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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

ldtchr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have found a few resources for this:

NCTM Illuminations has some small scale project ideas which are great.

Also, I have a book, Active Learning in the Mathematics Classroom: Grades 5-8 by Hope Martin.

Those might help some.....

Christine Roberts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a middle school teacher of Language Arts, I have witnessed the proof of applying project based learning to both student engagement and student learning. It has been my experience that in the PBL process, the student's projects usually exceeded my expectations. For example, students in my class are assigned to choose a book of their choice and create a movie trailer about the book. While I teach them the basics (I moviemaker), their products demonstrate a deep understanding of theme, character, plot, and setting and often demonstrate their ability to symbolize and understand symbolism, illustrate point of view and, by virtue of the product itself, a command of language. Clearly, the above is a brief synopsis of a lengthy process which involves student-directed inquiry. I do not, however, start with a lexicon of theme, plot, etc. Rather, the student discovers that the essentials of his storytelling are what we know of as the key elements in a novel. Thus, the learning is inductive, not deductive in nature.

Melanee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was hater of math and I became a math teacher for that reason. It took remediation and a college professor to help me realize that math could be learned other ways. It is my goal to teach math as the article describes. The inducive reasoning as opposed to the deductive reasoning.

There is no claim to expertise on the project based learning. However, the idea that you must first have the basics down then you can critically think is not working. What does that do to the student that cannot memorize the times tables? Do we never push them to think critically since they have not mastered the times table. Our state test is a critical thinking test and I know that one way for me to help my students move to doing math on grade level is by motivating them and pushing them to think beyond what they have been told by other teachers they are capable of. State tests are not the end all, but with remediation, retention and funding tied to it I have decided to re-think my teaching strategies.

In addition, fun, relevant lessons will promote learning rather than memorizing.

Stephanie Owens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher of gifted learners, my school embraces project based learning. For the past three years, I have used project based learning as an end of unit activity for the subject area in social studies. My students enjoy doing projects every nineweeks. I believe that this type of learning for young students offers them an opportunity to show what they have learned about a particular topic. This also helps the learner remember the content as well. For example, in the social studies unit Ancient Greece, I have had students to create a powerpoint on the greek gods and goddess, come in dressed up as Plato, and write reports about the Olympics. These are just second graders. In order for us to see the big picture, I believe if the curriculum gives teachers an opportunity to do it than high stake tests should give students an opportunity to show their creavity. In class, I always tell my students their is more than one way to solve a problem.

Deedee Zirbel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Mike's discussion of Project based learning! That said, I need assistance. As I share my ideas with other grade levels, I find that my more simplistic methods in a primary classroom do not translate when exploring options for, say, a high school math teacher. I am working with a teacher who feels she cannot "do a project" until her students have mastered certain concepts. I shared that the concepts are learned more meaningfully in the process of the project itself. How can I translate what I do in my primary classroom to a high school math teacher's curriculum? Are there websites/resources/groups with a structure about how to start this type of learning while entrenched in a typical high school learning context?

Andie Rice    North Pole, Alaska's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I greatly appreciate your comments, especially relating to the idea of presenting the problem first and moving to the questions as they arise from the problem. I am limited in the fact that I don't know what kind of units to offer. I have the "recreate this room" unit in my mind, but more detailed lesson plans for this and other units would be very helpful. Do you have any web sites or links that would provide PBL ideas and steps to follow at the teacher/facilitator? Thank you!

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Dear Andie,

The following are some Web resources on project-based learning:

The Online Resource for Project-Based Learning

NECC Highlights: Top Web Resources for Teachers

Success Stories: Encouraging Teachers to Try a Project-Based-Learning Approach

Reinventing Project-Based Learning

A Self-Paced Learning Module on Teaching with Projects

A Place for PBL: Envision Schools's Project Exchange

Diane Demee-Benoit
Consulting Online Editor,

Susan Page's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the information. I have been reading all the posts for about an hour and, when I saw this post, I was so relieved. I have wanted to incorporate PBL in my class and have tried in the past, but have not been very effective. I know, when I am introduced to a problem that I want an answer to, I will spend hours researching and not even realize I have been studying. That is what I want for my students.

Margaret Wilkinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Best of luck with your quest to find resources to help you with introducing PBL in an environment unwilling to explore other teaching methods. And even more luck convincing your fellow teacher to read the articles with an open mind.

Seems to me that PBL is about creating an environment where lots of questions are asked, and then finding the answers. Maybe this approach works for teachers as well as students. Perhaps you could ask him/her lots of questions.

Are the students interested in learning the concepts at the moment? What will the students be able to do once they have mastered the concepts? What would it take to get the students interested in mastering the concepts? What kind of project would involve those concepts? Would a project that required mastery of those concepts succeed in getting the students more interested in them? Of course it would. (It's a standard salesman's technique, the more often you get people you agree with you, the more likely they are to keep agreeing with you - it's probably been around long before Soccrates) Gosh there must be heaps of possible projects, from designing a rocket ship to efficiently delivering food to third world countries, calculating ways of reversing global warming .....

How many of us read the manual before we use a product? If we wanted to master the concept(product) first, wouldn't it be the logical place to start? We don't because in real life, that's not how we learn. We learn from the middle outwards, not beginning to end. How often does this teacher read the manual right through?

Sorry I couldn't be more helpful, and I've rambled a little, but I do feel your frustration.

Malikah Gregory's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you Mike for making those points about project-based learning. I also believe it means to show how what students are learning relates to prior knowledge or relates to the real-world first, before they are taught the lesson. I am a math teacher and I am a "mathematician" who has to find a way to teach it to students who think differently. There is also this belief with math teachers that if you say "project" it implies something that will take too much time and there won't be time to learn the topic. However, what I take from this approach is that it can be something small to motivate students. For instance, to find examples for relating percents and fractions, students could imagine they were surveying for a car company who wanted to know what color car the company should make the most. Then, students could go outside and count a sample of the cars in the parking lot. They could make fractions of each color and shown how it relates to percents. This is a short but investigative activity that can introduce students to a concept by linking it to the real world. I believe when they learn it in this way, you may actually save time from reteaching it because students don't understand what was given in terms of detached worksheets, etc.

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