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Project-Based Learning Made Easy

Bob Lenz

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

"Project-based learning is great but it is too hard for teachers to do well." I have heard this belief stated more times than I can count. Is PBL really so difficult that only a select number of masterful teachers, innovative schools, and dynamic school leaders can pull off high quality projects? I don't think so.

In the service of inspiring educators to embrace a performance-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment by highlighting great projects, I am worried that we actually dissuade teachers and leaders from using this approach. As learners we need to be presented with challenging yet attainable tasks in order to gain our full engagement. A bar set too low is boring and a bar set too high is daunting -- why even start on this task if I will fail?

To dramatically increase the number of students and teachers engaging in project-based learning and performance assessment we need to highlight examples that are attainable. Rather than ask teachers to become master designers of curriculum, we should encourage teachers to tweak, or adapt, their current work to give it a more performance-based flavor. Here are a few examples from Envision Schools using a few of our design principles for instruction:

Academic Rigor -- Ask a Question

In addition to mapping from state content standards, we use inquiry as driver for almost all projects, units and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid lab unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, "What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?" She can teach the content as she always has but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong but many will. Most importantly, the students will own the content because they applied it.

Balanced Assessment -- Write an Essay with a Rubric

Like most tenth graders in the country, Envision Schools' students read To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike most tenth graders, their assessment of learning will include more than a test to measure their mastery of the facts about the novel. Our students are asked to write a multi-page textual analysis that requires the students to think critically about the novel by analyzing text, making inferences, and drawing conclusions. The student's papers are assessed using a common textual analysis rubric that is shared by all English Language Arts teachers. Of course, this takes more time for both the learner and the teacher but the addition of an essay that requires critical thinking is not a huge instructional challenge for teachers.

Active Exploration and Adult Connections -- Conduct an Interview

Envision students are required to write a proficient college-ready research paper to graduate. This could be completely an academic affair but with a small twist -- students will be more engaged and learn important college and career skills. In a US History class, the teacher asked the students to interview an adult -- not at the school -- who was alive during the historical period or is recognized as a content expert, such as a college professor.

In addition to learning the research process and the history content, students learn how to locate a resource and set up and conduct and interview. We have seen the attention to detail and quality rise significantly with this approach -- the students want their resource to be impressed by their paper.

Making a classroom more performance based can be as simple as asking a question, writing an essay, and conducting an interview. I don't think that is too hard and the payoff will be significant for the learners and the teacher.

Bob Lenz

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

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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

PBL truly is a great approach to effective learning. My interactions with K-12 teachers (AND many college faculty as well by the way) suggest that they believe they don't have enough training - but they really do if they start small with their efforts along the lines of your excellent suggestions. Their claim of needing more PD is really a mask for the real problem: GIVING UP SOME CONTROL OF THE STUDENTS' EFFORTS. I had a teacher actually tell me once that she/he wished they had the confidence to let go a little like I do.

By the way projects are everywhere. Once, as a guest in a college class, I brought copies of the college's daily newspaper; after discussing and exploring PBL for a short while, I asked them to find course-related project ideas from those newspapers; they found them quite nicely.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

I remember being overwhelmed with a giant, papier mache whale in a multi-purpose room as an example of a great project kids did. Could NEVER do something like that and it tainted PBL for me for years.

Now I do it all the time and ponder how to enroll others in the fun and engagement that PBL offers. The small steps in. I think you hit it with starting with what teachers have in place and tweaking it toward open-ended tasks.

A key to open-ended challenges is how they are assessed (What you measure is what you get...)We moved to a RUBRIC with a 1-4 scale, and not 300 points, one for each minute detail.

A rubric scale (and fewer points total) allowed kids some choice and creativity in how they meet a challenge, and yet, it was hard for us give up the control. We tried this approach with some trepidation as we put multi-media projects in place with our Take Action Project and the Problems with Oil Project. Got the best work we've ever had from our students. Here's more detail (and thanks to Rushton Hurley for the inspiration!) http://takeactionscience.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/pop-2-how-are-petroleu...

