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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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New Research Helps Make Case for Rigorous PBL

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Editor's note: Today is the fifth in a series of posts from PBL World, a global gathering of educators interested in project-based learning. Join the conversation on Twitter by following the hashtag #pblworld.

Teachers and other "education change agents" who are advocates of project-based learning often find that they have to make the case for PBL to their communities. "They need backup," acknowledged Cindy Johanson, executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF) and Edutopia. In her keynote address to PBL World on Thursday, she shared highlights of new research that shows the effectiveness of PBL for achieving rigorous learning outcomes.

When PBL is used to teach Advanced Placement courses, diverse students show impressive academic gains along with increased engagement, compared to students in more traditional AP classes. Johanson shared results from the Knowledge in Action study, a research project conducted by an alliance that includes GLEF.

The key findings are:

  • A 30% higher pass rate for high-achieving students compared to peers in traditional AP classes in comparison schools in the same district
  • A 10% higher pass rate for high-poverty students in PBL classes compared to peers in traditional AP classes

When it comes to student engagement in PBL-AP classes, "results are off the chart," Johanson said. "Eighty percent of students say, 'This is the way I want to learn.'"

So far, the research team (including participating teachers in Washington and Iowa) has developed PBL-based courses for AP Government and AP Environmental Science. Courses share two common design elements. First, Johanson said, "Projects are the spine." That means students learn important content through projects; they don't do projects after the "important" learning has happened. Second, students revisit key questions in learning cycles to reinforce and apply what they have learned.

Students who are used to test-driven instruction may struggle at first with the shift to projects. "They perceive a firewall between PBL and AP," Johanson admitted. She shared convincing video clips that demonstrate what happens when students shift their expectations. One student described how an AP Government class that was delivered through projects on relevant topics like immigration "took me to deeper learning."

PBL World Goes Deeper

PBL World is a global gathering of 450 educators, sponsored by the Buck Institute for Education and the Napa Valley Unified School District. After Johanson's keynote, participants broke into workshop groups to focus on high-interest topics such as how to deepen critical thinking, global connections, or creativity and innovation through projects.

In a workshop led by Sara Hallerman, BIE National Faculty, participants explored the challenges of assessing creative thinking and innovation in projects. What happens, for example, if you provide students with a rubric for creativity? One participant expressed concern that it might constrain students' creativity. Another teacher acknowledged that, for some students, such tools can provide a place to start by making hard-to-define concepts more concrete. Hallerman suggested "focusing on the innovation process instead of the product," encouraging students to become better at generating, refining and presenting their creative ideas.

Certain kinds of projects set the stage for creativity and innovation. Hallerman suggested three kinds of projects to consider:

  • Invention projects ask students to come up with an original product. They take on the authentic role of inventor, following in the footsteps of Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs.
  • Creative challenges ask students to be designers whose products meet certain requirements. For example, elementary students might be asked to design a house for a live animal, meeting criteria suggested by the local animal shelter.
  • Problem-solving scenarios ask students to address an authentic issue. For example, high school students might take on the challenge: How can we lower our city's carbon footprint and reduce energy costs?

To take thinking deeper, Hallerman suggests asking students to also consider the ethics of innovation. As she puts it, "Just because something can be done, should it?"

To see an example of a project that taps students' creativity, watch the Edutopia video Kinetic Conundrum.

Thinking Critically in PBL

Meanwhile, another workshop took on the challenging topic of addressing critical thinking through PBL. Jill Ackers, BIE National Faculty, got things started with a Socratic Seminar in which participants thought critically about critical thinking. One teacher summed up the challenge with the comment, "I know critical thinking when I see it, but it's hard to describe." Being able to scaffold and assess critical thinking in PBL, she added, "will help students grow as thinkers."

Ackers helped participants recognize opportunities to scaffold students' critical thinking throughout the project cycle. In designing a project, teachers can plan to incorporate tools like concept maps and protocols like Socratic seminars.

To learn more about scaffolding students' critical thinking, explore the Schools That Work feature, How KIPP Teachers Learn to Teach Critical Thinking. A related resource page includes downloadable resources for the classroom.

Parents as Partners

Johanson described Edutopia's role as "an enabler" of research-based practices that will transform education. The primary audience is teachers and school leaders, but parents are increasingly interested in the role they can play to support school change. That's something Johanson understands. This fall, her daughter will enroll in a new high school -- one with a PBL focus. "She wanted more relevance," Johanson said, "and this was her choice."

If you're a parent interested in learning more about the value of strategies like PBL, download a free copy of Edutopia's A Parent's Guide to 21st Century Learning.

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