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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.

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jamie Armin's picture
Jamie Armin
Health Science & Life Skills Middle School teacher from MA

I will be interested in the data. I use pbl for many of my learning activities with 7th and 8th graders.
For the most part, the students dig right in, are enthusiastic learners, and end up becoming much more informed about health issues. I see them both years at the middle level and most of them do well at remembering the material. Please keep us updated. Thanks!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
Blogger 2014

Great question. The teachers involved in this research have been heavily involved in developing the projects, working with researchers from the University of Washington. We'll try to get more details for you about their projects for a follow-up story.

Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
executive director @ Edutopia and mom of 2 kids
Staff

Hi Michelle, I'm sorry for the belated follow-up and your disappointment that not enough detailed information was presented during my session. Towards the end of my presentation, I did reference key priorities for the on-going refinements to the research -- in particular goals to ensure success for students from high-poverty urban schools including further curriculum development (such as literacy supports, student engagement, etc). We share your commitment to addressing a wide range of learners and one of the primary goals with this research program is to ensure not just "equity of access" to rigorous PBL courses but "equity of outcomes". Thanks for your feedback!

Alex McNeil's picture

In my experience as a student, project-based learning works well for some but does a disservice to others. In a four-person group, it always seems as if a schism forms between the workaholic(s) and the underachiever(s). In any given group composition, there are students who rise to the top, take initiative, and direct the group. But there are also those who check out, defer responsibility to the other members, and do less than their fair share of work.

The responsible member(s) of the group generally have to pick up the slack for the underachieving slacker(s), and often the slacker(s) get carried to a better grade than they deserve because of the efforts of their more responsible peers. How can you be sure that your "30% higher pass rate for high-achieving students" isn't just a result of a grading-metric that require less individual culpability (like in project learning) and promotes unfair workload-sharing? At least with AP tests each person is responsible for his or her own success or failure. How does one avoid these schisms in group-responsibility and ensure that the quality of the project is an accurate reflection of the individual competencies of the group members rather than just hyper-competency of one or two members?

Heck, forget the slacker/overachiever distinction. In a project-based learning environment, learners who tend to be more introverted would spend undue amounts of energy dealing with group dynamics--energy that would otherwise be devoted to content absorption. Our educational system already has a significant bias towards extroverted learning methods, and I can't help but feel that PBL could wind up marginalizing many learners who perform optimally when they're working by themselves.

I'm not a proponent of AP tests as the only measuring stick of success in AP classes, but I would also HATE to be in a class that taught content EXCLUSIVELY through the medium of projects. Group-based learning may enrich certain aspects of content, and a diverse group of students is likely to allow for the creation of diverse and creative solutions to a problem, but many students learn better on their own. Solo time spent developing a personal relationship to content is the thing that makes group learning dymanic: students are able to contribute more to a group discussion when each comes with an unique perspective. Will intense emphasis on project-learning weaken students' ability to think when unaided by group dynamics?

Paola Lopez's picture

Thank you for this insightful piece. I am current elementary education graduate student. I like to stay informed on new trends in education. I was drawn to this piece because the focus is on project based learning. I believe our students would gain a great deal from this type of instruction. Not only will they gain knowledge, but they will also learn skills that we help them in their careers.

Jamie Armin's picture
Jamie Armin
Health Science & Life Skills Middle School teacher from MA

Alex, I hear you. A great teacher will use a variety of methods and assessment tools. As an educator, I am always concerned for many of the points you addressed. I think that PBL has its place for enriching education but it should not be the only method/tool that we use. I am very interested in the research that will come out soon. Thank you for the student's perspective!
ps. I have my students do self-evals (private to me and the student) that have helped me in planning and re-assessing how I run PBL.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

Hi Alex,

First off, I want to say thank you for the thoughtful comments. You make some great points, and I for one, can definitely relate to unequal group compositions (I was the overachiever :)). As I look back on my group projects (and note it wasn't a 100% PBL designed class), the group projects I did, I learned the most from. At times, I needed to learn to step down from my high-achieving role and rely on people that had different expertise. I learned conflict resolution, project management and overall, how to work within a team with diverse backgrounds and differing personalities --- all skills I use in the workplace everyday.

