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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

What's Wrong with Project Learning?

What's Wrong with Project Learning?

Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
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I'm not a teacher but, as a teaching/learning method, PBL seems like a no-brainer to me. Since it's not universally accepted and deployed, what are the downsides that I'm missing?

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Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

Hi Terry,

I bet a lot of teachers feel the same way. Anyone come up for solutions on how to relax enough to try new things like projects in the face of the testing culture?

Looking forward to your thoughts.

Thanks,

Malaika

Tracie Weisz's picture
Tracie Weisz
Middle School teacher from Alaska

I agree with those of you who have stated that the reason PBL sometimes falls flat is early discouragement. I would piggyback onto that idea by saying that good PBL demands a lot of front-end careful planning, which requires time. However, for the teacher, the real challenge of PBL begins once the project gets rolling. No matter how carefully planned, the project won't run itself. The teacher, who is rightly in the role of facilitator, must be monitoring the "pulse" of events very carefully. There needs to be constant tweaking of the plan in order to keep it relevant and to make adjustments for learner needs and any new developments the students reveal that might change the course of the plan. This monitoring also requires time. As we all know, time is what teachers don't have a lot of.

Schools that seem to have more success with PBL have made sure to structure their time so that teachers have time to plan, collaborate, and monitor. I think people with good intentions are willing to invest the extra time necessary in planning PBL, but it is discouraging once it gets going and time requirements make it difficult or overwhelming to maintain.

Teachers who really believe in the value of PBL can do it, but must be mindful and realistic about planning the time considerations it will require, if you happen to not work at a school where that is part of the structure. I would also add that it's ALWAYS worth it!

Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

Hi Tracie,

That's a great point. I've been thinking for a while we should do a story at Edutopia about time management and project planning required for successful PBL. I'm looking forward to more of the group's thoughts on how they make this work.

My best,

Malaika

Twila Busby's picture
Twila Busby
Middle School, Tucson, AZ

What I have seen, as the teachers at my school transition to PBL, is those who are planning and implementing their project alone often get discouraged when things don't go according to their plan. Those who are planning as a content area/grade level team or as an interdisciplinary team, divide up the work, support each other, sometimes commiserate with each other and even have fun together as they do the frontloading and during the project itself.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Tristan de Frondeville
Project Learning Consultant for PBL Associates
Facilitator

Summarizing this thread so far....time and skills

Twila and Tracie do a great job of summarizing this thread so far to date, namely that Project Learning makes heavy demands on teacher time and teacher skills.

Sadly, there are very few project libraries with good projects that are 'ready to go' (however, here are two that will grow with time and that you may find useful: West Virginia's Teach 21 and High Tech High's Projects). Even in these libraries, it is hard to find a project that will meet any one particular teacher's needs. If we add that great projects often benefit from a local context so that students are applying their solutions and ideas to issues in their community, then project libraries can be good for ideas and resources, but teachers still need to spend a lot of creative time and planning time to edit them for use in their own classroom.

This is to say that great projects demand from the teacher a lot of creativity and planning. Both of which take time.

Then, Tracie wisely said that even the best planned projects demand that the teacher adapt to events that occur in the classroom during the project. If the point of good projects is to give students authentic learning experiences wherein they have a certain amount of independence to explore, plan, and create solutions, AND be thoroughly ENGAGED in the task, then capturing that passion and engagement is a moving target. As a Project Learning coach, I often mention that it is in the 2nd and 3rd year that a project will really take off, because the first year, you have so much fiddling and tweaking to do as the project is running. It is like trying to fly the plane, and build it at the same time.

Since the first time doing Project Learning is so difficult, the skills of managing teams of students in an inquiry learning process and making sure that every student (not just the top student) is learning the content standards at a high level (i.e. high in Bloom's hierarchy), as well as 21st century skills and great habits of mind, demand teacher experience in managing teams of students, and teaching/training these high level content and character skills.

Again, teachers need time to create, plan and implement good projects, and they need skills to coach teams of students to perform at high levels in an inquiry environment. I find that most teachers make the time when they are convinced that it will result in high levels of student engagement and student learning. That is why they need to see videos of great projects in action (ideally with students in a demographic similar to theirs). Thankfully, there are many of these on the Edutopia website. They also really appreciate research and other articles that show that it is worth trying to create these changes in their classrooms, some of which have been kindly posted earlier in this thread.

Also, they need to build up their skills in keeping classes at high levels of active learning. My motto is "All students, all working, all of the time." I have written some articles on Edutopia about some of the strategies that teachers can use to train their students and practice these skills, and my favorite book that organizes over 250 active learning strategies is "Inspiring Active Learning" by Merrill Harmin and Melanie Toth.

Finally, Twila has wisely pointed out that when teachers have a fellow teacher with whom they can communicate in real-time as they are trying to 'surf the wave' of that first project, then they can overcome those difficult moments where they feel that too many students are not working hard enough, and are not 'getting the expected learning' from the project. That is why Edutopia has created this group! So that Project Learning teachers can connect with each other in 'almost real time' and provide strategies and support when the plane of a project is in the middle of the air, and a teacher would like some help in landing the plane safely.

Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

Hey everyone! I'm a little late in joining this discussion but thought I'd jump in anyway! I've enjoyed reading your posts and all the insight and research people have provided. I don't have any research findings, but I do have my own personal experience with doing project based learning for the past six years. I've been lucky enough to teach a Mentally Gifted/Enrichment class at my school. Since there's no curriculum, I'm able to pretty much do anything! From the beginning, I've planned year-long, cross-curricular projects with the kids. The really enjoy it!

In the beginning, I let them pick ANYTHING that they enjoyed and would build a project around it. I've had students research shopping including how income affects shopping, the influence of credit cards, the pressure of not having the means to shop, etc.; plan their own professional sports team including where it would be located, team name and logo and colors, persuading the local government to agree to a team, choosing a mascot, etc.; and creating a new video game system. When the class got larger, I would pick the topic of the project and let them decide how to pursue it: design and build a mock-up of a car that would run with something beyond gas; plan, prepare, organize and serve a multi-course meal with a theme; and design a new bridge that incorporates the spirit of our city.

My students have always amazed me with their creativity - every year the projects get better and better! We have an End-of-Year Gala where the students present their work to family, friends, and staff. Last year's Gala was the most amazing yet!

As a special education teacher as well as the MG/Enrichment teacher, I agree that project based learning should not be excluded to just the "advanced" learners. Before our school went to a full inclusion model and I had my own classroom for students with learning disabilities, I would do projects as an assessment after a unit. Again, these were the times when the kids were MOST engaged in the class.

One of the best projects came from one of my student teachers. She was designing a writing assignment. She asked the students directly, "What do you want to do?" They wanted to make something. So she found a no-bake recipe. They were divided into teams, each team member had a responsibility. The recorded their steps and critiqued each teams creation. At the end, the wrote up their "report". It as a huge success!

Agreed, it is very challenging to fit anything in with the constant mandates that are put on us. We just have to be more creative in finding the "spaces" in the curriculum to include projects.

Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

Hi Erika,

Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's interesting that you teach both gifted and special education classes. I'm curious about if there are parallels in the special needs of these two groups? Do you find project learning works as effectively with both?

Thanks,

Malaika

Shawn Lucas's picture

I agree with the assessment that says that it is too easy for teachers to fall back on the traditional lecture/CW/HW/quiz/test model when PBL fails, as it often will in those beginning stages. I have run several PBL classrooms and it is when I feel most like a teacher and find that students are most engaged and invested in the classroom. However, it is also the time that I feel that the classroom is most on edge and potentially out of control because students who are not working can more easily derail the lesson.

Perhaps this is a result of my weaknesses as a teacher. I've tried to make myself stronger as a teacher, but can never get situation specific responses to certain situations. It is usually just the pedagogy of clear expectations, concise directions, limited transitions and tolerating little deviation from the plan. All of that is well and good, but what happens when all of that doesn't elicit the intended result? Is it really as simple as detentions when they misbehave and punt them from the room if they still don't get the message, or is there more?

Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

[quote]Hi Erika,
Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's interesting that you teach both gifted and special education classes. I'm curious about if there are parallels in the special needs of these two groups? Do you find project learning works as effectively with both?
Thanks,
Malaika[/quote]

There are such similarities! When I first started, people would ask me how I managed to do it. I always told them that both groups need my help and support: one to access the learning the other to enrich their learning. You'd be surprised how often the 2 "end" meet!

Yes, I find that project learning works really well for both. Both groups tend to get really bored and frustrated in a traditional classroom. They both often are turned off to learning. Teaching with projects that interest them help them enjoy learning, do something challenging, and totally engage them.

I've done projects with BOTH groups. The students with learning disabilities - and some had behavior issues as well - always did their best work when I did projects. Their behavior improved and they elevated their level of work. I started doing more and more projects rather than traditional "tests". And I did it in both the subjects - Literacy and Math.

One project I remember, the students who had the most behavior problems, the worst classwork completion, and the biggest attitudes did the MOST AMAZING group project of the whole class! It really works and totally motivates students. I'm a HUGE fan - as if you couldn't tell!

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Tristan de Frondeville
Project Learning Consultant for PBL Associates
Facilitator

Shawn,

PBL can sometimes give kids a chance to 'hide' their non-engagement and non-participation. It takes all of our best teacher skills AND our best training of the kids themselves to minimize 'off-task' behavior on the part of ALL kids.

Three quick ideas to perhaps improve your success rate on 'bad' days.

(1) Get Merrill Harmon's "Inspiring Active Learning" with 250 strategies from 5-20 minutes to make your room (in any environment, traditional or PBL) more active and engaging. Train the kids to do these activities and modalities, and when things are lagging and the PBL isn't engaging all the kids, you can pull in one of these active learning strategies to get them back on task.

(2) Train the social-emotional intelligence of your kids and step them up to 'high-performance teamwork.' Please watch this 9 minute video to get ideas of how to do it, and WHY it pays off to put in the time to train your kids to do this.

(3) I have written two articles distilling some of these active learning strategies that you can use to keep All kids All on task All the time. You can go to this link to see them.

Good luck!

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