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Project Learning Creates a Win-Win Situation

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

The mere mention of 21st-century skills always seems to elicit lively debate among people who are either for the concept or against it. The conversation about it is a good one to have, but we should move beyond this particular debate and toward an inclusive discussion that helps students win on all sides.

In order to succeed in the 21st-century workforce, students need a curriculum that includes both opportunities to master content and the chance to apply and demonstrate their knowledge. At Envision Schools, we combine rigorous academic content with an applied-learning model known as project learning. It serves to motivate students and increase academic achievement.

Using project learning, we reinforce knowledge from one class in other classes as students acquire new computer skills, learn to work in teams, and gain experience with public speaking. These are the same skills students must demonstrate not only in college but also in life beyond the classroom.

For example, our high school seniors must read Dante's Inferno as well as compose an in-depth literary analysis as a baseline for college-preparatory work. But we don't stop there. We also bring Dante's Inferno into technology, art, and drama classes, where students must work in teams to create an artistic interpretation of one of the levels of hell Dante describes. The entire class must then retell the story, presenting the work in sequential order before an audience of parents and peers.

It's interesting to note that no one in the 21st-century debate is disputing the link between motivation and achievement. Certainly, the prospect of earning an A on a paper can motivate students to master such a difficult book. What I've seen at Envision Schools, however, is that the greatest motivator for students is the opportunity for them to creatively express their understanding through interpretive work for a real audience outside the classroom -- not just a teacher. Students get excited, and this excitement translates into success.

Few public high schools require all their students to read the Inferno. It's a tough read, no doubt. But because our students are highly motivated, they do succeed. At the end of this challenging project, the students have two more pieces to add to their portfolios, which are required for graduation.

Content mastery is only a baseline measurement of whether students are ready for college. Students must also be able to apply what they've learned and articulate their viewpoints.

How has project learning revolutionized your classroom or school? Let's keep the conversation going.

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

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Terry Lynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The key is that you need to have CONTENT in PBL. You have content that they are applying in a new situation, you have some sort of "display" or showcase of the work and you make sure they can explain it. I always have my students write down their explanations first before they verbally presented something. The idea is to integrate as much learning into one thing as possible. If they are doing all of these things and as much emphasis is put into the writing as the project item they will do great on most standardized test.

As teachers we need to push for tests that are testing an application of knowledge rather than just the knowledge itself. These are harder tests though. I have a group of very smart, gifted 4th graders that don't know how to apply what they learn. I know they know the information but if the test presents a question in a way that is not typical they are not going to know what "answer" to give. We need to teach them information then how to problem solve then use what they know.

I for one love standardized test. I started teaching in a time where teachers were more worried about self-esteem and making students feel good than making sure they had the skills they needed. It is mean to graduate a hard working student who doesn't have basic skills. They think there is something wrong with them when they can't get the job they want. Their self-esteem plummets as an adult. At least standarized tests try to ensure that the teachers are not teachingin isolation and spiral their curriculum. New information has to be taught on old information. Students need to know some things before they can be asked to apply those things.

It is sad because after 20 years of teaching I have seen what a lack of standards does to students. I see kids with high school diplomas now that will not be able to make a living in the future because our world is changing and they don't have the basic knowledge to fit in. They can work at McDonald's or Lowe's or waitress not because they want to but because they can't get any other job? I have seen some of my students become parents and wish they understood more about math, science, music, literature just so they could enjoy things more with their child.

Everything needs to be in balance. Why does education have fads that become all or nothing? PBL is, in my opinion, essential for creating self-directed, learners who are going to contribute to the future of this country. Do I think it should be all that a classroom does? NO. Variety! Keep them memorizing, thinking, working, creating, and applying.

