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Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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I was talking with a group of teachers who are relatively new to project-based learning. Near the end of our conversation, one of them asked a question that took me by surprise: "When do we decide to quit?"

I asked her to elaborate. "Some students just aren't getting it," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to reach the end of the project and they won't know the content."

It seems her first project wasn't going quite the way she had envisioned. Her natural instinct: retreat to the familiar territory of texts, tests, and teacher-driven instruction.

I assured her that she wasn't the first teacher to encounter challenges with PBL. In fact, fresh in my mind was a recent post by an Australian teacher recounting her project-based learning "teething problems."

PBL 'Teething Problems'

On Bianca's Blog, Bianca Hewes describes the opening days of a project with her grade 10 students. It started off brilliantly. Students appeared to be deeply engaged in discussing the driving question that she had set before them: How could education officials redesign the high-stakes English test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today's world? To get them fired up, she shared a YouTube video featuring a rant by a college student called "An Open Letter to Educators."

She then challenged students to come up with policy recommendations and make their own YouTube videos. She promised them an authentic audience, including folks with the authority to influence decisions.

What happened next? Her blog continues:

"So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep. You guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn't collaborated despite having Edmodo. They hadn't done any research. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No."

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Bianca's initial reaction was to "take my ball and go home," as she puts it. Her students told her they were more comfortable with old-school instruction, and so she gave it to them. Desks she had arranged for group work went back into neat rows. Animated student discussions came to a halt, replaced by teacher lectures and rote note-taking. Quizzes proliferated. Netbooks went into storage. It was as if they had all been "banished to the cave," Bianca writes.

It didn't take long for students to notice the difference. They worried that they weren't really learning anything this way, except how to follow orders, cram for tests, and write fast. Could they give that project another try?

They could. But this time around, their teacher would be more deliberate about teaching critical skills such as teamwork and time management. She would use formative assessment tools to check in on their progress. She would be sure to have the right scaffolding in place so that students could get comfortable as self-directed learners, and get help if they needed it.

Gradual Release -- Not Retreat

Project-based learning can pose challenges for teachers as well as students, especially when both are new to this approach. As Bianca discovered, some project management skills may need to be taught explicitly. Formative assessment has to happen early and often, and a teacher needs to be ready with support for students who are struggling. Handing over responsibility to the learner happens gradually, not all at once.

Good projects -- like real-life challenges -- also teach us about persistence. Figuring out what to do if you encounter challenges is part of the learning experience.

In an insightful new book called Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman explores what it takes for kids to "get really good at something." Researchers call this developing mastery. Cushman has discovered similar patterns and attitudes among teens who are driven to become architects or artists, rappers or rowers. Often, their expertise develops outside school. It may start with a spark that ignites their interest, but the path to mastery is long-term. A motivated teen with stick with it despite challenges, "because the hard parts connect to a result she can clearly visualize," Cushman tells us.

Supportive relationships also play a critical role for kids who are motivated to work toward mastery. And so does what Cushman calls "deliberate practice," in which kids gain new skills and knowledge through purposeful small steps.

In her interviews with these highly motivated teens, Cushman discovered that few of them expressed much excitement about the work they did at school. There was one bright spot, however. Interdisciplinary projects "stood out for them as a remarkable exception," Cushman reports. The same students who described feeling bored at school "caught fire when they were asked to take on challenging 'real world' projects as part of their academic curriculum." When they had opportunities to do projects, these students recognized a familiar-if sometimes difficult -- path toward mastery.

So, what was my short answer to that teacher who asked about giving up on a project? Please don't! But by all means, figure out why students are struggling and step in with the support they need to get back on track. And bring what you learn into your next project.

Reflective teachers like Bianca teach their students valuable lessons about learning from missteps and making mid-course adjustments. I'm willing to bet that her next project will be more successful, and that her students will gain some valuable life lessons along with a deeper understanding of important content.

Have you ever called it quits on a project? What have you learned -- the hard way -- about scaffolding student success? Please share your insights.

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jamie Adams's picture

Two years ago I moved to a district with veteran teachers who were extremely familiar and well educated about PBL. This was great to see from beginning to end and have a chance to see how it all unfolded. I am now implementing this myself and it definatley takes a lot more structure and dedication than it may seem. It is interesting to read all your ideas and ways of implementing strategies at different levels. As first graders, our projects look a lot different than high school projects but a lot of the lessons and guidelines are the same. I am a huge believer in pbl because I have seen first hand how it changes children and allows them to grow not just as students in a classroom but as active members of their community. Our first grade class last year collected a moving truck full of products that went over to Haiti to help the victims of the hurricane. The feeling those children got from carrying this task out cannot be taught from text books. They learned team work, cooperation, and a compassion for others. They learned that if they put their minds to something they can make a change in the word.

