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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Summer PD: How Project-Based Learning Can Fit (or Not) in an Elementary School Program

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

In today's world of standards, testing, scripted literacy models, and the use of strictly-followed commercial programs for teaching math, many teachers and principals in elementary schools do not think project-based learning is possible.

They may be right, if every hour of the school day is devoted to a literacy model and a math program that must be followed "with fidelity." A program like this leaves little time for other subjects or activities. And adapting the models to accommodate a project requires a lot of skill -- and bravery, if the publisher claims you won't get the promised test score gains if you monkey around with their sequence and instructional methods!

But if an elementary school does have some flexibility and is willing to try, PBL can work. It's a flexible teaching methodology that can be part of most K-5 school programs, but to varying extent. Here are three ways it can be done.

Approach 1: Fully integrated PBL

Projects are used throughout the school day and program, and may incorporate all content areas, including literacy and math.

On one end of the spectrum are schools that use PBL as a vehicle to teach all academic content areas, including literacy and math. Students may do project work throughout the entire day. Schools utilizing this approach would likely have a balanced literacy framework -- one that emphasizes the teacher's role in choosing strategies and materials -- instead of a scripted commercial reading program. Projects often focus on social studies or science, but may also focus on literature and math, and integrate the arts. Math is usually taught during a protected block of time, although the math skills needed for the project may be included. Literacy is taught within the context of the project, for example:

  • Readers' and writers' workshops connect to project work
  • Students read to gain knowledge needed for the project
  • Students write to describe learning experiences, create products, and reflect on project work

An example of this kind of integration is "Pizza and the World of Work," taught by second- and third-grade teacher Laurel McConville at Mission Hill School in Boston. The project is described in a new book from the Buck Institute for Education, PBL in the Elementary Grades.

Laurel's students learned about what it is like to have a job and work hard as they interviewed workers in local pizza shops and eventually operated their own pizza restaurant for two days in their classroom. They wrote and read stories about working, recipes for pizza, and restaurant menus. Many of their math lessons involved making pizza and operating a restaurant, and they learned science concepts related to food and cooking.

Approach 2: Partially integrated PBL

Projects occur mainly during the time of day used for science and/or social studies and the arts, but include some literacy and math when appropriate.

In the middle of the flexibility scale are schools where teachers anchor their projects mainly in science or social studies but integrate the arts, literacy and math when appropriate. Teachers in these schools may also design occasional projects that focus on literature or applied math, as long as they are still following the guidelines of their literacy model.

Schools utilizing this approach to PBL often use a state or district-adopted literacy program. Math is usually taught as a stand-alone subject, although some applications of math may be included in projects. Students primarily do project work in the afternoon, but some project work is incorporated into the morning literacy block, for example:

  • Fiction and non-fiction texts that connect to the topic for the project are incorporated into guided reading
  • Teachers use read-alouds that connect to the project topic
  • Students write about their research and work on written products during writers' workshop
  • "Working with words" or academic vocabulary words connect to the project topic
  • Literature circle texts connect to the project topic

An example of this kind of PBL integration is the "What's With This Guy?" project taught by science teacher Aaron Eisberg in the Napa Valley Unified School District in California, and also described in PBL in the Elementary Grades. Aaron's fifth graders played the role of medical school students trying to diagnose a patient with a mysterious ailment. The project was conducted during afternoon science time every other day, and focused mainly on science content standards for human physiology. However, students also practiced reading skills -- for non-fiction text, an often shortchanged part of the curriculum -- built their vocabulary and applied writing skills they were learning during the morning literacy block.

Approach 3: Separate PBL

Projects occur only during separate times of the day/week and do not connect to the literacy or math programs.

On the other end of the spectrum, teachers only conduct projects unconnected to the literacy and math program. Project work is only done in the time in the afternoon when science, social studies, and the arts are taught. Fewer projects may be conducted during the year -- perhaps only one or two (which is better than none!) Schools using this approach to PBL typically use a state or district-adopted literacy program that must be followed with fidelity. Math is usually taught as a stand-alone subject, although some applications of math may be included in projects.

I've heard of a school that uses a variation of this last approach. Once or twice a year, they put their whole program "on pause" while every classroom in the school does a project. Primary grades projects take three days, and upper grades projects take five days.

So although it may take a little imagination, some planning and skill, and a lot of bravery, it is possible to do PBL in any school.

