Project-Based Learning: Real-World Issues Motivate Students | Edutopia
Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
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
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
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

Cynthia Gran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Multiple typos are unacceptable for teachers.

Ron Best's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Conceptually your on target, unfortunetly more students go through the system under achieving. Why do they under achieve? Is it because someone demanded memorization of the multiplication tables. So, the students would have the skill base to process enough problems to gain mastery or the skill set to build off of. I can only speak for myself, my 6th grade students arrive with a 4th grade set of skills. Instead we have home enviroments that lack positive; reinforcement,role models, health and sanitary conditions. When students haven't been trained to think for themselves, question, inquire, think positive, be positive approach life with hope it is difficult to teach and nearly impossible for them to learn. I think your right about most a genetically hard wired to think and learn right up until it is sucked from us. The students I try to reach have had that hard wiring beaten from long before they set foot in kindergaten. What is needed is teams of teachers, community leaders, parent support groups, parents to embrace children first. I started teaching after I retired from the private sector. It is a calling, but when they reach 6th grade can't read with comprehension, have no vocabulary base, do not know what effort is, will not complete anything, have serious behavioral issues, parents who are bewilder with what to do and won't accept advice, it is a recipe for disater. Tell me again how I meet state standards at grade level for 24 of 32 students with these issues. First they have to listen (even if it's to themselves), then they need to belive (even if it's in themselves), finally they need to try (even if it is for themselves). I know I'm off track for PBL but like so many things it only works (for large numbers of students) if the students come to school prepared for the process and that the home environment supports such practices.

tom corcoran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students learn more by doing than they do by listening. The theory that students will learn "better" by constructing their own knowledge while they solve a problem or complete a project has been around the track before. This used to be called the "process approach." Now we have new advocates with new buzz-words; but,it's still the same idea. Is a good idea?

The process approach is fun and it does engage students, especially the ones who find school little more than a place to meet friends. For them, learning by projects is the way to go. But what about the students that use the other side of their brains? On the other side of the coin are students who could do the entire project by themselves in the time it takes the other students to settle down. Are they to be brought down to the lowest common denominator to "help" their peers?

Different students have different learning styles. To praise one method, such as learning by projects, to the detriment of another, such as lecture and drill, misses the whole point of differentiation. Whenever I read articles calling for some new fad in learning, I take it with a grain of salt. Learning starts with the child, and they're all different!

Ed Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

as a teacher I often find that each year, we are trying something new, However, this year, we are doing rigor and relevance and it has ties to BF Skinners positive reinforcers for explicit learning,and teaching material that is practical. I first learned this method working with a psycologist helping me with a autistic child. The fact that students learn better by hands on is obvious when you work with special needs children. If find it amazing that we now find it also bridges the gap between struggling students and more advanced students. The question is, how do we get all teachers to buy into the process. Teachers must be observed more closely and shown how to teach with this new style. I learned the method out of frustration when my autistic student showed no improvement over a year, yet everyone said I was doing a great job! I now use everything to teach, pictures,hands on materials vocational training devices and computers and all kinds of sensory materials. If each teacher had to teach outside under a tree like Socrates, and make the student teach the other students, we would see amazing break throughs. It then would not matter is John finished his project first, he could then teach units of interest to him at other students level and experiences.

Ed Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was excited by the example given by the teacher for using car color to teach fractions. I took this idea and used it to teach probability using M&Ms. I gave each student a handful of M&Ms and asked them to find the probability of picking one or two colors when eating. They retained the concepts and often speak about it and want simular activities. Wouldn't it be exciting to teach this way each day, and instead of FCAT curriculum the Principal said, "Pick up your jelly beans and M&M's at the faculty meeting and don't make copies anymore, test each student based on hands on activities. Will we ever break away from, lecture and dittos!

Ed Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach a self-contained class of special needs students, I have always embraced the idea of project based grades, and one aspect of each students IEP is that they can be evaluated using a portfolio. I have students working in the community at local stores and participating in special olympics. I use shaving cream to teach the student his or her address or name or draw pictures and use background knowledge to teach spelling of grocery words. I also use power points to teach group lessons, and train the students to teach the same lesson to each other. I sometimes find my students know the method better than my teacher assistants. The use of vocational training programs is essential to teach each level of learning. Not everyone will be able to do algebra or graduate with a diploma, but if the student can learn a trade that will enable them to live independently and raise a family, do they need higher education.

Adam Kranichfield's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, typos are not desirable for teachers, but show me someone with out a flaw and show me a time in your life when you didn't learn from those flaws.

danielle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it is bad wah you sad

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

Please, people, stop invoking Socrates here. The real Socrates would have despised the project method. He interviewed all sorts of "doers" and discovered that they did not really know the nature of the basic concepts they worked with, because they could not articulate the concepts. Socrates was all about rational, logical exploration of the meaning of some concept. This is the very opposite of "hands on" "skills development" or any such thing.

Modern educationists should hate Socrates. Which indicates that there is something wrong with the thinking of modern educationists, in my opinion.

John Q. Public'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. 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.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.