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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Put to the Test: Confronting Concerns About Project Learning

Questions abound about the inquiry-based teaching approach. Here are answers, from how to meet standards to how to keep control of the classroom.
By Bernice Yeung

Activist Learning:

Students at Da Vinci High School, in Davis, California, applied their school's project-learning approach to enlist community support for Da Vinci teachers selected to be laid off because of budget cuts.

Credit courtesy of Mathew Best

Many teachers who use project learning (also known as project-based learning, or PBL), say they'd never go back. But in the three years Kerry Rice, an assistant professor at Boise State University, has taught a master's-degree course on the subject, she's heard nearly every complaint in the book about why project learning is simply too hard to pull off.

"The biggest concern revolves around the implications for high-stakes testing," Rice says. "Teachers ask, 'Will my students perform as well on standardized tests if I incorporate PBL?'"

Teachers aren't only concerned about whether project learning can meet state and federal standards. In fact, some educators have a name for all the questions and concerns that teachers and administrators have about it. They call them the "Yeah, Buts." The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) will begin to respond to these sorts of issues this fall through the PBL Starter Kit, the first in a series of books it is publishing on project learning.

Below, you'll find a few responses to the most commonly heard "Yeah, Buts."

What About Standards?

The BIE has long addressed standards-based concerns through the PBL Co-Laboratory, its resource for free online project-learning project plans (registration required). These plans conform to national standards, and they show teachers and schools how to develop their own hands-on plans. (The institute's Project Based Learning Online Web site was supported in part by The George Lucas Educational Foundation.)

The PBL Starter Kit includes five detailed spotlight projects that illustrate how teachers have incorporated standards into their project-learning lessons. For example, Kristine Kurpiewski, who teaches introductory science at Chicago's Aspira Early College High School, came up with an idea for a project while looking at the quality and safety claims on product labels at the grocery store. Her idea was to teach her students the scientific method by having them, as a group, act as an independent product-testing laboratory.

The first thing she did after coming up with the idea was to turn to the Illinois Learning Standards, where she quickly found a group of science standards -- conducting controlled experiments, collecting and organizing data, formulating alternative hypotheses, defending conclusions to an audience -- that became the focus of her project.

According to the book, the project exceeded Kurpiewski's expectations. "At first, I was concerned about spending three weeks on this project, but when I look back, I realize how much my students learned and how much time I saved by not having to reteach the same thing over and over again," she says in the book. "I realize how important it was to take my time and do this right."

What About Time?

As it was for Kurpiewski, a common concern among teachers is that project learning will simply take up too much time, both in terms of planning the projects and in executing them. "The concern I hear about the most deals with the time needed to plan and gather things to make PBL work," affirms Susan Moon, a fifth-grade teacher at West Pelzer Elementary School, in West Pelzer, South Carolina, who has used project-learning lessons in her classroom. "I have told teachers in the past that once you plan a major lesson and gather things, it's not nearly as time consuming the next time. And the process itself, as the students grow into it, becomes less cumbersome anyway."

Experts acknowledge that project learning does involve more planning, so they suggest turning to a growing body of online project libraries. There, teachers can find existing projects and modify them. Rody Boonchouy, of the project-learning consultancy Novel Approach PBL, adds that carving out time to collaboratively plan projects during professional-development sessions has been a boon to many schools. "This allows teachers to get together once or twice a month with the objective of designing curriculum and projects rather than focusing on more administrative things," he says. "It's important to set aside that time for PBL."

West Virginia is one of the first states in the country to try to implement project learning in every classroom. Carla Williamson, executive director for the state's Office of Instruction, says West Virginia has good reasons to move forward with project learning, despite the increased time commitment. "Project learning can require more time, but it's time well spent, because the students are really taking ownership of their learning, and the end result is that their learning is so much deeper," she explains. "That's something they carry with them for the rest of their life."

Are My Students Ready to Collaborate?

