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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Evidence that PBL Works

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Many of us out there know that project-based learning (PBL) inspires students to understand core content knowledge more deeply and gain key skills for success in college and career. Many of us have also directly contributed to results for students on state tests, college-going, and college persistence metrics.

In addition, we know from surveys and focus groups that most of our students are engaged and excited about learning; however, until now, we did not have a rigorous experimental design study approved by the United States Department of Education.

The Data

Here's some exciting news: the Regional Education Laboratory West (REL West), just released a report called: Effects of Problem Based Economics on High School Economics Instruction. Designed as an in-school, randomized controlled trial that tested the effectiveness of a problem-based economics (PBE) curriculum developed by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) on student learning and problem solving skills. (Full disclosure: I helped create the curriculum as a teacher in the late 90's and I serve on the BIE Board of Directors.)

From the BIE website:


As exciting as this news is for practitioners and school leaders who support PBL, I am still left with some essential questions:

Do you think more people will decide to use PBL because we now have "hard" data to confirm our beliefs about student learning? If not, what will it take to convince them to use a PBL approach? Does data really help convince people to change practice? If not, what does?

What do you think?

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gayle Mackin's picture

I use project-based learning in my classroom through literature circles. My students generate a list of novels or short-stories they are interested in reading. I compile the list and read them a synopsis of the novels or stories then they choose their top three. Then, I put them in groups based on their first choices. When they are in groups there are various assignments they need to complete. Each group will answer questions, hold small group discussions, choose a writing assignment, evaluate the novel, and present the novel to the class. Instead of a test, their final assessment is taking one class period and teaching their novel to the class. All students are reaching the same goals and objectives; they are just doing it with a novel they want to read.

Through this unit I have found my students are more excited and engaged in the learning process. They are given a chance to take charge of their education while expressing their uniqueness. When students are actively engaged, can express their individuality, and are given choices they are more motivated and successful. Literature circles also increases their self-confidence and relationships with peers.

Steve Loser's picture

Gayle. I admire your use of student voice and choice and the group interdependance you have implemented. However, in my district, what you have described would not be considered PBL. It would be more like a project. From our work and research, we have come to identify PBL as coming from a Real World Problem that is open ended and is structured in a way that students drive their learning based on their "need to knows." Idealy, we use an authentic audience (outside of school/ content specific experts) throughout the process, and at the end to provide feedback during the unit, and ultimately, help assess the students' performance at the end. Using these aspects of PBL, we see the learning experience transform from being enjoyable, to being highly engaging, and one where students are using their knowledge to push themselves somewhere new and exciting.

Dennis Vanderhoef's picture
Dennis Vanderhoef
Teacher and Graduate Student

Teachers often say "the kids have changed". My question is "Why haven't we?" PBL is research based learning that helps us reach students with different learning styles that might not get everything from a lecture setting. In the changing world of education we need to change our approach to teaching to match the learning of our students. It is our mission to focus on outcomes for students, not the comfort of us as educators. Our focus is not on test scores, but rather on developing learners that are passionate about what we offer them. If we teach using multiple methods, reflect and adjust based on student outcomes, the test scores will show a positive reflection. I agree that PBL is a wonderful tool, and teachers collaborating about student results will foster its growth. PBL should not be viewed as a cure all, but as another way to differentiate instruction in order to help all students succeed.

SLM's picture

I have had a similar experience... my school is a failing school and we are so focused on preparing for the standardized tests that there is no room for creativity or project based learning. Any ideas on how to work around that while still jumping through test prep hoops for the administration?

Ilse Peters-Ching's picture

It must be incredibly disheartening to have to teach to the test with no room for anything so innovative and possibly fun. From everything I have learned about the way education is going in the US, from funding cuts, teachers getting fired, stringent standardized test, to placing 4 year olds in 8 hour school days to maximize their learning, I am happy to be north of the border. I know it is not all negative but, kudos to you for dealing with what appears to be a dismal state of affairs.

