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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Project-Based Learning: Debunking the Myths and Fallacies

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

More than 20 years of teaching and leading schools that rely on project-based learning (PBL), I have heard many untruths stated as "PBL gospel." These fallacies survive as myths that get in the way of opportunities for students to learn and prepare for the world outside of school. To counter these logical fallacies, I have created a list of the most common fallacies and provided arguments for debunking each.

The Coverage Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • If I cover/teach "it," students learn "it"
  • Students need to master all the content in a subject area in order to be prepared for middle school...high school... and college
  • "How do I know that they learned the content if I do not teach it to them?"
  • "I have too much to cover to spend the time on projects"

This fallacy is based on the myth that students will not learn something unless the teacher tells them what to learn. It also holds that all students must be "taught" everything in a subject area so they will be successful at the next level.

In fact, research and other reasonable responses show the inadequacy of this illogical way of thinking, noting that interactive learning triples the learning outcomes for students. In a nutshell, it's through inquiry, application, demonstration, communication, and metacognition that students learn new materials and skills.

University of Oregon Professor David Conley notes that most first year college professors assume that students do not know the content of their courses and that they must build their courses to teach the same content students already received in high school. In fact, they would prefer that students come more prepared for college-level work by acquiring "key cognitive strategies" "like problem-solving skills, conducting research, interpreting results, and constructing quality work products."

The Other Fallacies

A corollary to the Coverage Myth, the Rigor Fallacy assumes once again that telling kids challenging content to remember and regurgitate (and a lot of it) is rigor. However, there is very little alignment with this type of so-called rigor and the challenging skills and dispositions students need to master for success in college and career.

The Rigor Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • If students do well on a test of knowledge that means they know the material and can recall it and apply it in new situations
  • The more homework you assign, the more rigorous your curriculum: time on task = rigor
  • "Project-based learning is great at engaging students, but I am worried that it is not academically rigorous"

As Harvard Professor Tony Wagner explains, "I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration."

The Demographic Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • PBL works well for middle class white students, but not for ours
  • PBL works well for high school students, but not for ours
  • PBL works well for early primary students, but not for ours

At Envision Schools we believe all students should have the opportunity to Know, Do and Reflect through projects and performance assessment. Over 65 percent of our students are low income, over 85 percent are students of color and over 70 percent will be the first in their family to go to college. They are producing amazing student work and finding success in college and careers.

The Truth about PBL

With the myths debunked, let's now look at what is true about PBL. Are projects engaging and fun? Yes. Do students like to do projects in school? Yes. Is this one reason why we use PBL as a key strategy for success? Yes.

We employ PBL at Envision because PBL is the best way for students to simultaneously:

  • Learn and master key content knowledge and skills (KNOW)
  • Demonstrate and apply the knowledge and skills (DO)
  • Learn how to learn, and build the capacity to transfer learning to new and different opportunities (REFLECT)

Project-based learning, when well implemented, facilitates the acquisition of new knowledge that is retained, while also building competencies like inquiry, analysis, research and creativity and developing deeper learning skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking and project management.

At Envision schools, we know that the data debunks the myths. Ninety-three percent of our 2013 graduates are going to either two- or four-year colleges, with over 70 percent accepted to four-year institutions. Most importantly, we track our graduates and we know that 90 percent of those who enroll in college re-enroll in their second year. This beats the national rate of first year persistence by 30 percent.

It is time to let go of the myths and fallacies about project-based learning and get to work building the capacity of teachers and leaders to redesign classrooms, schools and districts so that our young people can be ready for a bright future with the skills that matter most.

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