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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Roger Lemelin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for bring MOTIVATION back to the forfront! Marks are a reference, but genuine, experiential and creative work that values exploration and teamwork offers the ultimate reward: Esteem, confidence and a positive sense of community.

In the past 5 years, tremendous time and resources have been concentrated on literacy development - balanced reading - and other prescribed methods. Perhaps effective in the areas targeted areas, I would argue that consideration of student - and teacher- MOTIVATION is sadly, sadly lacking and rarely mentioned other than to offer awards. In fact there is somewhat of a paradox in the fact that initiatives that are celebrated by our school community, administrators and our school board are often perfect examples of what happens when consuming prescribed methods are put aside for an array of exceptionally deviant undertakings.

Seen another way, when we consistently wake looking forward to our day and leave with a tired and satisfied smile, we`re doing OK.

Roger Lemelin
grade 3
Ottawa, Canada

Tobie Duty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that there is a way to incorporate 21st Century Skills in a way that all parties can win. I currently work with students in a virtual school and I would love to find a way to include more project based assessments in my class. I have found in my years in a brick and mortar classroom that many students learn best when they are actually using what they have learned (hands on, presentations, projects, etc). My background is in Exceptional Education and project based learning has been great for many of my students. They can show what they know and have learned without having to be afraid of a "test".

Leslie Noel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your example of PBL in the Envisions Schools. It is a daunting task to implement PBL into a single classroom, but trying to get the whole school involved using one book is amazing!

I have had experiences teaching in the primary grades and using PBL. My students and I enjoyed the opportunities and I felt as though each student was learning on their own level and taking so much more away from the experience than they would have otherwise. However, in the intermediate grades (3-5) the teachers had a few complaints. The biggest one being that when given a paper/pencil standardized test, the students could not perform. I completely agree with your statement, "Students must also be able to apply what they've learned and articulate their viewpoints.", and PBL certainly prepares students to be able to apply what they know. But, how does one explain students not being able to perform on standardized tests? Are the teachers missing a key element in their teaching? I know there are not many of us who agree with standardized tests, but unfortunately they are a reality that our students have to face and we are doing them a disservice if we are not properly preparing them. I would like to know what your thoughts are on this.


Leslie Noel
2nd Grade
Auburndale, Florida

Jeannie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Firstly, let me say that I agree with you about Project-based learning. I've been a teacher for years. I have my students create a project for every nine weeks. The project type, depended on the class...for example, an ecotour, insect collection, or leaf collection for environmental science versus a weather journal, alien zoo, or tour of the universe in earhtspace science. One thing I've noticed over the years is how much the kids enjoyed showing their projects to everyone. That was more important to them than their grade on the project. Now I incorporate more and more usage of Web 2.0 because it allows the students to broadcast their projects to the whole world. They can let their friends and family see what they are doing. Also, the prospect that the world at large can see it creates real interest too.

I believe that projects demonstrate mastery of a subject or lessons without the negative connotations that "tests" have in the students eyes. As more and more knowledge is available at students' fingertips, I think assessments that determine fact-based knowledge aren't really going to help students as much as a project could. I would be interested to hear everyone's opinions on assessments and projects.

Wendy Athens's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This year my engineering class investigated converting our campus to solar power. We started with the question, "How could solar be used to reduce the $28K/month electricity bill?"

The students split into teams to address conservation and solar power. We learned a great deal from facilities, the local power company, solar vendors, and our literature and internet searches. Ultimately we developed a proposal and chronicled it on 2 website students created (http://istf2009.webs.com is the site that focuses on concentrating sunlight onto a Stirling engine; and http://cot2009.webs.com focuses on conservation and the cost of adding photovoltaics.)

I realize I could have make this process much more effective by publishing my rubrics in advance, and mapping out the calendar and publishing it for students to to see throughout the process. I had two great teams of students who made this work, however I know I could have made this major project better by reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the project at its conclusion, and establishing clearer checkpoints and measures of contribution. I had one student out of ten who didn't contribute as much as he should have, otherwise the students were engaged in the project.

Terry Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like some of the previous responders here, I am an experienced project-based classroom teacher. There *really* is no substitute for experiences that invite all learning styles to participate in one way or another. Projects do that. Little kids or big kids, no matter - when they are engaged in discussions and problem solving, or when they are sharing work with partners from other countries and tinkering with culture blends, all seem to do very well in non-linear, non-memorization, non-test-oriented environments. Stress? There some stress in PBL, but it is a challenging kind of stress, a rise to the moment kind of stress, not a stress regarding the memorization of the right fact list or the remembering of some studied sequence. I's clear that kids want to come to school when they feel an attraction to what they are learning, and when they are allowed to use real world technologies in school, as opposed to having their entire Internet cosmos blocked by district filters.

A point about standardized tests - I haven't seen one that has any bearing on what is taught in the classroom, on what is part of a real learning experience. Testing at this moment is underway in my district. Example: Nine year olds are being asked to solve a high stakes four-page problem that begins with a single set of monetary events, then is broken into two parts, evaluated as A and B, then broken down into the best finance plan. I watch as the little kids look at these tests, then look at me as though to say - "What is this thing?" We have lots of evidence of learning, but unfortunately the test makes my PBL kids look low performing.

Anthony's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently work in a PBL environment and do see the merits of basing curriculum on projects, such as real world application, collaboration, and student enthusiasm. I have also seen some of PBL's weaknesses. I currently teach Chemistry and struggle with getting students to focus on content. It is wonderful that students are excited to create something artistic, but a lot of the times they focus on the artistic or creative aspect and totally miss the content.

Another weakness PBL has is that kids are kids and they want lives outside of school. Most students have not decided what they want to devote their lives to. If a student has three classes with simultaneous projects they are required to do a lot of work outside of school. Most are not interested in spending their weekends calling contractors and/or engineers to find out costs and logistics.

I do think projects are a great way for students to use the knowledge that they have gained, but I do not believe a curriculum should be solely based on projects.

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