Some teaches are reluctant to use hands-on projects because they have concerns about whether their students are up to the task of collaborating in the classroom. "Across the board, from rural to urban schools, from the East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast, teachers think that their kids are not ready for PBL because of its focus on group work. But no one is born with a PBL gene," says David Ross, director of professional development at the Buck Institute for Education. (Ross's experiences as a project-learning teacher are featured in the PBL Starter Kit.)

Adds Boise State's Kerry Rice, "Time and time again, I see comments regarding students who might be unwilling or unable to work cooperatively with others to accomplish a goal. It takes time, effort, and guidance to develop a system in which all students can work together in mutually beneficial ways. This applies not just to students but to teachers as well."

Indeed, directing students toward collaboration requires some preparation, just as it would for adults. "It's a mistake to expect students to be able to function collaboratively the first time around; most adults can't do it, so why would you expect students to communicate and deal with conflicts?" notes Rody Boonchouy. He recommends using a series of team-building exercises from his company's Web site at the beginning of the project. These exercises will teach the students be attentive to one another's needs, be more communicative, and think about the consequences of their words before they speak.

The PBL Starter Kit discusses ways to hold students accountable during group work through preproject discussions and close monitoring by teachers. In addition, it includes a number of strategies for breaking students into groups -- for example, four is the ideal number for a group, and never pair students with their friends. The book also talks about how to evaluate students on group projects in a manner that's equitable and fair. For instance, instead of giving one group grade, include a mix of individually earned scores. This strategy, according to the book, will "save you from arguing about 'why my grade is based on what other people did.'"

Won't I Lose Control of My Classroom?

It's true that project learning involves inquiry-based learning, which requires a teaching style that is different from the traditional teacher-lecture approach. This shift can be discomforting, and experts have described the change as the difference between controlling the classroom and commanding it. "Control and command are not the same thing," Ross says. "With PBL, you give up control, but you always retain command of your classroom."

Boonchouy agrees. "In PBL, there is a significant professional transition that takes place from a managerial role to one that is more coach or mentor," he says. "It's important that we share these concerns and point out that yes, it is going to feel uncomfortable."

Matthew Best, a veteran teacher who is now the principal of Leonardo da Vinci High School, in Davis, California, says he can relate to the unease of transitioning to a project-learning teaching style. "I had a lot of questions coming from the traditional method myself," he notes. "I had to let go of control -- not behavioral control, but control of scope and sequence. I had to trust in the process."

He's also seen firsthand the benefits of training action-oriented, critical-thinking students. When his school district experienced a $4 million deficit last year, it meant that nine of the school's thirteen teachers received pink slips. When word got out at the school, the Leonardo Da Vinci students sprang into action.

More than 200 students used the writing and oral-presentation skills they'd developed in class to make impassioned speeches at a school board meeting. The very next day, they used their collaborative teamwork skills to organize themselves into committees to tackle fundraising, political lobbying at the state capital, and community outreach. In the end, with the help of the students, the district raised $2 million from the community, and none of their teachers were laid off.

"They'd internalized all that we'd taught them," Best says. "They thought, 'Here's a problem, here are the obstacles in our way, and here's what we're going to do.' They're very empowered, and that's what you get from PBL."

Bernice Yeung is a contributing writer and editor for Edutopia.

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Terry Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes it is hard to set up, amd yes you do lose some control of your class, and yes it does not focus totally on drilling for higher test sccores, and yes kids love it when done right, and kids learn how to be a community of learners, they actually start to become part of the project - you might say they change identities as they become immersed in the projects. And yes -- they remember what has happened in the course of the projects. Can the same be said of the memorization for testing?