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

PBL really works with a good rubric. This will ensure that the content has not been missed by the students and or the teacher. I find with elementary lower grades it is also helpful to break the project into sections and until each section is completed and graded then a student may not move to the next step of the project. Review and reflection is also crucial for success. It is needed for both the student and the teacher as they move forward.
Often I have found that projects are thrown in on top of curriculum instead of being parts of it. Therefore this is why students are finding they are using their weekends to complete the research etc. The parents are often 'put off' by this. It has been the case when a student is working on 2-3 projects at a time! Teachers should definitely see the benefit of integrating with projects and then the connection of real life application will come alive for the students. Yes, planning is essential!
It helps if the grade level subject teachers all work well together also...

vin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A View From The Central Office:

The carefully constructed, developmentally appropriate problem is loaded with contextual skills. To continually chase ever-expanding content (in the current silo-fashion), and then force-fit problems like an epilogue, is pointless and counter-productive. Pappert (and others) advocate for learning germane (key word) to the curriculum by working through problems. "By the year 2040, 65% of America will be urbanized." What does that mean about (a) public transportation, (b) rural migration, (c) ethnic diversity, etc., etc.? Selected literature, websites, etc., frame different, certainly not irrelevant, knowledge. All PBL activity should pass through common gates such as, Debate, Time Management, Rapid Change Adaptation, Entrepreneurship, Financial Literacy, Tele-collaboration, and a few others that 21st century skill advocates beat us over the head with. The End-Game: Would one student's collective knowledge be different from another's? Most likely, yes. So what? If you or I don't know something, we probably know how to find out.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read your confusion about PBL and success on tests. I was a math teacher and I am now a PBL coach so my examples and experience will be math focused, but I hope that you will find them constructive.

First, I have actually found that a fair amount of standardized tests actually ask reasonable questions that students should be able to answer successfully, but I try and use them as a baseline. I want to teach my students so much more! Here are some principles that I have found are most successful to both engage kids AND yield testing success:

  1. Engage kids first, by giving them real-world experiences and applications in which they are curious and have a "need to know." Once you have successfully marketed WHY they want to know, then teach them.
  2. When you market WHY this is worth learning, reach for the biggest ideas and applications possible. Instead of teaching the relatively 'small' skill of adding fractions, teach the 'big idea' of building a house (even if it is a scale model), where adding fractions is essential and useful. Have each group of kids be in charge of various aspects of the house building, so they can learn how plumbing, electricity, and heating 'all fit' into the house. Choose grade appropriate breakdowns of house functions if plumbing and electricity are too advanced. Once you have kids needing to know how to add fractions, then teach them how to do it.
  3. At the beginning, do big projects for 1 or 2 big ideas, as other people have suggested, but also use smaller ideas and activities, so that your class has a rhythm of variety, but always 'sell' your big ideas. My own kids don't particularly like learning a routine math procedure like long division, but they 'love' discovering the powerful, and universal LAWS of MATH. They are captivated by the idea that they can KNOW that something will always be true for any number to infinity, even though they only tested a few examples and then used reasoning to PROVE it is true for any number.
  4. Use a Driving Question like Wendy did above with "How could solar be used to reduce the $28K/month electricity bill?" Driving questions help focus the students on important learning. Instead of just a "make something" project, they are exploring an important question and arrriving at solutions.
  5. Make sure ALL KIDS ARE ALL WORKING OR THINKING ALL THE TIME. There is so much dead time in classrooms, or times when teachers ask kids to do things, and many of the students do not instantly engage their minds and their hearts into the task. If PBL is done in a classroom where a teacher does not know how to manage teams to be all working all the time, then many students will not be 'learning and growing'. You may find my "Rules for High Performance Collaboration" document useful, and Elizabeth Cohen has a great book on "Designing Groupwork" to help with these ideas. Finally, Merrill Harmin and Melanie Toth have written a great book with over 250 ideas on how to make any classroom a more Active Learning Environment. The book is called "Inspiring Active Learning: A Complete Handbook for Today's Teacher".
  6. If you teach big ideas with an emphasis on understanding as deeply and thoughtfully as possible, then that usually strongly meets the needs of the more able students, while giving time for the lesser able students to master the basic skills that go along with the big ideas that you are teaching. Simultaneously, if your marketing plan is successful, the lesser able students are enjoying the big ideas and finding themselves unusually motivated to master the skills to 'play in the big ideas also.'
  7. Interestingly, while teaching like this, I never ever gave my students multiple choice questions. They had a joke that for me an answer was 'never enough', since they knew that I always wanted them to explain their strategies. One of my main goals was to foster a culture of proudly sharing our various problem solving strategies to show the wide variety of possibilities, and to have kids take pride and ownership over the success or failure of their own ideas. This generally led to very deep discussions about the benefits and disadvantages of various strategies, which I believe led to much deeper learning and understanding, as students had to make higher level cognitive choices.
  8. Finally, Jo Boaler, in her excellent book, What's Math Got To Do With It? compares two schools in England, one teaching math with PBL, and the other with traditional instruction. Yes, in this case, the PBL students did somewhat better on the standardized tests (so it is possible), but the most exciting stories are when she interviews some of the students when they are in their mid-twenties. In response to the question, "Do you ever use the math you did in high school?," the traditionally taught students say, "Never! It wasn't worth a darn. Why did we even do that stuff?," while the PBL students say, "Of course! I use it all the time. Life is a project, and a sequence of problem sovling issues, and I use those skills and strategies all the time."