Thiago Fernandes's picture

Do you feel project-based learning should be so focused on the output, on the performance of projects?

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

The obvious success of PBL begs the question of why does it work and then the question: What other implications are there for education?

I think it works because it involves almost no teacher lecture, it presents the students with many decisions to make, it requires the teacher to give up control, and to trust the students with responsibility. In short, it requires the students to learn rather than requiring them to be taught. We should apply these ideas to all of our lessons.

Great article. There is a 'Chapter Problem' in each chapter of my textbook. I am going to make them into projects for each chapter.

Larry's picture

"Making a classroom more performance based can be as simple as..."

I believe PBL environments lend themselves particularly well to a mastery goal orientation rather than a performance goal orientation. This is really great because research shows a mastery goal orientation creates high internal motivation for the student, which in turn leads to high transfer of knowledge. I believe it's important to distinguish between mastery and performance oriented goals when designing PBL environments.

Great article on PBL, it's a great instructional method!

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

I understand there are standards or frameworks that must of course be addressed. BUT, I truly believe, within those standards, there is CORE KNOWLEDGE that must be identified and then learned by the students (taught or facilitated by the teachers). THEN with carefully chosen projects - yes, the more interdisciplinary the better, the students will find the rest of the material as needed. More importantly, they will learn all the key aspects of effective problem solving including how to gather, organize, evaluate for appropriateness, and use if so to address the assignment. AND in the process of doing this, they will effectively learn the core material and do well on the standardized tests.

The key is identifying the core knowledge and addressing it - providing ample time for PBL to work its wonders: building good problem solving skills, firming up the understanding and effective learning of core knowledge, AND providing the environment that promotes intrinsic motivation of the students towards education.

Julie Thomas's picture
Julie Thomas
7th Grade Language Arts Teacher from Minneapolis, Minnesota

Project based learning is a great way to assess what a student does and does not know. When new material is introduced, it is common for a basic assessment to be given to determine comprehension. The problem with basic assessments is that students typically take the test and move on to the next topic. Project based learning not only encourages students to inquire about their own learning, but they continue to learn as they develop the project to demonstrate comprehension. Students are more likely to remember information when it goes beyond basic memorization and regurgitation. Project based learning advances students from the "remember" stage of Bloom's Taxonomy to the "create" stage. This is a higher level of learning, therefore encouraging long-term learning rather than short-term.

Matthew's picture
Technology Education Twin Cities MN

What a great article about PBL. What I don't understand is we as teachers we see the advantages of project based learning. As a Tech Ed instructor that is all I do. In my classroom guide my students into discovery learning. Students retain more information if they are allowed to discover their way (with guidance) to complete a project. We need more problem solvers in our society. We need to teach "Hands on Minds on" However the State and Federal Government only stress importance on the Core subjects. So they are taking options like Art, Facs, Tech Ed away from our students and replacing them with more Core seat time. I think we all need to do our part in PBL, it may not be easy for teachers, but it is Best for kids. And that is why we are teachers!

Annette Loubriel's picture
Annette Loubriel

Kudos for all excellent comments about PBL. PBL is the bottom line of education. What is the purpose to educate people? The purpose is to develop citizens; people with the necessary skills to effectively and productively function in a society, people who are able to contribute, to construct. The challenge for teachers is to continually create opportunities for students to create things by themselves- envision a curriculum that is integrated- that resembles or better, that is an extension of the real world. Please keep up the good work. Spread the word! Be brave and discard what doesn't work.

Matthew's picture
Technology Education Twin Cities MN

Summative assessment is a great way to get an overall picture of how much a student has learned. How often is it appropriate to give students a summative assessment? Some teachers give the assessment at then end of every chapter, others give a midterm and a final summative assessment. I currently teach a woodworking class where I give two summative assessments, a midterm and a final. Is that enough summative assessments, or should I give more?

Thanks for your input.

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