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Evidence that PBL Works

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
Related Tags: Assessment, 9-12 High School
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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

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

Comments (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer T.'s picture

Thanks April I am going to check out your website right now. I am excited about PBL -more so than some of my colleagues who have been teaching for many more years than I have. We have had two PD sessions on it and I get it -but it is the resources such as yours that are missing for me.

Ilse Peters-Ching's picture

As a Canadian teacher interested in becoming more proficient in PBL, I am very happy to have come across your statements and wisdom. I am currently enroled in a Masters program at a US university, hence being directed to much more American content. Although I've seen the hard evidence that PBL is the way to go, I do not have access to the professional development workshops and conferences necessary to become proficient enough to bring PBL to our school administration.

From the evidence I have gathered and the reaction I have gotten from my administration during small talk, I am in the same position as Rick and Jean . The 'messy' aspect interferes with the ancient standards of teacher at the front - quiet students at their desks. The unlearning of traditional methodology, as Sylvia mentioned, is a difficult feat. Also, I've been told that there is no room for group work in our old, crowded school. It is difficult to get the IT lab for a forty minute period once a week, we are very limited with in school resources and do not have many nearby community resources.

Being from a remote, rural area, I have little/no access to workshops. Can anyone recommend online webinars, courses, and/or other resources besides those previously mentioned? I would love to pursue this further.

Andie Loyal's picture

I am a 5 year teacher that was recently exposed to PBL as a teaching method and have had tremondouse success with my 7th grade students. As a result of my excitement, i have been sharing my experiences with other teachers and have come up against some very strong resistance. Seeing substantial data that supports what I am seeing in my classroom will hopefully reduce some of the resistance. It is very encouraging to see that national results are being shared and that there is improvement occuring.

Steve Loser's picture

I work closely with CEL (http://cell.uindy.edu/); a group that puts on a PBL Summer Institute in Indianapolis, IN during the last week of June each summer. This summer will be our 3rd year and it is growing very fast. One thing that CEL is starting to offer is to provide instutites in certain regions of the US, where a keynote speaker and facilitators come to you. CEL also offers follow ups from these facilitators, where we can come in and work with staffs to troublshoot the process. You may want to contact CEL and express your interests if this may meet your needs.

Lisa's picture

I love the idea of project based learning, advocate it, and use it in my classroom as much as possible... My problem comes with the students. Over the course of their education, they have come to be so "spoon fed" and "efficient" that they are not eager learners. Their work is limited by their inability to see the world as a vast place for learning. These students are on auto-pilot waiting for information to be thrown at them. It's very discouraging and I'm not sure how to combat the problem, except for lots of patience?

Billie Vanlandingham's picture

I enjoyed reading the comments on PBL. I am hearing more and more about it as a new approach to engaging today's students. My concern is with teachers and schools that say they use PBL, but may not be quite right. I see this all the time with PLC's (Professional Learning Communities). It is a term used to describe many types of educational endeavors, but many are not authentic. What are the essential components for project learning? While some lessons have many of the characteristics of being project-based, they may be missing some critical features that make project-based learning effective.

Sylvia C. Chard's picture
Sylvia C. Chard
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, Project Approach Consultant.

To Ilse Peters-Ching: I have a web site with resources you may find useful: www.projectapproach.com
I live in Western Canada and work as an independent project approach consultant. My colleague Lili and can be contacted through my web site an Katz works mostly with teachers of the younger children and I work with elementary and middle school teachers.

Sylvia C. Chard's picture
Sylvia C. Chard
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, Project Approach Consultant.

Yes, Lisa, lots of patience. I wonder what age of students you teach? I find students like to talk about their own experience at any age. So long as that experience is relevant to the study they are engaged in. This opportunity raises awareness of the issues, personalizes them and develops interest, and provides a way for the teacher to assess prior experience and knowledge.
Billie Valandingham: I do so agree. But the problem is the culture of the classroom where authentic project work is going on is so different from what people are used to. On another blog I was reading about a college course on authentic professional care of children in preschool. Much good discussion. Then someone offered an ice-breaking strategy with college students which involved them in drawing a spider with a body, head and 8 legs. They had to use the spider parts to talk about what was important to them in their lives. If you are doing authentic project work you have to be authentic with the college students too. If you feel you need an "ice-breaker" why not have the students share their earliest memories of times when someone else cared for them respectfully. I have observed so many ways teachers relate to students indirectly through some imposed structure which bears no relationship to the hard but interesting, powerful, absorbing work of intrinsically motivated learning.

Gayle Mackin's picture

I have used PBL in my English classes primarily through the use of literature circles. I have my sophomores generate a list of novels, fiction and non-fiction, they would like to read. Then, I read them a synopsis of the novel and they write down their top three choices. More often times then not my students get their number one choice. While working in their literature circles they have various assignments to complete. Each group will answer questions, hold discussions, choose from a variety of writing responses, write a final essay over the novel and take one class period to teach the class their novel.

I've found my students are more excited about reading and more engaged in the learning process. My students are encouraged to bring their individuality to their assignments and lesson. This unit also increases their self-confidence and relationships with peers. Students feel empowered when they are given the opportunity to take charge of their education, literature circles is my way of letting them take charge. When students are given choices, can express their uniqueness, and feel a sense of belonging then they will be motivated to complete the task at hand.

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