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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Can PBL Help Pave the Way to College Success?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
Alliance College-Ready Public School Student Technology Leaders collaborating to assess projects completed by their peers.

In high-poverty neighborhoods of Los Angeles, students attending Alliance College-Ready Public Schools have good reason to be hopeful about life after high school. This network of 21 public charters has sent more than 95 percent of its graduates on to college since it was founded in 2004. But we all know that getting into college isn't the finish line. "What does it take to stay in college? What does a student really need to know to be college-and-career ready?" asks Toria Williams, director of innovation and technology for the Alliance. "That's an ongoing conversation here."

Some of the answers about college readiness may soon emerge from an initiative called College YES Funded by a five-year, Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, College YES emphasizes project-based learning, student leadership, STEM education, and technology integration as building blocks of student success. Generation YES, a nonprofit that encourages students to take a lead on improving their own education through technology, is partnering with the Alliance to implement College YES. To track results, Gen YES has introduced a technology platform that's custom-made for PBL.

It's too early for formal research results but, informally, teachers are seeing the growth that happens when students step up as leaders and have occasion to think critically about authentic problems in their communities.

Real-World Learning

For a recent project, ninth-graders from Watts tackled this driving question: Which career choices would most benefit my community? To arrive at their answers, students researched not only interesting career fields but also the social and economic issues facing local families. "That's what learning should be about," says Williams. "It's not a bunch of isolated facts you think about during the school day and then have no application to the world you see when you're walking home."

Meanwhile, sixth-graders applied their understanding of earth science to respond to this question: Could this city shake? When they presented their earthquake-readiness plans to a gathering of parents, adults got a glimpse of the deeper learning that emerges through PBL.

Meanwhile, students and teachers gained newfound appreciation for the communication skills that are embedded in projects. "Having a public audience opened our eyes," Williams says. "Guess what? We really have to teach our kids how to communicate, how to be ready to answer questions that they may not have expected."

From "Culture Shock" to Student Leadership

Williams doesn't attempt to sugar-coat the challenge of introducing technology-rich PBL across 18 schools that are participating in this grant. "It's a culture shock," she admits. "PBL requires a mind shift for teachers." She attended the PBL World conference last summer to build her own understanding, and has been offering professional development to help teachers get more comfortable with PBL strategies. The initial goal is for students to experience at least two projects per year, one in STEM and the other in an advisory setting that emphasizes college readiness.

The introduction of PBL means students also have to get used to new ways of learning and working with peers. "They've been in a system designed around getting ready for the test. Now we're asking them to think critically and solve problems," Williams says. "It's challenging."

Many students are stepping into new leadership roles as a result of College YES. Each school site has recruited a cohort of 12 to 20 Student Technology Leaders, who are trained by Gen YES on technology literacy. Student Technology Leaders support their teachers in integrating digital tools into PBL. They also serve as peer mentors during projects.

At the end of projects, Student Technology Leaders assess their peers' work against the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards. That means students have to think critically and look for evidence that their peers have mastered standards. "They're learning how to hold each other accountable," Williams says. Final project assessment is still done by teachers.

As College YES has gotten underway, the role of Student Technology Leaders has steadily expanded. At a recent professional development event, Williams watched student leaders explain to an audience of teachers "how to make your class more interesting by integrating technology. Here were our students leading professional development for adults!" Some student leaders also keep websites up to date for teachers or principals, or offer after-school mentoring for students who want extra time to work on their projects.

Student Technology Leaders at one school recently hosted a parent night, teaching adults where they and their children can access local tech resources. The event was a wake-up call for parents about the importance of technology for learning. "Parents don't always make the connection that their kids need technology for academic success. They may see them at home using Facebook or Instagram, but don't see them working," Williams acknowledges. The event helped parents understand, "This is why our kids need technology." That added another piece to the college-and-career readiness puzzle.

Platform for Learning

Keeping track of all the components of digital PBL can be a management challenge, especially for teachers who are new to this approach. Generation YES has developed a technology platform to help teachers and students manage and assess the learning that unfolds during projects. The platform is also proving to be useful for tracking research data.

Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, says the platform enables teachers to design project plans and classroom lessons that are aligned to the Common Core. The system allows for online collection of project plans, student work, comments, and assessment. Teachers can add their most successful projects to a showcase site, accessible to schools across the system. "We now have all our schools running on this system," Martinez says, "so this is a real, scalable thing, not a prototype."

For grant-funded programs like College YES, the platform affords researchers a window into what's happening in the PBL classroom. In the long run, researchers may be able to connect the dots between what students learn through projects and their accomplishments after high school.

Stay tuned for future updates when those results are released, giving us all a clearer picture of what it means to be truly "college and career ready."

Comments (2)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bob Thomas's picture
Bob Thomas
9-12 grade Welding Instructor

A simple approach to PBL and integration of the course standards is to create an EXCEL file using W. Edwards Deming's Problem solving steps (Total Quality Management) in a vertical column on the left of the spreadsheet, then put the basic standard descriptions across the top row in weekly steps. Mine is broken down from an 18 week semester course divided into (2) 9 week pages. As the project progresses, each week is represented in a colored cell. Target, or completion dates can be typed into each cell. The cell's colors use the "Rainbow" pallet of colors for quick visual reference to each step of the project. An added bonus of the Timeline calendar/progress chart is quick reference for planning lesson plans. Using the "Tabs", you can have your lesson plans formatted automatically in adjacent sheets with the cells for that week's lesson addressed from the Timeline sheet. If you make adjustments to the Timeline Calendar, the weekly lesson format is automatically changed. I once used this for solving a "problem" for an evaluation. Printed in color, the Timeline, with project completion dates was eye candy for the boss. I also use the Timeline to show completion dates for implementing Common Core activities, such as pre and post tests for the Language Department's "Word Glossary" that I use as a class starter while I'm doing roll call. Being a CTE teacher, the Timeline also helps manage information for individual progress in the student's electronic portfolio. Each step of each student's progress is documented by a copy of a test or photo of their work for each step on the Timeline stored in their electronic file. What are the final results? Nobody falls through a crack in the system, work is documented, and at the end of the course, the students have more than a resume' to take with them. Tools? I use a an HD webcam on my computer for close up photos of welds and a high resolution camera for project documentation. All photos use a roll book number in the photo for ID and anonymity during classroom critiquing and feedback. This is something Tech Ed students may use to showcase their work to college teachers and employers.

Erin Merritt's picture
Erin Merritt
Secondary English Teacher

I am attempting a smaller version of PBL in my classroom this semester. One thing that I am finding is that students are hesitant with their publishing because they realize that their writing skills (specifically grammar) are not where they should be. As a result, they shut down. I am having to go back to the basics and focus on some of the "drill and kill" examples. As much as I know that such a practice may not be building critical thinking skills, it seems to be an important step to master before their comfort level is adequate to make their work public. What suggestions for strategies do you have for overcoming this hurdle? Thank you for any advice.

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