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

Bob Lenz

Co-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

Co-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

Rick Glass's picture

I thought the engagement and excitement of my students through PBL would be enough. It wasn't. I thought the huge volume of research and writing that comes with PBL would impress them. It didn't. I thought the international awards would sufficiently impress them. Not so. I thought data analysis showing rising test scores and surveys of students and parents would do it. Yawn. I hope your article will help. Most of my colleagues are content to do things the way they always have. Sadly, most administrators are in the same rut. They are enamored with the cult of efficiency and want every classroom and the instruction that takes place to look exactly the same. I wish they could see that PBL is good for students and their learning. It's the right way to learn. It's the way they want to learn. PBL is authentic. Thanks for the validation.

ri Benoit's picture

Very interested in this data...my colleague and I are embarking this year on some PBL for 6th grade math and science... we have been struggling to find good resources for project ideas for middle school math and science...most seems to be geared towards high school. Is this method of instruction not recommended at the middle school level? Does anyone have any resources that could help us?

Antonia Rudenstine's picture

Thank you for this list....it is wonderfully clarifying. I might add 2 more bullets: creativity and curiosity.

In my experience, teachers who thrive with PBL are those who have passionate creative interests...they approach learning as a project themselves, and have a keen sense of the excitement that comes from putting complex ideas into play in new ways....they are people who want to travel, learn an instrument, read, blog, play sports, explore the world around them....they create rich lives for themselves that are mirrored by the richness of their classroom projects.

Antonia Rudenstine
ReDesign.org

Vicki Miles's picture

Rick and others I'm suprised by your thoughts re: administrators. I am a Primary School Principal and do not see myself as an "administrator" though much of my time is taken up in this way, but rather as an "educational leader" trying to influence teachig and learning practices within our school. As such, I think I might be able to provide a different perspective on the views you have presented. As the Principal of a school I would willingly support any of my teachers to take on pedagogical changes that could be proven to work........I do not just mean in a simple academic sense either. The focus in our school is the provision of educational experiences that develop the whole child (not just the literate and numerate child). Having said that changing teacher practice is a difficult task. It is often constrained by not only the mind set of the teachers themselves but also the messages they receive from parents, that also being influenced by a parents view of schooling which is often biased on their own success within the "old system". I still have teachers who will not change practice because they are told they are good teachers by our parent community............why would they risk that to find they may not get the same results with a "new" approach.
I think as a classroom teacher and colleague that perhaps you under estimate the influence you could have in conjunction with a supportive leadership team in a school. Teachers aremore often inspired by their colleagues than by research or top down approaches. What could you do that might help others see the benefits?
Do not under estimate the power of "student voice" either. Get the students to articulate why they are successful with this style of learning and get it out there in the public domain.
I wish you luck, if I had an enthusiastic teacher, producing excellent results with engaged students I would be supporting you all the way............dont put all "administrators" in the same basket.

Mary Anne Lock's picture

I just want to suggest as resources that you view the videos on the Edutopia site. There are several Middle Schools featured i.e. Landry Middle School. I worked several years ago with a project called, Different Ways of Knowing (materials designed and published by the Galef Institute in Calfornia.) Sadly, I think it's difficult to get your hands on their materials, because they lost funding. They were a bit ahead of their time. The Collaborative for Teaching and Learning in Louisville, KY continues with some of their work. They may even have some of the project-based materials.

andrea's picture

One thing that strikes me about the posts and the comments- the difference between need and passion. It may be beneficial to teach using PBL, but unless there is the want/passion/desire, then people seem to opt for second best.
So how to draw out the passion in the teachers?