Steve Loser's picture

Preach on Dennis. SLM, I would encourage you to bring admin into this conversation. PBL started at my school through a grass roots movement driven by teachers that were interested in the change Dennis spoke of. Students are demanding to be taught differently. We live in a world where teachers are no longer gatekeepers of content; rather we are model learners that know how to navigate a complex world of knowledge. We are experiencing an epistemological shift. Teachers are no longer THE source; we are source among millions. If we are to equip students for the 21st century, we must equip them to be life long learners, as they will change careers countless times in their lifetime and address challenges and problems we are not even aware of yet. This is nothing new to educators. PBL demands that students use knowledge as a means to solve a problem or enact change. They still have to know the content, but not for a test, for something real and relevant to them, their teacher, and their community. That being said, the test is not going anywhere for any of us at the moment, but if we can shift this delusional concept of knowledge as being something on a standardized test within our students, the change has already begun. I see this crying out that Dennis spoke of both in my students who will no longer accept a test as valid, as it has told them they are a failure 7 times, and in my honors students that can get a pass plus, but struggle to critically think and work in teams, as the testing culture does not address these skills. PBL is not the magic bullet but it can balance our instruction and assessment in a way that can push education in a positive direction.

Mark Rogers's picture

PBL is incredibly rewarding not only for students, but for teachers, parents, and the community as well. The constraints of time and funding, however, make it less and less of a possibility. I am lucky enough to work in a school district (Hillsborough County, FL) in which the science leaders have begun reshaping the curriculum so that instead of the benchmarks covering a lot of topics briefly and shallowly, there will be an emphasis on a few "big idea" concepts that will allow for a more in-depth instruction. I am excited, as this will create an excellent opportunity for PBL. I am really hoping that the initiative shown will allow us to promote quality of concepts rather than quanitity.

Valeria Nolley's picture

I know that this is just your insight (40 years worth, which is amazing!), but I can see the connection. The four areas you highlighted: personal confidence, professional repetoire, temperment, and a benign teaching environment; all have to be in place for change to willingly occur in an educational environment. Change frightens people- especially those that are ill-prepared to move forward. Our society is and has been moving forward and leaving many people who consider themselves educators behind. To stay ahead, we have to be prepared to keep moving forward with the changing times. This means being confident with oneself, knowing or being comfortable with the content, having the attitude that this move is for the betterment of the children being served, and having the school to support every step you take outside the box to help students learn.

Jason Ravitz's picture
Jason Ravitz
Independent Research and Evaluation Professional
Blogger 2014

Thank you for helping get the word out, Bob. And for the incredible discussion everyone!

I agree that some teachers are more innovative than others and drawn to PBL, perhaps. This may well explain the correlation between technology use and PBL that we see so often. On the other hand, there are many effective approaches to PBL and I suspect when well understood these can be adapted to support any kind of teaching style. (That's another study, I suppose!).

In other words, I think we're well past the point of PBL being a rarified art, and reaching the point where (with help of people on this list) there is a lot of craft knowledge that any teacher can use.

Turning back to the economics study -- here is the first of several papers that will discuss this study in more depth, as presented at AECT in Anaheim last week: Federally funded study provides evidence of PBL effectiveness in high school economics: Could PBL be a hot topic in K-12 again?

This paper discusses findings from the experimental study that Bob posted and uses the summaries that were developed by WestEd as a springboard for discussion.

A key point is that although this study is groundbreaking in some ways, it only scratches the surface in others.

Jonathan Larson's picture

I and a group of my colleagues tried and succeeded to get a PBL only curriculum at our school. We started this year with a lot of enthusiasm, but the administration came in and squashed it half way through the first quarter. The reasoning given was, "the students didn't like it." Which I thought strange as many, if not most, of the students on a day to day basis enjoyed what they were doing and were learning for the first time in their careers (we are an "at risk" school). We are now primarily a "traditional" school with lecture and textbook based classes. I believe the reasoning is that it fits the mold of what we are supposed to look like.
I would love to give you an answer as to why change isn't possible, but as I found out, even if you change in a positive manner, agents of conformity will come and knock you down.

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