As I interprete the study, the 30% achievement data references individual achievement on the AP exam. So although there may be some group dynamics that you speak of during class, each student is ultimately held accountable for their results. And it's not all about the AP test score -- we also captured some qualitative data, which revealed higher engagement level with the students (moer details to be fully released when the official data releases -- this blog posts just highlights a preview of the study).

I also fielded your comment to some of our researchers and they wanted to emphasize the strong and consistent body of research on collaborative learning indicating that collaborative learning has benefits for developing both students' social relationships (through understanding/knowing each other), and their achievement, particularly when groups are diversely matched, with interdependent roles. Several research based-recommendations, and links to the referenced studies can be found in our Research Summary article on Manor: http://www.edutopia.org/stw-project-based-learning-best-practices-new-te.... Below I have copied and pasted the paragraph that explains:

Well over a thousand studies support the impacts of collaborative learning on improving student achievement and promoting positive peer relationships across group lines (Johnson and Johnson, 2009). The way that teachers support successful collaboration is likely an important ingredient in Manor New Tech's success. Students are assigned to groups of three or four, and the first group project meeting begins with groups creating contracts that establish shared norms or expectations for behavior (e.g., being on time, not criticizing each other's ideas, etc.). Building individual accountability into the project process helps to promote successful student collaboration (Slavin, 1996). If a student is not fulfilling his or her portion of the project, it is the responsibility of team members to bring this to the teacher's attention, being specific about the responsibilities that are not being completed. Team members can be fired, which means that the fired student must complete the project on his or her own, although this occurs infrequently at Manor New Tech.

Thanks again for your comments -- it's really great to hear the student perspective,
Elana

[quote]In my experience as a student, project-based learning works well for some but does a disservice to others. In a four-person group, it always seems as if a schism forms between the workaholic(s) and the underachiever(s). In any given group composition, there are students who rise to the top, take initiative, and direct the group. But there are also those who check out, defer responsibility to the other members, and do less than their fair share of work.

The responsible member(s) of the group generally have to pick up the slack for the underachieving slacker(s), and often the slacker(s) get carried to a better grade than they deserve because of the efforts of their more responsible peers. How can you be sure that your "30% higher pass rate for high-achieving students" isn't just a result of a grading-metric that require less individual culpability (like in project learning) and promotes unfair workload-sharing? At least with AP tests each person is responsible for his or her own success or failure. How does one avoid these schisms in group-responsibility and ensure that the quality of the project is an accurate reflection of the individual competencies of the group members rather than just hyper-competency of one or two members?

Heck, forget the slacker/overachiever distinction. In a project-based learning environment, learners who tend to be more introverted would spend undue amounts of energy dealing with group dynamics--energy that would otherwise be devoted to content absorption. Our educational system already has a significant bias towards extroverted learning methods, and I can't help but feel that PBL could wind up marginalizing many learners who perform optimally when they're working by themselves.

I'm not a proponent of AP tests as the only measuring stick of success in AP classes, but I would also HATE to be in a class that taught content EXCLUSIVELY through the medium of projects. Group-based learning may enrich certain aspects of content, and a diverse group of students is likely to allow for the creation of diverse and creative solutions to a problem, but many students learn better on their own. Solo time spent developing a personal relationship to content is the thing that makes group learning dymanic: students are able to contribute more to a group discussion when each comes with an unique perspective. Will intense emphasis on project-learning weaken students' ability to think when unaided by group dynamics?[/quote]

Alex McNeil's picture

Hey! Thanks for the prompt and thorough response. I should have realized that the %30 stat. was in reference to the AP test. I'll definitely follow up on that link and on any research published in the future.

Regards,

Alex M.

James Lotter's picture
James Lotter
high school English, Academy of Environmental and Social Policy

Does anyone have a good link for how PBL can assist differentiate instruction? My school is diving headfirst into this work and consistently the biggest pushback is from teachers who want to make sure that student skill issues are not glossed over/forgotten in this transition. I very much believe that PBL can help differentiate instruction effectively but I am a long way from knowing HOW well enough to articulate the practice to my peers. Any help would be much appreciated.

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