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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning: What Experts Say

Educators and researchers share their views on why project-based learning is an important learning strategy for classrooms.
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
Credit: Edutopia

Sylvia Chard

Sylvia Chard is a Professor Emeritus of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta and coauthor of Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, a popular book for teachers of young children on learning through projects. Visit Chard's website The Project Approach for resources and more information about her work.

Why is project learning important?

"One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. In real life, we don't spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it. We need to be able to ask questions of a person we're learning from. We need to be able to link what the person is telling us with what we already know. And we need to be able to bring what we already know and experiences we've had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds and say something about them."

"You see this with a young class of learners who've not yet learned classroom behavior. Little kindergarten children all raise their hands at once, and you're lucky if they raise their hands. Usually they just break out and say something when the teacher tells a story about her experience because they want to share their experiences. This is how life is much of the time. And it's not that when children are doing that they're not learning. They want to be able to apply their natural tendencies to the learning process. And I think by giving children project work, we open up areas during the school day when children can speak about what they already know, when they can ask questions, they can express interests that are different from [those of] other children. And, I believe, where they can work on their strengths."

Read the full Edutopia.org interview with Sylvia Chard.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis, a high school teacher from Georgia, is cofounder of the award-winning Flat Classroom Project and author of the popular Cool Cat Teacher blog.

Why should collaboration be built into a project?

"If one is teaching math, you can talk all day about it and look at problems on the board; however, students begin to understand math when they work on problems. Problems are a necessary part of math, and we shouldn't shy away from using that word."

"In order to understand collaboration, both face-to-face and global, students must also work on the problems they are having with one another. We must begin to view the interpersonal struggles between students not as problems in the sense of something to eliminate but rather as a potential teaching scenario. Having a real-life problem to coach students through will help them understand the skills they need to survive and thrive in the real world of collaborative online and off-line spaces."

"If a math teacher wants to have her students underachieve, then she will work out all the problems for her students. Doing problems for the students may result in neat, tidy papers, but it also results in a missed learning opportunity."

"Likewise, teachers often get caught up in the emotion of students' interpersonal conflicts when, in reality, we should learn to coach students through these problems. Working out problems for the students may result in neat, tidy classrooms, but it also results in a missed learning opportunity."

"Businesses ubiquitously request people skills, and now they're looking for online, collaborative project-management skills as well. This is not something that will happen tomorrow; it's going on today. Students can be the greatest textbooks for one another, but this kind of learning requires a change in how we, the teachers, view problems."

"Some of the "problem opportunities" that can occur when we use technology in the classroom include wiki wars, non-contributing students, difficulties in coordinating online projects with student teams around the world, troubles with creating videos for another student and delivering on time, and cultural misunderstandings."

"These things cannot be taught in a book or through a lecture but are, by definition, experiential skills that students can only learn by living through -- you guessed it -- problems."

Watch an Edutopia.org video about Vicki Davis' classroom, "Harness Your Students' Digital Smarts" and read an article she wrote, "Personal Learning Networks Are Virtual Lockers for Schoolkids".

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia. The Science Leadership Academy is a public magnet high school that emphasizes inquiry-driven, project-based learning. A partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute, SLA focuses on science, technology, mathematics, and entrepreneurship, and it emphasizes the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection in all classes.

"Inquiry-driven and project-based learning makes sense for today's learners because it gives them the opportunity to connect the work they do in school with the larger world around them. We must stop saying that school is "preparation for real life" and acknowledge that school is real life for the kids while they are in it. Project-based learning allows that to happen in powerful, meaningful ways."

Read an Edutopia.org article about Chris Lehmann and the Science Leadership Academy, "Social Networking at Science Leadership Academy" and an additional interview with Lehmann,"How to Use Social-Networking Technology for Learning".

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John Mergendoller

John Mergendoller is executive director of the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). BIE is dedicated to improving 21st-century teaching and learning throughout the world by creating and disseminating products, practices, and knowledge for effective project-based learning.

Why is PBL worth doing?

"Research has shown that students learn content as well or better using PBL than with traditional instruction. It also shows that students remember what they have learned longer and are better able to use what they have learned. PBL provides the opportunity to learn and practice skills that traditional instruction often ignores -- working in groups, making choices, monitoring progress, thinking deeply about a problem or challenge, and communicating what has been learned. In short, PBL helps students not only learn content but also the 21st-century skills they will need to thrive in a quickly changing, globally connected world."

How does one know if students are ready for PBL?

"I think the key point is that most, if not all students, have to be prepped to do PBL successfully. The teacher should think through what the project requires students to do, both in terms of academic tasks (such as writing an editorial, creating a poster, summarizing an argument) and in terms of the process of completing the project (discussing ideas and making choices in a group, giving constructive feedback on others' work, or making an oral presentation). And then teachers need to ask themselves whether students can do this right now or whether they need some scaffolding, guidance, and practice."

