Anticipate "need to know" issues, and be as detailed as you can when responding -- because people are not reassured by vague promises to "provide that information later."

What Classroom Teachers Can Do

Teachers have a key role to play in building parent and community support for PBL. The excitement they feel when launching a project should transfer to their students and parents. At back-to-school events, give parents a taste of PBL and describe some of the exciting projects planned for the year. Show high-quality student work from previous projects. Then, at the start of a project, send a letter home or post a message on a class website that explains the project's goals, major features and timeline. Invite parents to attend presentations or contribute on other ways. (See a sample letter to parents at bie.org.) If a teacher works in a school or district where parents and the community have been well informed about PBL, the arrival of news about their child's first project will be welcomed.

But the bottom line of building parent support for PBL will be the evidence they see in students' work. So teachers should make sure parents see the results, if not in person during project presentations, then by posting student work, sharing student reflections after a project, and reporting on the achievement of learning goals. If projects are rigorously designed and carefully managed, the quality of their child's education will be plain to see.

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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Mrs. Nolt's picture
Mrs. Nolt
Third grade teacher from VA

Project based learning can build critical thinkers, problem solvers, and creative innovators even at a young age. Technology now does play a critical role. I had success with project-based learning in science, where the children were asked to create a diorama of the habitat of a certain animal. They needed to use technology to find out the habitat of this animal. It was a successful project. It is very important to be clear about project goals, major features, and the timeline as you mention.

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