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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

Bruce Bonney's picture
Bruce Bonney
President, Leading EDGE, LLC

I concur fully with the comments of Rick Glass. My experience both in the classroom and as a consultant parallels his. Having observed scores of classrooms and worked with hundreds of teachers on three continents over the years, I've come to the following conclusion:
Research and convincing data seem to have very little to do with an individual teacher's willingness to voluntarily change their classroom practice.

Following are some factors I do think influence a teacher's willingness to try PBL:

1) Personal confidence. In my experience, teachers who are comfortable with themselves as an adult seem more willing to take the risk of doing things differently. At peace with themselves, they don't seem to need the constant approval of their students or colleagues quite as much as others. They accept the fact that they will not always be "right." They seem more emotionally able to handle the miscues that always come with new learning. They understand that even though they are older, the "learning curve" applies to them just like it does to their students.

2) Professional repertoire. Teachers who have tried many different strategies in their classroom develop a repertoire that allows them to go to a Plan B or C if Plan A doesn't seem to be working. PBL can be messy and the classroom environment seemingly chaotic. Teachers with repertoire - including a mastery of their content area - can afford to "go with the flow" of student interest and enthusiasm because they know they have the means to harness student energy without squashing it. They know how to "herd the chickens" and ultimately direct student energy toward the most important/essential outcomes.

3) Temperament. Some folks have the DNA of a salmon in them. My mother called it "spunk"! They enjoy the challenge and adventure of doing something different, new, & unpredictable. Some of the most gifted PBL teachers I have encountered who otherwise appear totally calm, collected, & cerebral have quietly admitted to me that they feel a "rush" when their kids succeed using PBL. Though exhausting at times, it is exhilarating to swim - even struggle - against the current of tradition and show that a different approach works.

4) A benign teaching environment. It is asking a lot in some schools to expect the system to openly support and encourage PBL. The culture of the school does not permit it. However, many individual PBL teachers do very well so long as the system does not actively seek to thwart their efforts. It is wonderful to work and grow in a supportive & collaborative professional learning community - no question. But that kind of environment is not absolutely essential for PBL to blossom. A teacher determined to implement PBL strategies can usually find a way to do so as long as they are given the space to try.

All of the forgoing comments are based on my personal observations and reflection over 40 years. I make no claim that I can "prove" any of these on the basis of research - Just some insights to share.

Jean's picture

Unfortunately our school districts nationwide are adopting a one book for all and page by page mentality in their reaction to NCLB. It seems that everyone has to be on the same page by a certain time. The research shown here needs to go to the administrators and board of educations through out the country.

I have use problem base learning several times. As someone else suggested, it can be messy and it can be chaotic, but it also can be highly rewarding when the students tell you that they enjoyed the learning process and wished all of their teachers would use such methods. I was quite fortunate in having support from my administration at times, but when one principal did not support my work, I found it necessary to stop using PBLs. Interestingly enough the students wanted to know why my teaching methods had changed.


John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

PBL is messy for sure - as is the addressing of any situation faced by anyone! One of the main points (among many) is that PBL enables the learning to relate to real world situations that learners can identify with. Any problem of merit is not solved in straightforward procedures; those efforts are messy with lots of "looping back" for revisions. Solutions are numerous with not the correct solution emerging but the optimum or useful one.

In learning, PBL provides the autonomy and purpose and support of mastery leads to the intrinsic motivation of the learners to honestly learn - all while optimizing general problem-solving skills: win-win for the learners and higher-level experiences for the teacher / facilitator.

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

How to change practice?
My experience comes from directing a university lab school that demonstrated high quality project work and from working as a consultant to develop project based learning approaches in elementary and early childhood classrooms.
I have been wondering if the answer to your question lies in the fact that teachers wanting to work this way have so much to UNLEARN. So many traditional habits have to be changed. Small speech and social interaction habits, ways of relating to students have to be changed. But it is difficult to change habits. Many of our habits have been acquired over many years of learning and teaching a different way.
For example, there used to be one right answer to a question, now there are alternative possibilities; one way of getting to answers, now many; the teacher the expert, now the teacher as master learner, modeling learning strategies for students; learners all following similar instructions, now students finding their own best ways of researching aspects of a topic they are particularly interested in; and on and on.
It is so much easier to rely on what has always seemed to work for a teacher personally in the past, whether it really worked or not. And we are now learning just how much didn't and doesn't work. But many are finding that difficult to believe as they don't know how to manage that much complexity in what used to be a relatively simple structural framework by which the classroom operated.

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