"If they do need practice or preparation -- either academic or process focused -- the teacher needs to provide that. Begin by having kids describe what it means to discuss things and learn from the discussion or talk about what a good presentation looks like (help them make a rubric!). Examine the steps in developing an argument. Sometimes the teacher will need to be direct and didactic: "A good argument is based on reasons that are logical and make sense; it is not based on what we feel or what we like." At other times, the teacher can draw the needed ideas out of the students in a discussion. But in all cases, the result should help students understand what they need to do and give them practice doing it in a supervised, structured situation before we turn them loose on a project."

"The teacher should also check in with students after the project starts: "Let's talk about the discussions you are having in your groups. How many students would say they are learning new things? What is your group doing to make that happen?" Good projects are done with preparation (for both teachers and students) and under supervision. If things are going swell, then the teacher can back off."

How can you make your first project a success?

"Start small. Keep the project short and the learning goals limited. Students need a chance to develop their PBL skills -- working productively in groups, monitoring their progress, making public presentations. This takes practice, teacher and peer feedback, and reflection time for both you and your students. You can tackle more complicated projects once your students have some initial success."

Read Edutopia.org blog posts about project-based learning by BIE consultant Andrew Miller and BIE's Director of Product Development John Larmer.

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Seymour Papert

An expert on children and computing, Seymour Papert is a mathematician and one of the early pioneers of Artificial Intelligence. He is a distinguished professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), co-founder of MIT's Media Lab, and author of major books on children and learning.

What must change in schools to better accommodate project-based learning?

"Well, first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum. Curriculum meaning you have to learn this on a given day. Replace it by a system where you learn this where you need it. So that means we're going to put kids in a position where they're going to use the knowledge that they're getting. So what I try to do is to develop kinds of activities that are rich in scientific, mathematical, and other contents like managerial skills and project skills, and which mesh with interests that particular kids might have."

"If, for example, this Lego stuff is why a lot of kids love building robotic kinds of things and programming -- and they love doing that -- and you can connect that work to all the powerful ideas that are important for kids to know. So I imagine the learning environment of the future as we've given up the idea of there being curriculum that says you have to learn this at the seventh of May in your eighth year. We've given up the age segregation which is just as, I think, wrong and harmful as any other kind of segregation. It's just as bad to segregate the seven-year-olds from the eight-year-olds, the eight-year-olds from the nine-year-olds, as it was to segregate people by color, religion, or whatever. That will go away. Kids will work in communities of common interest on rich projects that will connect with powerful ideas."

Read the full Edutopia.org interview with Seymour Papert.

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Bob Pearlman

Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for 21st-century school development. Formerly the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, now the New Tech Network, he speaks and consults in the United States and abroad on 21st-century learning and is a longtime proponent of project-based learning.

"Students of today enter an increasingly globalized world in which technology plays a vital role. They must be good communicators as well as great collaborators. The new work environment requires responsibility and the ability to self-manage as well as the interpersonal and project-management skills needed for teamwork and leadership. Enter project-based learning, designed to put students into a students-as-workers setting in which they learn collaboration, critical-thinking, and written- and oral-communication skills along with the values of a strong work ethic, all while meeting state or national content standards. But don't confuse PBL with simply doing activities injected into traditional education to enliven things as a culminating event for a learning unit. Real PBL, in contrast, is deep, complex, rigorous, and integrated."

Read a 2002 Edutopia.org interview with Bob Pearlman on project-based learning.

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Eeva Reeder

In 2001, Eeva Reeder developed and implemented an architecture assignment for her Mountlake Terrace High School geometry students in which they designed a school and consulted with local experts -- an example of project-based learning and comprehensive assessment at their best. She left the school in 2002 to become an educational consultant, and provided staff development to teachers statewide in applied-learning instructional strategies. Eeva Reeder passed away in August of 2010 at the age of 53.

"PBL has the potential to become one of the most useful and defensible instructional strategies of this age. Students who tune out in classes still focused on an information dump that needs to be memorized or on attainment of fluency with mechanical skills for which technology now exists are more and more drawn to online courses and other digital ways to get this knowledge more efficiently, often at their own pace, and often with a reduced quantity of mindless busywork. I believe most students would prefer to spend their time in school learning to apply to some useful end the information and algorithms of the curriculum model that preceded the information-technology revolution."

"Add to this trend that, more and more, schools are finding it difficult to refuse credit to students who have learned, for example, French or statistics in an alternative way and can produce evidence of competence. At some point, college and especially high school educators have to ask themselves why students should be required to sit in their courses when the same information (and course credit) is available elsewhere for less hassle, with more immediate or more personal feedback, and with less drag and interference from unmotivated peers."

"PBL, on the other hand, offers students what they cannot find or arrange as readily elsewhere -- opportunities to collaborate with peers and subject-matter experts on interesting projects, on making a difference in one's community, on learning valuable and transferable skills. PBL starts from the standpoint that information technology cannot and should not be ignored and gives digital natives a compelling reason to keep coming to school: to discover new knowledge. New knowledge is created by applying known information to unsolved problems, and, eventually, through new knowledge may even come wisdom."

Read Eeva Reeder's two-part article on designing projects for high school students on Edutopia.org, "The PBL Launch Pad", Part One and Part Two. Watch Reeder's classroom in action in the Edutopia.org video "Applying Math Skills to a Real-World Problem".

Project-Based Learning Overview

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