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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Project-Based Learning: Real-World Issues Motivate Students

Concrete, authentic project-based learning helps students illustrate core knowledge.
By Diane Curtis
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VIDEO: Project-Based Learning: An Overview
Ask Seymour Papert, renowned expert on children and computing, why students are turned off by school, and he quickly offers an example:

"We teach numbers, then algebra, then calculus, then physics. Wrong!" exclaims the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician, a pioneer in artificial intelligence. "Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics, and from that abstract out ideas of calculus, and eventually separate off pure mathematics. So much better to have the first-grade kid or kindergarten kid doing engineering and leave it to the older ones to do pure mathematics than to do it the other way around."

In a growing number of schools, educators are echoing Papert's assertion that engaging students by starting with the concrete and solving hands-on, real-world problems is a great motivator. Ultimately, they say, such project-based learning that freely crosses disciplines provides an education superior to the traditional "algebra at age nine, Civil War at ten, Great Expectations at eleven" structure.

Students at Harlem's Mott Hall School design their kites on a computer before beginning construction.

Credit: Edutopia

Advocates also say that the availability of technology that can call up the knowledge of the world's best thinkers with the click of a mouse, that can graph in two seconds what once took hours, and that can put scientific instrumentation in a pocket-sized computer further argues for moving away from century-old models of instruction.

"Everybody is motivated by challenge and solving problems, and we don't make use of that in schools enough," says Bruce Alberts, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and former president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). "Project-based learning gives everybody a chance to sort of mimic what scientists do, and that's exciting. And it's fun if it's done well."

Projects Run the Gamut

Examples of projects applicable to the here and now abound:

  • Soil Superheroes Project at King Middle School in Portland, ME : At King Middle School, in Portland, Maine, seventh graders learn about soil bacteria through creating multimedia information pamphlets. They consult professional microbiologists and cartoonists, conduct original research, and then distribute their completed pamphlets to local garden centers, universities, and flower shops.
  • African Wildlife DNA Project at High Tech High in San Diego, CA : At High Tech High, in San Diego, California, an eleventh grade biology class uses DNA barcoding to develop forensic techniques that help protect African wildlife. The students share their findings with wildlife-protection officials and have traveled to Tanzania to lead bushmeat-identification workshops as part of the High Tech High African Bushmeat Expedition.
  • Water Wheel Project at Ferryway School in Malden, MA : At Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts, fifth-graders explore history, science, technology, and engineering by designing their own water wheels. By the time they visit the nearby Saugus Iron Works, a historic site that dates back to the 1640s, they’ve already tested and mastered the centuries-old technology.

The Big Picture

In project-based learning, students try to answer a question -- one that has relevance for them -- that is greater than the immediate task at hand. In its publication Connecting the Bits, the NEA Foundation gives the example of students at a Kentucky elementary school conducting surveys, doing research, building models, and taking field trips with the goal of determining the best kind of new bridge to build over the Ohio River.

The Internet is one of a variety of resources used for project-learning research.

Credit: Edutopia

Students conduct research using a variety of sources, from the Internet to interviews with experts. They work on the project over an extended period of time -- six weeks or more -- because of the in-depth nature of the investigation. Like adults trying to solve a problem, they don't restrict themselves to one discipline but rather delve into math, literature, history, science -- whatever is appropriate to the study.

"One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life," says Sylvia Chard, 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.

"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," she says. "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."

Chard doesn't like the term "project-based learning," because she says it implies a focus on projects to the exclusion of other legitimate learning methods; she prefers "project learning." "Younger children will play and explore as well as engage in projects," according to a statement at the Project Approach website. "Older children's project work will complement the systematic instruction in the program."

In-Depth Investigation

Chard defines project learning as an "in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of children's attention and effort." She advocates a three-phased approach: Phase 1 involves an initial discussion of a project topic, including children's firsthand experiences related to the topic. Phase 2 involves fieldwork, sessions with experts, and various aspects of gathering information, reading, writing, drawing, and computing. Phase 3 is the presentation of the project to an audience.

A student at the West Hawaii Explorations Academy measures the pH balance of water as part of a project to restore ancient ponds.

Credit: Edutopia

Bruce Alberts says one reason he believes project-based learning hasn't caught on more is that parents weren't taught that way. But many parents who witness the transformation of their children become ardent converts. "There's a visible hunger to learn," says Ingo Schiller, parent of two former students at Newsome Park Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia. "When we sit down to dinner, the kids talk nonstop for twenty minutes, telling us what they did and what they saw. This is literally every day!"

And conversations with teachers who use project-based learning in a meaningful way tend to use the same words: excitement, engagement, enthusiasm.

A Host of Benefits

Enthusiasm alone isn't enough of a justification to advocate project-based learning, but the results of that enthusiasm argue in its favor, say educators and researchers who have studied or used project-based learning.

Fifth graders in Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, let Houston know they’re up to the Space Day design challenge.