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anna Machado's picture
Anna Machado
First Grade Teacher from Lilburn, Georgia

I am new to learning about PBL. I am very inspired to try to implement a social studies and/or science project for first graders. I really see this being a great way of motivating my students. I think they would benefit from being allowed to be creative, hands-on, and have a real world application. I like the idea of incorporating reading, writing, and math into students' projects. Specifically, I can see myself using fiction and non-fiction texts related to the project topic during my guided reading time. Does anyone have any recommendations for books, articles, and/or websites with more information and/or examples of PBL?

Karen Blanton's picture
Karen Blanton
Kindergarten teacher in Shanghai, China

My teaching partner and I thought that we would try out project based learning in our kindergarten classrooms last year. It was one of our goals to research PBL and implement it, as we understood it, within our class. At our school we have a skills based curriculum which allows for a great amount of flexibility.
I do see project based learning as student centered, however I acknowledge that as ECC teachers we play a greater role in planning and facilitating the project than with older students. In our project based learning, even though we came up with the projects, it remained responsive to student interests.
The culminating projects were terrific for demonstrating students collaborative efforts throughout the project and ownership over project content and mastery of skills. We made sure to celebrate the event with our school community, inviting parents, siblings, and administrators to attend the big event.
My teaching partner and I are looking forward to building on what we started last year. We had parents in our classrooms often and built up very solid relationships with our community. Project based learning in my eyes is the way to go.
As I said, in our projects it was lead by the teacher, and we came up with the projects. If you have any insights into how you make it more student led within a kindergarten classroom, I would be very interested to hear them.

Karen Blanton's picture
Karen Blanton
Kindergarten teacher in Shanghai, China

My teaching partner and I thought that we would try out project based learning in our kindergarten classrooms last year. It was one of our goals to research PBL and implement it, as we understood it, within our class. At our school we have a skills based curriculum which allows for a great amount of flexibility.
I do see project based learning as student centered, however I acknowledge that as ECC teachers we play a greater role in planning and facilitating the project than with older students. In our project based learning, even though we came up with the projects, it remained responsive to student interests.
The culminating projects were terrific for demonstrating students collaborative efforts throughout the project and ownership over project content and mastery of skills. We made sure to celebrate the event with our school community, inviting parents, siblings, and administrators to attend the big event.
My teaching partner and I are looking forward to building on what we started last year. We had parents in our classrooms often and built up very solid relationships with our community. Project based learning in my eyes is the way to go.
As I said, in our projects it was lead by the teacher, and we came up with the projects. If you have any insights into how you make it more student led within a kindergarten classroom, I would be very interested to hear them.

Ruth Nation's picture
Ruth Nation
Instructional Technology Specialist from Missouri

I would also be interested in some "tried and true" projects. Please share!

Katelyn's picture

As an elementary "teacher-in-training" I am trying to expose myself to as many techniques as possible to make learning interesting and engaging for my (future) students. I am really intrigued by the PBL style of teaching. Thus far in my research I have found many PBL blogs and websites geared toward PBL in a secondary classroom, so when I came across this article I was excited to come across different ways it can be implemented in an elementary classroom. I feel like so many young children are born with a curiosity to learn and explore new things. As students grow older we often find that their curiosity dwindles (or is mis-directed), but if we can implement programs like PBL throughout students educational careers they can learn to grow and harness that curiosity into real and practical life skills.

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
Blogger 2014

The Buck Institute for Education has a lot of resources for elementary PBL - if you haven't already seen its website check it out! Several videos from K-5 grade levels. Their book, PBL in the Elementary Grades, has step-by-step guidance on planning projects, and many examples.

Katelyn's picture

Thank you! I will be sure to check out the website. I've been keeping a list of books I've come across in various blog posts and articles that are about PBL, but it's always great to have one recommended.

Heather's picture
Heather
MIT candidate in WA

I was excited to come across some ideas that applied to the elementary classroom. So many of the examples of PBL reference secondary classrooms.As a future elementary teacher I feel that PBL should be incorporated in the classroom in primary grades as much as the secondary. We cover all subjects ourselves in the classroom so why not use PBL. I remember running a classroom store and banking system in 4th grade and how great it felt to do something that felt so adult like. And even though checks seem to be a thing of the past now, I learned a valuable lesson in writing checks and balancing checkbooks. What a great life skill to learn at a young age!

Mary Parker's picture

I plan to implement PBL into my kindergarten classroom this year. Thanks for your suggestion of the planning guide from the Buck Institute-PBL in the Elementary Grades. I just ordered it to assist me with my first project!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

You might also want to take a look at the k-3 coaching kit from our Critical Skills program (http://tinyurl.com/AUNE-CSP-k3). It's a free download with some good resources for elementary PBL.

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