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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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