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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

John Q. Public's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Isn't anyone interested in finding out what WORKS, in terms of causing kids to know, really know, math concepts?

Hint: it isn't project-based learning.

The highest-testing countries in math, like Japan, don't use PBL. They actually study math. They examine problems deeply, and do exercises, and go through math concepts systematically. I'll bet they like it much better than U.S. students do, too. They're enjoying the subject because they're actually learning it. They aren't just pretending to learn it, and making excuses.

Suzanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes; as a math/science teacher, we call them "story problems." Perhaps we are not choosing or communicating the "story" effectively enough, but most students would rather do anything than a story problem.

Ierlin Lindsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

okay whati dont get is why all the fancey names for like star constalations and stuff are always after greek names or dead languages and typoes are to exceptable i mean who cares as long as u learn the right way does it really matter?

dan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Allow me to mock this suggestion.

What will our first graders learn if they take Stacey's advice? First, and most importantly, that teachers don't really care that much about books and careful explanations. They have a puzzling idea that explaining things carefully doesn't help to learn. That's very discouraging and strange for a child to encounter--I remember that from when I did projects as a child myself, 30 years ago. Second, since first graders can't do most of what is required for the exercise, their participation is perfunctory and mostly insults their intelligence, inspirational quotes . That is, most of the work in the exercise is done by teachers, who create an agreement with a nursery or shelter, and parents, who apparently have to drive their children repeatedly to the nursery or shelter. When they get to the shelter, first the teacher puts them in a group and explains to them what they do with their plants. The children do what they are told, because they're in the first grade.

The real function of this exercise is not to teach children anything, but to let teachers feel good about themselves, because they have created an "authentic" learning experience. Except that they haven't.

What do the first graders actually learn in terms of plants and animals? Precious little that they don't already know or wouldn't pick up in the course of daily life. You water plants to make them grow, and make sure they get enough light. You feed animals. My toddler knows all that.

In the time it takes the teacher, parents, and kids to go through this Mickey Mouse exercise, they all could have actually learned loads and loads about plants and animals, through well-written books, plants in the classroom, some videos, and some homework.

Our precious first graders deserve better than PBL--pretty bad learning.

smaurice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The story problem is the connect with the real world. Maybe math instruction has become so esoteric that the real world applications are seen and conveyed as outside the defined curriculum. Students who connect the learning to the real world understand the "why" of learning. Assignments are no more than external constructs and an example of compliance toward an individual and the curriculum. I have to do this assignment to succeed. I don't understand how this relates to life but I will get it done for a grade. Our students need to know that what they are learning is a part of their real lives. COntinue to give them problems to solve from the real world and they will continue to connect to the world through their education. Our educational culture needs to continue to promote connections not arbitrary standards of achievement

Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a firm believer in hands-on learning, learning by exploration and doing, and projects are what I remember most as a child. I learned most in-depth about things I did projects on, individually. (Learning with m&m's and shaving creme is hands-on learning, NOT project-based learning.)We used to do individual science projects every year, grow plants with different conditions, grow crystals, do experiments, and learn on our own. I loved it! When group projects became the rage, I hated it, being shy I often felt left out, and being "brainy", sometimes other popular kids wouldn't even show up for group meetings, they just assumed I would do their work for them. Now teachers try to counteract that by having students rate the other team members participation, but is a nerdy outsider really going to rat on a popular kid who didn't carry their share? Probably not, and if they do,the teacher has only accomplished further alienating that child from their peer group.
I use project-based learning as a cumualtive leaning about a unit subject, combining individual projects and whole class projects (which I participate in, supervise, and guide)at an end of the unit celebration, and forgo small group projects. That way I avoid the pitfalls I hated as a student, everyone gets to participate and learn,at a rate and level right for them,privately, and get to share and be a shining star at the end, and I am still teaching, explaining, guiding, and students who learn better in a more social, group situation still get the benefit of that, but with supervision. If I do have to assign a small-group task, I assign every group member a specific task, or job, to ensure everyone gets to participate fairly.

Bernadette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I create problem based learning projects for my college biology courses, I make sure that there are separate roles (or tasks) for each student within a group. I make a big deal about how important each role (or task)is to the success of the group, and that if one group member does not participate fully, the entire group will suffer. Since each student has a unique role, the pressure is on to do the work, since nobody else can do it for them. This seems to work really well - I have never encountered a situation, in 10 years of using PBL, where students did not prepare their piece of the puzzle.

Rebecca Mosley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad you talked about how you assign tasks to each person in a group. That is the ONLY way to ensure each person bears his fair share of the job, at least I have found it to be so. That is also one of the reasons my colleagues fail miserably in their attempts at group work - they give everyone in every group the same worksheet to complete, and then they gripe about how one person had others give him answers or fill in the answers for him. I teach primarily eighth-graders, and they love how we select group jobs - the colored counters that elementary math teachers use! I use a game spinner to determine what color corresponds to what job, and that usually settles the arguments that sometimes ensue.

Ann D. Eason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree that Socrates would not have enjoyed the modern techniques. After reading all about Socrates, I found his learning style was to discuss things with subjects. He was more like a newspaper reporter doing an article on something. He would find the logic in whatever he was trying to answer too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his works.
Ann Eason

Elizabeth Goodson 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great idea to use a game spinner to determine roles in the group! I will definitely use this idea! I agree with your statement about teachers failing when it comes to group work. I know this from experience! For the last couple of years I have used role cards for each group member in a group. This is much more beneficial for all of the students. I have been teaching freshmen and lower classmen, but this year I will be teaching seniors. I can easily include PBL with writing and grammar, but I am having a difficult time grasping how I am going to include the study of British Literature using PBL. Any ideas? I also teach Spanish. We always use PBL in class. Every unit has a project that requires them to use Spanish in a real-life situation. The assessments include the student reacting to a situation or emergency where they are required to communicate in Spanish. Students prepare for the assessments by researching words and studying the grammar used in the language. All of the assessments or projects are compiled in a portfolio that they should be able to use or refer to later in life.

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