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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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Jim's picture
Jim
6th Grade Math Teacher

I teach 6th grade math in North Dakota and my school district encourages elementary teachers to use project based learning. My question is when to use it and how many courses to incoorporate? With all of the pacing guides to keep up with and testing dates to work around, it is difficult to take time to pull standards from different subject areas and put them into one meaningful project. I have witnessed a lot of very poor PBL projects in which a lot of time was wasted which could have been better spent on learning the standards better without PBL. With that being said, I am for PBL and I feel it gives the kids a different format to learn from than a typical school day, but when should we use PBL? How often should a teacher do a PBL project? I suppose that question will have different answers depending on what school/school district you teach in. I feel PBL should be used in elementary classrooms, but teachers do need some professional development on ways to do them right in order to make certain each student can have success with them.

forbie's picture

The Progressive theory of education has been successful in Europe and the United States. I worked in a Reggio Emilia school that primarily used project-based learning. This theory of education focuses on the whole child using portfolio assessments. Portfolio systems of assessment take into account all aspects of learning not just data from one test. Project-based learning is also beneficial for English language learners in that it allows these students to learn by doing instead of listening to a teacher they do not understand. In my classroom, the standards are integrated into a project. The students are so excited to go home and research the unit project. In one particular project, they even brought in real artifacts and shared as a group. At the end of the unit, the students presented their work and all students benefited from the work of their classmates. Their discussions of the project employed thinking skills that prepared them to successfully take their end of the year standardized tests.

KTeacher's picture

I agree with the project based hands on approach to learning. The children learn to apply skills to real life and tend to retain what they have learned. The skills can also be differentiated based on learning styles and or interests of the child. Unfortunately, our district and state legislators are concerned about test scores. We have pacing guides, scripted curriculum and no time for teacher collaboration.PBL takes time to coordinate and maintain. I use it whenever I can in the classroom but wish I had more freedom to do more for my students.

Kelsey Kempter's picture
Kelsey Kempter
Fourth Grade Teacher

I am so excited to be challenged to incorporate PBL into my classroom. I do feel that professional development would be beneficial, as Jim stated. One of my teach teachers and I were meeting to try and begin planning and are feeling overwhelmed. We are developing one unit per trimester from Social Studies or Science and integrating it with math, reading, writing. Our plan for the first semester is to do SS and focus on Colorado government, specifically the state elections that will take place. We are wanting our students to follow different issues that arise on the ballot and educate themselves about the topic to prepare for a debate. They will do daily polls and graph the results. We will take a field trip to the Capitol. I feel like although this is a good start, it is still not the true PBL as mentioned above. Any ideas?

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
English teacher

Jim, I think if your district really wants the middle schools to use PBL, its leaders need to implement a middle-school schedule that allows for team-taught, interdisciplinary courses, in which teachers of different subjects work together to plan, incorporate and assess learning standards as part of the project. Edutopia's profile of King Middle School in Schools That Work (under "Project Learning in ME") provides a great example of fully or mostly integrated PBL at the middle-school level.

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

Kelsey, I've heard of high school students doing a similar project, where they analyze state propositions and make presentations to the community. So you're being admirably ambitious for 4th graders! A couple of cautions, though. The issues and proposals are often very complex, even for adult voters. And 4th graders may not care that much, unless they see how the issue is relevant to them. And finally, students' families may have strong opinions about political issues, which can be good or bad in terms of asking children to take a stand - you might find students either simply parroting their parents or going against them, which could land you in hot water.
To be "true PBL" I'd say make sure it has the "Essential Elements" we at BIE describe on our website & in our books.

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