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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Is Project-Based Learning Important?

The many merits of using project-based learning in the classroom.
Related Tags: Project-Based Learning

PBL Helps Students Develop Skills for Living in a Knowledge-Based, Highly Technological Society

The old-school model of passively learning facts and reciting them out of context is no longer sufficient to prepare students to survive in today's world. Solving highly complex problems requires that students have both fundamental skills (reading, writing, and math) and 21st century skills (teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, utilizing high tech tools). With this combination of skills, students become directors and managers of their learning process, guided and mentored by a skilled teacher.

These 21st century skills include

  • personal and social responsibility
  • planning, critical thinking, reasoning, and creativity
  • strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs
  • cross-cultural understanding
  • visualizing and decision making
  • knowing how and when to use technology and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task

A number of excellent works published in the last few decades promote 21st century skills. As early as 1990, The U.S. Department of Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills published a report ( PDF download) about the changing skills young people need to succeed in the workplace. WestEd's 1999 publication, Learning, Technology, and Education Reform in the Knowledge Age, explores the "new learning landscape" of the 21st century. Educations Sector's 2008 report Measuring Skills for the 21st Century discusses assessment of these skills, and ASCD's 2009 publication 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead describes the goals and hurdles of the movement. A great starting point for information about 21st century skills is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills website.

"One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. It's an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children's attention and effort."-Education researcher Sylvia Chard

PBL and Technology Use Bring a New Relevance to the Learning at Hand

By bringing real-life context and technology to the curriculum through a PBL approach, students are encouraged to become independent workers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners. Teachers can communicate with administrators, exchange ideas with other teachers and subject-area experts, and communicate with parents, all the while breaking down invisible barriers such as isolation of the classroom, fear of embarking on an unfamiliar process, and lack of assurances of success.

PBL is not just a way of learning; it's a way of working together. If students learn to take responsibility for their own learning, they will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives.

PBL Lends Itself to Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment and evaluation allow us to systematically document a child's progress and development. PBL encourages this by doing the following:

Mott Hall School: A popular science lab activity is the culmination of several days' worth of exploration into the heat of fusion.

  • It lets the teacher have multiple assessment opportunities.
  • It allows a child to demonstrate his or her capabilities while working independently.
  • It shows the child's ability to apply desired skills such as doing research.
  • It develops the child's ability to work with his or her peers, building teamwork and group skills.
  • It allows the teacher to learn more about the child as a person.
  • It helps the teacher communicate in progressive and meaningful ways with the child or a group of children on a range of issues.

Visit our Comprehensive Assessment Core Strategy page to learn more.

PBL Promotes Lifelong Learning

Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has observed, "Teaching has been an activity undertaken behind closed doors between moderately consenting participants." PBL promotes lifelong learning because

  • PBL and the use of technology enable students, teachers, and administrators to reach out beyond the school building.
  • Students become engaged builders of a new knowledge base and become active, lifelong learners.
  • PBL teaches children to take control of their learning, the first step as lifelong learners.

In that pursuit of new knowledge, technology allows students access to research and experts, from such sources as first-person accounts to movies of the Civil War found on the Library of Congress's American Memory collection to online chats with NASA astronauts.

"We are living in a new economy - powered by technology, fueled by information, and driven by knowledge." --"Futureworks: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century" (U.S. Department of Labor)

PBL Accommodates Students with Varying Learning Styles and Differences

It is known that children have various learning styles. They build their knowledge on varying backgrounds and experiences. It is also recognized that children have a broader range of capabilities than they have been permitted to show in regular classrooms with the traditional text-based focus. PBL addresses these differences, because students must use all modalities in the process of researching and solving a problem, then communicating the solutions. When children are interested in what they are doing and are able to use their areas of strength, they achieve at a higher level.

Research Supports PBL

A growing body of research supports the use of PBL. Schools where PBL is practiced find a decline in absenteeism, an increase in cooperative learning skills, and improvement in student achievement. When technology is used to promote critical thinking and communication, these benefits are enhanced.

Visit our PBL Research page for the latest findings about PBL.

Continue to the next section of the guide, What Is PBL About?

