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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What Should "Gold Standard" PBL Include?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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In my last post, I mentioned that the Buck Institute for Education is in the midst of developing a gold standard for project-based learning. In this Q&A, John Mergendoller, executive director of BIE, explains why he thinks this initiative is necessary and how teachers, school leaders, and others can contribute to the conversation.

Suzie Boss: For starters, why do you think we need a gold standard? What do you hope this will accomplish?

John Mergendoller: We need a way to communicate to the public what project-based learning (PBL) is and how it's different from more traditional methods of instruction. The burden is on us, as educators, not to be jargony.

Another reason: There's a lot of well-intentioned but sometimes ill-executed stuff going on out there that's called PBL. If we can get plainer and clearer about what are PBL best practices, then we can make it easier for teachers to do really good work. They'll have a better sense of the target.

There seem to be many different "flavors" of PBL gaining traction, both in the U.S. and internationally. Could this new standard help to establish common ways of talking about what works in PBL?

We've always thought of PBL as a big tent. When you look at the New Tech Network, High Tech High, Asia Society, Expeditionary Learning, and other implementations, they may go by different names, but you see more commonalities than diversities. People who do PBL share a common set of beliefs and practices. If we could have one overriding definition broad enough to include everyone, that would be a way to bring together organizations with similar goals and methodologies, and unite them under a singular term or phrase. For example, one specific thing we're doing is bringing together problem-based learning and project-based learning. This framework will be looser than either of them, but clearly distinguishable from direct instruction.

So, it is fair to call what you're developing a framework rather than a methodology?

We think of it as a framework of best practices. When you're designing a project, these best practices -- supported by research and practitioner experience -- at a minimum offer questions to think about. At the optimum, they give you examples of how to do PBL really well.

Since you kicked off this conversation in June at the PBL World conference, what have you heard? Anything surprise you?

We've heard enthusiasm -- that's gratifying. A consistent message in the critiques has been that earlier iterations have had too much jargon. Sounding like the research literature is not helpful here, where we're trying to communicate to a broad audience.

But at the same time, isn't it important to pay attention to what research tells us about PBL?

Yes. I'm looking at the last 20 or 30 years of research and identifying the practices linked with effectiveness. I'm convinced there are plenty of examples of PBL that have empirical validation. That's a slightly different statement than saying, "Research shows PBL works." The truth is, there have been documented cases of PBL working, but we need to look carefully at those examples and see why they worked. Then, how can we help teachers do the sorts of things that do work?

How can people with an interest in PBL join this dialogue?

To encourage conversation via social media, we're using the Twitter hashtag #goldstandardpbl. (Follow John Mergendoller @johnmBIE.) We've been having Google Hangouts, which are archived in our Google+ community. I'm writing a series of blogs. I also invite people to send me an old-fashioned email. I plan to read and respond to messages in all those formats.

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