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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Risk & Reward of PBL

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I have experimented with project-based learning through the years, most often from May to June when the AP Literature and Composition exam is over and there is a month left to do the impossible -- keep seniors on task and interested.

Literature Circles, research project, and Genius Hour have all been a part of the repertoire and while each has been a success, each has also been a minor failure.

This year for Genius Hour one student dazzled me with a 17-page paper of the evolution of our tastebuds, another exceeded expectations by writing, directing, starring in and editing his own short film. Yet one student that researched how to take the perfect nap handed in an unimpressive brochure of common-sense advice. Another, studying guitar, scribbled some notes on a piece of loose-leaf paper and handed that in without remorse.

I fear that each new innovation in education -- project-based learning, digital tools, Genius Hour -- is touted as a panacea with teachers glorifying the virtues of its methods and rolling out examples of student work par excellence. While motivated students will always put their best effort into each assignment, there are students who do not put in the same amount of effort and care, no matter how innovative the project. What has been your experience with project-based learning?  How do you get the best from each student?


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Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Educational Consultant and Online Educator

Brian, you are correct that PBL is not a cure. It is a great model for instruction. I know teachers have experienced great success, myself included, but it was not without many projects flopping, or having projects where not every student is engaged. Often if students aren't engaged, there are many things you can do such as refine the DQ, examine more voice and choice opportunities, etc.
I also recommend constant ongoing formative assessments to ensure individual accountability. Students much be giving scaffolding in collaboration in order to ensure the same. If a student is not successful by the end of a project, I always ask "Where was I?" These are just some pieces that I use to ensure success for all!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hi Brian - I agree with Andrew, of course. PBL is not a panacea, and it is not even necessarily for everyone, though personally, I am an enthusiastic PBL-aligned educator!

You bring up excellent points. I have also struggled with students who simply do not engage with their leaning. So often, it is a matter of issues beyond our classrooms - family problems, poverty, worries about the health of loved ones. There are others who just do not care at all about what we are trying to teach them.

I decided long ago that I would offer the opportunity to learn to all my students, knowing that I would not reach all. I try, as I am sure you do, but no matter what I try, some just don't want to join the parade. It is hard, but it is reality.

Even so, I would rather offer rich, deeper learning opportunities to those who will engage, knowing that they will gain more than otherwise. That is very rewarding, not just for me, but also for the students.

Never give up!


Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

Andrew -
Thanks for the suggestions. I did incorporate assessments along the way, yet for some students, the quality of their work began to decline the further we were in the project and the higher the stakes.
A significant cause of this was the fact that it was the last two weeks of senior year for these students and some had just "checked out." That might make for a new post at another time -- how to keep seniors engaged up until the end.

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