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Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Frank King's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the last few years, I have had the privilage to study under a particular instructor at college who regularly uses PBL in his 3rd. year ecology course. I was very engaged by his method of prompting students to forge links between classroom theory, the data we gathered in the field, and real-world ecological issues/problems that might then be addressed using the information we gathered. We were asked to make "theory" relevant, and apply it to real-world, ecological issues via projects that, ultimately, sought tangible solutions and informed recommendations to issues/problems. I thoroughly enjoyed this class, and consider it to be one of the best courses I have taken in college because of its PBL emphasis.

Penny Pizza's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a elementary school that is trying PBL. I find that it is most successful when the teacher is completely engaged in making sure that the students understand every part of the project. I have sent projects home that were assigned by the principal and I try to complete most of my projects in the class. They make take a week to complete, but my students seem to have a very detailed understanding of the subject matter. I am not against PBL I just think that when using it with elementary students the students should be able to complete the assignments.

Paul Wojcik's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the module on PBL. Our graduate instructional technology class had the opportunity to read and reflect. I found it informational and well organized. Thank you for all the hard work and keeping educators like me informed.

Thanks again
Paul Wojcik
Sanford FL
Millennium Middle School

Shirley Sprinkles, Ph.D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The only university course I still vividly remember after 52 years is one called, "The BOX". The course was so-named because at the end of the semester, each teacher educstion student was required to create a complete social studies course for a level of elementary instruction. We were paired with one other student for the task. My partner and I selected a cultural/historical study of Brazil, to be taught to Sixth graders. I have never worked so hard in my life! Nor have I ever learned so much about a people and their country. Armed with detailed lesson plans, beautiful photographs, student activities, maps and cultual artifacts, I felt fully prepared to teach a fantastic unit of study that fully engaged studentsfor a full year. I wish I could see such teaching in classrooms that I visit these days. It's just not there!

Jenna Cottone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an Itinerant special education teacher in a school district just north of Philadelphia. I have always been interested in technology and have wanted to help make instruction more interesting for students with ADHD and Asperger's Syndrome. I think that PBL would help my students socialize with each other more. The students that are on my caseload have a lot of social issues and need a network of students to work with towards a common goal.

Michelle's picture

As a parent of a middle school student, I do not agree with this project based learning. The basics are not being taught to my child and I feel like he is not learning very much this year. All he has is one project after another and right now he has 4 projects he is trying to work on in 4 different classes. I am seriously considering homeschooling or a private school.

Mary Ann Stoll's picture
Mary Ann Stoll
Curriculum developer for K-12

[quote]As a parent of a middle school student, I do not agree with this project based learning. The basics are not being taught to my child and I feel like he is not learning very much this year. All he has is one project after another and right now he has 4 projects he is trying to work on in 4 different classes. I am seriously considering homeschooling or a private school.[/quote]

@Michelle brings up some very valid points that represent difficulties with implementing PBL. I assume the parent's concern here is first that it appears that little new content knowledge has been gained. Second is the concern that the student is overloaded, I assume because much of the project work is needing to be done at home instead of during class time.

Is the first a perception problem, and what are the nuances of PBL design that ensure content knowledge is gained as well as applied?

Is the latter fallout from the fact that PBL actually requires more student time and effort than traditional lecture/discussion? Or is this evidence that we as teachers not yet proficient in PBL attempt to preserve our traditional classroom experiences by relegating the majority of project work to the homework realm?

With the implementation of PBL, should the demand on student's time outside of class be greater than when employing traditional lecture/discussion?

John Lawler's picture

I've taught in public middle schools for 14 years and we homeschooled our children for the last 9 years. 'Project-based Learning' as it's presented in many public school classrooms is problematic as Michelle has explained however...the middle school model if applied properly should include collaboration between subject areas and students should NOT have multiple projects running at the same time. rather, cross-curriculum collaboration should allow for the students to move from one subject area to another and gain not only deeper content knowledge but also a greater understanding of how the various subjects interlace. If Michelle's child's teachers are approaching PBL separately they are missing the power of this model of instruction and possibly tainting their students' view of learning from a holistic approach.
Homeschooling typically allows the parent/teacher to instruct their child/student across all subject areas through the use of PBL in order to solve real world problems and gain a much more in-depth understanding of how various subject areas intersect. Don't give up on PBL but do discuss with your child's teachers your areas of concern and recommend that they work more collaboratively and ease their own burdens as well as the burdens they place on students if they are giving them separate projects.

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