If students are not doing well on the tests, then something may be missing. Many people feel that this means we have to have more emphasis on the test questions and the de-contextualized facts and procedures that are required to answer the test questions. Most of the teachers and administrators I speak with, who have been now trying this 'test focused' instruction for over 5 years, are finding that their scores are NOT getting better, and meanwhile, their students are getting really frustrated. They are looking for teaching ideas that both engage their students AND yield higher test scores. When PBL is done well, it can do both. When it is done 'weakly', with poor engagement and weak student management, it can do worse! I hope that you will find some of my ideas helpful when you next try PBL.


Trish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 6th grade language arts, as well as study skills to students in grades 6-9. Because I work with all subject areas in the course of the study skills support program, I see multiple opportunities for students to make connections among curricula. The students cannot make these connections on their own, and rely on teachers to do that. This would imply that teaching teams share planning time, which does not always happen. A school in an adjoining city reserves Fridays during each term for students to work collaboratively to create a product. All teachers on that team are available to mentor students as they engage in problem-based learning and create products that are assessed by rubrics.
Is there another school that is beginning PBL? What resources are you using?

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Katie, great points. A project calendar in the faculty room helps avoid 3 Project Friday!

Ron Brandt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I give my chemistry & physics students a PBL each marking period. The projects are based on real life issues and the students present their evaluatioons in PowerPoint or a video cast. The most recent topics were on alternative energy sources (for physics) and biofuels (for chemistry). I set the expectation level at the "Evaluation" step of Bloom's taxonomy. My experience is that PBL has the biggest impact with the weaker students. I've seen "D" level and failing students do a superb job on their PBL project. It may be due to a mixture of real life application and the creativity of preparing a P.P. presentation. That would be worth some student surveys to uncover the underlying motivation.

The challenge for me is that most of the PBL's I give are supplemental to the curriculum. Alternative energy sources are interesting, contemporary issues, but they are not in the standards. If there was a better connection to the official curriculum, i would consider to use it more often.

Kathy Koch, Ph.D.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We've decided here at Celebrate Kids, Inc., that there's something more important than what methods teachers use and what skills they're teaching. Yes, we're excited about helping teachers and students understand, embrace, and use 21st-Century skills. We're fans of authentic tasks and see benefits of project-based learning, especially when it starts with young children and they come to expect some of their learning and practicing of content and skills to be embedded in projects. This means they gain character qualities and skills necessary for successful project-based learning early on.

But, what's more important? Teachers, administrators, parents, and others who care about young people must understand who they're teaching. When we understand WHY projects, authentic tasks, and applying knowledge vs. just learning it works for our students (not us), we'll know what type of teaching methods and assignments to use.

This generation of students is unlike any we've educated before because they have been raised in a world drastically different from their parents and most teachers. They are who they are because of the influence of video and computer games, other technology, and instant everything (e.g., email, messaging, cell phones, i-Tunes). Consequently, they have unique characteristics and learning patterns. Their uniqueness requires updated approaches so educators can be successful.

For these and other reasons, projects and authentic tasks work well:
* Having been raised with drop-down menus, students don't just want choices, they need them.
* They're used to learning by playing. When's the last time you saw a young person read a manual to figure out how to use a new phone or to play a video game?
* They need help learning how to solve problems. They've been raised believing that you fix things by hitting "control-alt-delete."
* They're non-linear and believe there's always more than one way to do things. (As stated above, they don't necessarily apply this belief to problem solving!)

Students tell us they often feel judged as if there's something wrong with the way they are. As we interact with parents, grandparents, and educators, we have found many who are waiting for young people to mature and grow out of what seem to be problematic and immature behaviors. But, they won't grow out of them. This is who they've been raised to be. Educated well, they'll be able to use their uniqueness in positive future-oriented ways.

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