Steve Loser's picture

I am a project based learning instructional coach for a large urban school district thats goal is to vertically articulate a k-12 PBL curriculum without buying a curriculum or boxed structure such as New Tech. I want to comment on few of the things being discussed here.
For me, the issue or Real World Problem has to do with Professional Development Models that do not promote sustainable change. We have all felt the pendulum swing of education as we try something for two years; maybe we see success, maybe we don't; but regardless move onto something else. For the most part, these initiatives are top down as Vicki Miles pointed out. They involve a sage on a stage coming in for a large price, presenting the info (usually in hours of lecture and we know how effective that is) and then flying back out, never to be seen again. There is no support system put in place. There may be a book study or a focus group founded, but you often here the veteran teachers in the back saying, "there will just be something new in two years. I can ride this out," and then we start the painful passive compliance game.
PBL in our district was started by a group of teachers that would meet all of Bruce Bonney and Antonia Rudenstine's criteria they listed above. These teachers either came to PBL out of a desperate student need or professional desire to grow. These "teacher leaders" appealed to Administration to look at this pedagogy and the administration, seeing these practitioners as already being leaders, honored the request. This eventually grew into these teacher leaders leading professional development for the rest of the staff. Administration was always kept in the loop but they did not drive this (I hope you are seeing the parallels to PBL by now). Eventually, teacher leaders and admin saw the need to bring admin into this conversation and we, the teacher leaders felt the best way to do this was model the process for them, just as we model the process when we lead professional development. As Vicki Miles hinted at, we need to teach administration what PBL looks like and how to support it, just was we teach our students. Someone in this discussion said that PBL works so well because it is real world problem solving and there are no shortages of problems in education. What we are now starting to see in our district is everything being PBL; it is becoming part of the culture and how we are dealing with a budget crisis, discipline issues, low standardized test scores, and most of all sustainable implementation of PBL. I know that would not have been possible without the grassroots movement started by teachers.
I also wanted to speak on Andrea's comment about passion. I have been facilitating PBL professional development inside and outside of my school district for a couple years now. One of things I often start trainings out with is asking "DO you come here today out of need, desire, or coercion?" One, it immediately gives me a great feel of the room and how I need to tailor my message. Two, it hits on that "change" factor Andrea suggested. People do not change unless they desire it or see it as a need. I had the privilege of working with Alfred Solis from the Buck Institute last summer for two weeks. In his trainings, he asked the audiences after he had presented what PBL was and what it looked like, "For you, is PBL a revolution or an evolution?" I answered that question with "both." As was discussed in a lot of these posts it is so vastly different from other forms of teaching in terms of student role, teacher role, instruction, management, structure, etc; of course it is a revolution. But I also think it is most powerful if it is meticulously and strategically implemented in such a way that it appears to be evolution.
Thanks for the discussion.

Steve Loser's picture

I am a project based learning instructional coach for a large urban school district thats goal is to vertically articulate a k-12 PBL curriculum without buying a curriculum or boxed structure such as New Tech. I want to comment on few of the things being discussed here.
For me, the issue or Real World Problem has to do with Professional Development Models that do not promote sustainable change. We have all felt the pendulum swing of education as we try something for two years; maybe we see success, maybe we don't; but regardless move onto something else. For the most part, these initiatives are top down as Vicki Miles pointed out. They involve a sage on a stage coming in for a large price, presenting the info (usually in hours of lecture and we know how effective that is) and then flying back out, never to be seen again. There is no support system put in place. There may be a book study or a focus group founded, but you often here the veteran teachers in the back saying, "there will just be something new in two years. I can ride this out," and then we start the painful passive compliance game.
PBL in our district was started by a group of teachers that would meet all of Bruce Bonney and Antonia Rudenstine's criteria they listed above. These teachers either came to PBL out of a desperate student need or professional desire to grow. These "teacher leaders" appealed to Administration to look at this pedagogy and the administration, seeing these practitioners as already being leaders, honored the request. This eventually grew into these teacher leaders leading professional development for the rest of the staff. Administration was always kept in the loop but they did not drive this (I hope you are seeing the parallels to PBL by now). Eventually, teacher leaders and admin saw the need to bring admin into this conversation and we, the teacher leaders felt the best way to do this was model the process for them, just as we model the process when we lead professional development. As Vicki Miles hinted at, we need to teach administration what PBL looks like and how to support it, just was we teach our students. Someone in this discussion said that PBL works so well because it is real world problem solving and there are no shortages of problems in education. What we are now starting to see in our district is everything being PBL; it is becoming part of the culture and how we are dealing with a budget crisis, discipline issues, low standardized test scores, and most of all sustainable implementation of PBL. I know that would not have been possible without the grassroots movement started by teachers.
I also wanted to speak on Andrea's comment about passion. I have been facilitating PBL professional development inside and outside of my school district for a couple years now. One of things I often start trainings out with is asking "DO you come here today out of need, desire, or coercion?" One, it immediately gives me a great feel of the room and how I need to tailor my message. Two, it hits on that "change" factor Andrea suggested. People do not change unless they desire it or see it as a need. I had the privilege of working with Alfred Solis from the Buck Institute last summer for two weeks. In his trainings, he asked the audiences after he had presented what PBL was and what it looked like, "For you, is PBL a revolution or an evolution?" I answered that question with "both." As was discussed in a lot of these posts it is so vastly different from other forms of teaching in terms of student role, teacher role, instruction, management, structure, etc; of course it is a revolution. But I also think it is most powerful if it is meticulously and strategically implemented in such a way that it appears to be evolution.
Thanks for the discussion.

April Bond's picture
April Bond
VP Education, The BizWorld Foundation

I recommend checking out www.bizworld.org for project-based programs at the 3-8th grade level that are aligned to NCTM standards. Our non-profit foundation has created these programs for innovative teachers like you and the other teachers on this blog. Thanks for what you do.

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