Klaudia Fisher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a 28 year veteran of public education I have never felt more tuned-in and successful than during the last 5 years that I have implemented PBL. It is truly astounding to turn over control and see what kids can do if they own their learning and are not restricted by the rigid parameters that we teachers often enforce on our students. Discipline problems are nearly non-existent during projects because the kids are engaged. Exhibits and demonstrations give kids the opportunity to proudly show just what they are capable of and parents and community members are more positive about the school because PBL creates an invitational climate. More planning? Maybe. But certainly less work when you consider the effort traditional teaching requires to keep kids engaged, discipline in check, and mounds of daily papers managed. Test scores are also higher than ever before and with the amazing resources at my fingertips via the internet the biggest challenge is to decide which resources to tap! My job as a facilitator is certainly more enjoyable than that of an enforcer.
If you ask other adults about their best learning experience in school they will undoubtedly recall a challenging project or activity that they accomplished and can even remember the deep learning that took place as a result of that experience! Hmmmm - wonder why?

Rose Pope's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary library media teacher I'd like to add to the discussion on project based learning. One of the best uses of a school LMC is a collaborative project between the classroom teacher and the library media teacher.
The library teacher may introduce a general subject in a variety of ways including picture books, nonfiction books, reference, poetry, video, electronic databases, and/or interactive websites.
The classroom teacher may pick it up with a facilitated discussion guiding students to narrow their topics, pose questions, and chose a presentation style. They may develop a timeline together and a rubric.
Students returning to the library media center know what they are looking for and are ready to begin the search. They will be reminded to apply their information literacy skills to evaluate the many print and electronic resources at their fingertips. They will be guided to a website that assists in citing sources.
Newsletters, powerpoints, imovies, poster reports, dramatizations, - you name it, you create it. Project based learning at its best will be challenging, and will bring skills
such as critical thinking and problem solving, rather than memorization, to the forefront.
Students will use the knowledge they've collected, synthesize it to solve a problem, or respond to a challenge, they've learned a lesson they will long remember.

Jeremy Lang's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is great value in project based learning (PBL) and inquiry based learning (IBL) for the teacher and students alike.
The benefits to the student come in the hands on approach that is seen in PBL and IBL. It is much easier to make real world connections when students are actively engaged in their learning since they are participants instead of mere bystanders. As a result students find the learning more relevant and meaningful which results in a desire to learn instead of learning because they are told to. Furthermore, the students see the application of their learning as they make connections through an inquiry based approach during the PBL. As others have also mentioned, the greatest value is that students have fun while they hone their higher-level thinking and problem solving skills.
The benefits to the teacher are almost as great. I always try to incorporate PBL and IBL no matter the subject as it allows me to be a mentor to and a learner along side the students instead of a purveyor of information. Yes, it is true that one tends not to have as great of a control over one's class though I would much rather have my students engaged in their learning and enjoying what they are doing than sitting in a desk copying notes because they are afraid to take risks. Risk taking is scary for anyone and it takes time for students to become comfortable with the freedom and responsibility that comes with PBL and IBL. However, I have found that once it is established, student behaviour and learning improve.
I have found that PBL takes a bit more planning and time to set up though once the project is created the teacher simply assists the students in their learning especially when an IBL approach is taken. If a rubric is created, even more so if it is created with the students, then the assessment of the project is also simple and thus the project takes less teacher time in the end when compared to other approaches. Please see the following examples of projects, (Humanities First Nations Documentary Project & Social Studies 9 -The Apprentice) that I have used in my teaching. They can be found under the teacher resource section of my website. Also please see the assignments on my colleagues site under the teacher section.

Cheers,
Jeremy Lang

Sheri Spiller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In a perfect world I would only use project based learning. Unfortunately I work in one of the largest school districts in the USA. All I ever hear is, "Scores, scores, scores!" and "How can we move this kid from Far Below Basic to Basic." I envy those teachers who work in situations in which Project Based Learning is appreciated.

Terry Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The "scores scores scores" comment is really disheartening. I have had several teachers drop out of projects because they needed to work on test prep. Now tell me, who benefits in this situation? Kids certainly lose out - they lose the situated learning, the socializing, the shared knowledge, the differentiated skill sets, in short they get to practice facts and testing instead of living their lives in learning. Why would they want to be in school? Why would they want to drop out? It is very clear.

"Education is a social process; education is growth;
education is not a preparation for life but is life itself." -- John Dewey

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