Credit: Edutopia

Kids who are excited about what they learn tend to dig more deeply and to expand their interest in learning to a wide array of subjects. They retain what they learn rather than forget it as soon as they disgorge it for a test. They make connections and apply their learning to other problems. They learn how to collaborate, and their social skills improve. They are more confident talking to groups of people, including adults. And, as a number of research reports suggest, project-based learning correlates positively with improved test scores, reduced absenteeism, and fewer disciplinary problems.

"I've seen test scores of students rise because of the engagement in project-based learning," says Gwendolyn Faulkner, former technology coordinator at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, in Washington, DC. "I saw my students mainstream out of English as a Second Language into the mainstream classroom. I saw my mainstream students scoring three and four grades above their grade level on standardized tests. I'm a convert."

Three Good Reasons

Eeva Reeder, a former math teacher who led a high school geometry project on designing a school for 2050, says she started project-based learning for three reasons: First, her students were not learning concepts deeply enough to apply or even remember them for a long period. Second, a growing body of research upheld the view that concepts are best understood using concrete examples constructed by the students themselves. Third, while taking a break from teaching to finish a master's thesis, Reeder took a job at a bridge-design company and realized, when she was asked to do a task, that she had never applied her knowledge of mathematics in a real-world situation.

A project on worms captures the imaginations of first graders in Newport News, Virginia.

Credit: Edutopia

"And that, fundamentally, was the final piece that shifted my thinking to the point where I realized I can't go back to the classroom and do things the same way I always have," she says.

If schoolchildren are given the gift of exploration, society will be the beneficiary, both in practical and in theoretical ways, scholars say. "This is the way that mathematics started," notes MIT's Seymour Papert. "It started not as this beautiful, pure product of the abstract mind. It started as a way of controlling the water of the Nile, building the pyramids, sailing a ship. And gradually it got richer and richer."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Last updated: 07/27/2011 by Sara Bernard

Comments (79)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Mosley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. I taught srs last year for the first time in 20 years - what a difference all that time makes! Anyway, I am racking (wracking?) my brain for ideas for PBL this year. I thought about researching the Sutton Hoo site and coming up with a tour for someone, or visiting Canterbury (a modern-day pilgrimage using tips from Chaucer's stories?) or something like that. I was thinking of something along the lines of the travel pages in the Birmingham News and having students plan a trip. How about mapping out Wordsworth's travels in the Lake Country? Or Mary and Percy Shelley's trip to Switzerland with Lord Byron?
Beckie Mosley
Dadeville High School
8th and 12th grade English
Dadeville, AL

Chad Foor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'll be honest, watching this video makes me a bit jealous of the kids. I think I would have enjoyed an opportunity to take part in project based learning as a child. The children definitely seem to be engaged, and it makes sense that they will learn to think more critically by having the real world project to create a structure or conceptual framework to fit the knowledge they are learning into. I also like the idea that it encourages the learner to take ownership of their own learning, which is a responsibility and a freedom. I think the motivation to learn would be increased exponentially, and depth of learning could not be matched by typical standards classroom teaching. I'm a teacher in training, and am not sure what to think about the assessment side of things. There does need to be a way to gauge the progress and understanding of the learner. They didn't get into that side of it in the vidoe too much.

Elissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read one of the comments from a reader who stated that project-based learning may work for some students, but others do not do as well with this type of learning. Another reader stated that he despised doing group work because he was a brainy, yet quiet fellow. I think that prior to starting a project, each person's strengths should be accounted for. If a student learns better individually, then he should be able to do an individual project. If another student is an audio or kinesthetic learner, he should get with others that learn best in that same realm and they should work together to develop a project that keys in on their strengths.

Kathryn Colbrese's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always enjoyed doing projects...(spent lots of time doing those in junior high-----I figured we did the projects so everyone would get involved, but I also think that project-based learning is responsible for some pretty deep ruts....after all, PBL is only one method and our brains are capable of investigating and reporting out many, many diffrent methods for learning.

I think we get too comfortable in our methods! I think becoming comfortable might be the problem....keep what works but when it no longer works, move on!

Shane Day's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am definitely a fan of project based learning for a few reasons. Since PBL reflects real world experience, students are more likely to find purpose in learning. Students often lack motivation because they simply do not see purpose in learning content. It is our job as teachers to help students make the connection between the content and the real world. I also think PBL presents opportunities for students to take an active role through questioning/research and responsibility delegation.

Does anybody have any PBL assessment strategies they are willing to share?

Malyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's true that in the professional world, project teams are constructed based on individual expertise and strengths. In a classroom, I think that this is literally a constraint. How best to discover and develop new strengths than being challenged to move out of one's comfort zone?...within reason, of course. I believe in differentiation and aspire for it in my practice but I seriously believe that we are letting students down if we are unable to find areas of weaknesses and develop them accordingly.
Back to PBL - I think one of it's biggest advantages is its social nature. After all, developing social skills are very important because us humans are social beings. What makes it more challenging now is that future generations have to learn both the virtual and the real social context.

jo mama's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i think there should be more projects in school

Kristal LeRoy's picture

I think the idea of PBL is awesome, but I am having difficulty creating a project for my 11th grade American Literature class. My principal is requiring all teachers to implement PBL for the next semester (less than 4 weeks away). Any ideas?

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