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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

VIDEO: Project-Based Learning: An Overview

Running Time: 9 min.

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

Pam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love some ideas for some projects for PBL activities! I love this idea but am just a third year teacher so I am just getting comfortable with inquiry labs that have a defined purpose so a project that encompasses Science concepts is a bit scary but also intriguing. If you can share, I would love that and perhaps that would spark my creativeness and I might be able to come up with a project to share with you . Thanks!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is there a math curriculum for building a small house?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that this technique is helpful in getting students involved in learning. However, I cannot say that this technique would benefit the individual's comprehension of the topic.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to have some project based learning for high school biology-any ideas?

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

Below are links to some Edutopia articles, videos and resources that may provide ideas for the high school biology classroom. You should be able to adapt for your own needs:

Life Lessons: Projects About Living Things

Edutopia's Go Green Database

Great Science Web Sites and Programs

A Place for PBL: Envision Schools' Project Exchange

Internet Field Trip: Exploring the Arctic by Dogsled

An Incredible Journey: Educators Take on the Charter-School Challenge

How To: Start Counting Critters

JASON and the New Argonauts: Students Become Explorers

Exploratory Learning with a Digital Microscope

No Books, No Problem: Teaching Without the Text

Debbie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Projects are a great way to learn; many times going off in a direction not considered ahead of time but very profitable. However, a strong foundation needs to be in place to make the most of a project whether it be Math, Science, Business, etc.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will have to agree with the previous post that there needs to be a strong foundation of subject content before engaging in project based learning. I also agree that after I have set up the foundation of subject content, that project based learning is an excellent motivator for my students because they are applying real life to their studies and they find it beneficial and take more from it!

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use PBL in my classroom after teaching a skill. Students will use that skill in a real life situation. Re-design a room: Using magizines, measuring a room finding area for a rug and pricing it. Making a budget. Since I teach 6th grade I have to be direct with directions and later in the year get realaxed and let the students fill in extras. I always give students a skelton to work from and the more they do the better the grade and experience.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 6th grade and we do a project every 9-weeks. I do not give students a long term project. About two weeks, I guide or give the certian days or parts of class are designated for working on projects and discussion if it is a group. It takes some time to organize but it is possible in a Middle School setting. My goal is to have a project across the curriculm.

Mike Brugh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think there might be some misconception here.... You know, like when we teach students that the earth is round and some of them are thinking round like a plate when we are thinking round like a ball....

Correct me if I am wrong, but the author is advocating for teaching the "application" of knowledge and skills "first"... creating a context for learning all of the content and skills to hang on....When Papert says to, "Start with engineering, and from that abstract out physics,..." I don't think he is advocating first teaching the definition of engineering; / the key areas of engineering/ important facts of engineering etc.... he is advocating that we start with a ill defined engineering related observation / problem / question or need and then, asking the students to figure out what is going on.... "What do we need to know to better understand the problem and then solve it...."

Teaching the knowledge and skills of measurement prior to re-designing a room is exactly what he is "not" talking about...(at least I hope not) Rather, he is advocating for a teacher to say to the class .... I don't like how this room is designed.... Can you (students) help me figure out how to make it better??? Or better, yet ask the students what they think about "their" room.... And then see if you can get them to take ownership of the redesign process. If the teacher uses this instructional method they will get the students to ask questions like, "How much floor covering or paint will we need??" ...and, "How much money do we have to spend on the redesign??" Then, the teacher has them.... The students are engaged because they have a need to know.... A teachable moment has been created...

It is perfectly understandable why most educators want to teach the foundation first and then give the students an opportunity to apply what they have learned .... In short, it is because that's the kind of learners that most teachers are....The phrase, "we teach like we were taught" (or as my architect daughter just said, 'monkey see monkey do') actually has a much deeper meaning... Teachers are a highly selected "for" type of learner... The sorting and selecting process begins in the primary grades when those students that are able to "learn" (aka memorized and recite) the foundation knowledge and skills are rewarded with good grades and labeled as "good students." The sorting process continues year after year until only the "best" at this kind of learning are allowed / encouraged to go on to higher education.... At which time the sorting continues... being taught by professors that came through an educational system that rewarded good grades which were based on memorization and recitation.... Now this is not the case for all teachers... There are many that managed to successfully get through the educational gauntlet... Many of these "non-traditional learners" were fortunate enough to have teachers / professors that were themselves "non-traditional learners" and they taught in a way that was consistent with these aberrant students's learning style... Others persevered through countless hours of "remediation" which usually consisted of spending more time learning in a way that they did not learn best...until by sheer force of will they got it.

Now, I am sure I am going to upset a lot of math teachers / professors when I say this.... but here it goes... One of the biggest problems of students learning mathematics is that most secondary math is taught by mathematicians ....and, mathematicians just do not think and reason the same way that most people think and reason...(case in point; my college physics professor could not explain how to open a paper bag without going into a lecture on static equilibrium and vector analysis ... at the end of the lecture I almost thought I did not know how to open a paper bag...) While I am on the subject I might as well get everyone mad at me .... So.....on the other end of the spectrum are the teachers that "don't like math" (mostly as a result of being taught by mathematicians) being required to teach math..... Ironically, these teachers are being required to teach it in the same way that that caused them to not like math in the first place... Is it any wonder why so few students do well in math???

I know it is difficult to do...but give it a try.... Teach the context / application first and then help your students ask the important questions...It is just how most of us are genetically hard wired to think, reason and learn...

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