John Bollinger's picture
John Bollinger
Program & Outreach Coordinator for Creative Change Educational Solutions

Our organization supports project-based learning with a focus on sustainability and "green" STEM. We, too find teachers struggle without adequate support, resources, and a strong instructional design framework. That's why we've found sustainability is such a strong platform for project-based learning. The depth of issues such as sustainable agriculture or brownfields redevelopment demands that students engage in rigorous, interdisciplinary analysis and authentic problem-solving. Projects go beyond PowerPoint's or websites to include economic redevelopment plans, policy initiatives for farm-to-school, or energy efficient work. This takes more than unleashing students on Google to find answers to "need to knows." It takes rigorous and well-crafted instruction that engages students in framing the problem, developing a deep knowledge base, evaluating solutions and actions, then finally moving those initiatives forward.

In short, we believe in student-directed learning balanced with quality inquiry-based instruction facilitated by the teacher. This can only happen if the teacher is supported with quality curriculum and instructional design.

Ben Reynolds's picture

I am a technology education teacher in a small rural town in upstate NY. I teach my 7th and 8th grade technology classes with project based learning. I find it is very fulfilling because when is all said and done, my students will have a project to take home that they have spent many hours pouring their heart and soul into. Sometimes it is very hard to keep them involved the entire project because some students will get bored with it, but for the most part I find that my students really enjoy the projects. I spend about 2 weeks in the beginning of the year going over tools and machines to get my students up to speed with what we are going to use to create our projects. Then I spend some time on the design process and showing them how to take a thought in their head and turn it into a picture on paper. Then we take it a step further and actually turn the picture into something real that they can use. I will continue to use project based learning in my classroom and I suggest to any teacher to try it because it is a great way to get students involved.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

[quote]I am a high school student, and I am currently enrolled in a public, junior year, experiential wilderness program. For the first time, I have fallen in love with school. [/quote]
Hi Lily,
Thanks for your comment! This is the best kind of testimonial for why projects are worth the effort.
Best wishes,

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

As someone who has used PBL and has facilitated workshops related to important skills to optimize the experiences, this blog entry and the associated comments provide good information for anyone working with PBL. Formative assessment and lots of attention to skills such as problem solving, working in teams , etc. are critical. Good problems based upon real-world situations are so important. But as with all education I suggest, the formative assessment provides the feedback important to make the refinements that continually improve the efforts, the learning, and student motivation.

mont linkenauger's picture
mont linkenauger
Biological sciences teacher from New Kent County Virginia

I teach an environmental science class in which class groups rotate responsibilities for "background", "Methods" and "Action" from project to project within the curriculum. Its not always perfect but its always interesting. Every student maintains a log which indicates their contribution and it must be signed by the group leader. The results of these projects range from poor to outstanding much as you would get from almost any other approach to teaching. Learning about process is as important as the material. This curriculum lends itself to a projects approach.

SP's picture

PBL and group projects are important for developing group working, managerial and organizational skills. It's a well known fact however that most students hate group projects. I think there are 2 main reasons; 1.They are not provided with a process, i.e. they're not taught project management. 2. They're not provided with the right tools.
I built to help solve this problem. It's a free resource which enables learning, communicating and organization on one site.

Kelley Straight's picture
Kelley Straight
High School Mathematics Teacher and Technology Coach from Columbus, Ohio

I can relate to Bianca's story, except mine does not have such a happy ending. I am working with a team of teachers on a community service PBL. We began the project in January with a group of 15 students. The project kick off was great. The students were excited and engaged.
I do want to add that I teach in a school with an online curriculum where attendance rates are terrible. The students work individually at their own pace to complete their courses. It is difficult to get the students here at the same time.
Anyways, we decided to meet with the students two times per week. The next month and a half went well. At that time they were researching a person or organization who made a change in the community. They presented their findings at the beginning of March. The task that followed was for them to make a change in the community. For example, some students decided to help the humane society, Ronald McDonald House, art programs, litter prevention, and environmental health. The issue is that the students are quitting. This is not part of a particular class, so it will not affect their grades. I know that we went wrong somewhere. We had a meeting today and only five students attended. I thought the students would be so excited about this. I want to try another project next year, but I need the students to buy into it. Any thoughts or particular resources that I should look at?

Amy Airgood's picture
Amy Airgood
7/8th grade math teacher for virtual charter school in Pennsylvania

I really like your website. I joined and like what I see. I think that it is a great resource for students, or anyone, who is working on a collaborative project!

Amy Airgood's picture
Amy Airgood
7/8th grade math teacher for virtual charter school in Pennsylvania

I understand the frustation in the virtual setting. I teach for a virtual school in PA. Students work at their own pace and are all through the curriculum. One of the first things to do is make the assignment have meaning for the students. In other words, the "grade" has to count. It may even count in many academic areas - graduation project is one area that comes to mind. Without the "requirement" aspect, many students will follow through with a project of this magnitude.

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