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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Importance of Project-Learning Schools

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

When I talk with groups of teachers about project learning, audiences typically divide along predictable lines. There are the pioneers who have been teaching with the project approach for years and wouldn't consider going back to more traditional instruction. There are those eager to give projects a try but not quite sure how to begin.

And then there are the naysayers who have a list of reasons why projects aren't worth their time and effort.

It was a different story at the first Project Foundry Conference, held recently outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Every teacher in attendance came from a secondary school that embraces project learning as central to instruction.

These tend to be innovative small schools, including charters, vocational academies, and schools geared for alternative learners. The setting for the event was the TAGOS Leadership Academy, in Janesville, Wisconsin, which is about to start its third year of delivering individualized instruction through the project approach.

These pioneering schools, looking for better ways of reaching today's learners, have been willing to rethink just about everything: How should the school day be scheduled? How do we measure student progress toward learning goals? What's the best size for a learning community that fosters strong connections between students and adults? Models vary somewhat from one community to the next but share a common vision of students deeply engaged in learning by tackling real-world challenges.

It doesn't take long for teachers from these schools to start sharing stories of fantastic projects and motivated learners. But as one of the participants pointed out, the larger community needs to hear these stories, too. Most adults have never had a chance to learn or teach in a project-learning setting. If these new schools are going to thrive in the long run, they need policy makers, parents, and community members to understand what they are doing -- and why it matters.

The goal is not only positive press coverage (although that doesn't hurt) but also a better way of talking about results. Most project-learning schools operate within the larger, more traditional educational system.

That means schools focusing on authentic assessment still have to turn in reports that tally credits earned for seat time. Sometimes, it can feel as if you're speaking different languages. To avoid confusion, Paul Tweed, founder of the Wildlands School, in Augusta, Wisconsin, suggests that project-learning schools find ways to translate what their students are doing to the more traditional language of credits and course titles.

Similarly, schools need to be able to talk with parents in a language they understand. That's the seasoned advice of Steve Rippe, who promotes school change through the network of EdVisions Schools.

"We need a bridging language," he says, so that parents who have never experienced project learning feel comfortable entrusting their children to a school that embraces that method. That's especially important for parents from low-income communities who know that education is the key to their kids' future. "They can't gamble it," Rippe says.

Another resource for encouraging this conversation is Project Foundry, which offers schools an online system for managing all the complex pieces of a project-learning environments. With feedback from end users -- educators themselves -- the toolkit is constantly being fine-tuned to meet evolving needs, including reporting tools to communicate results.

As I listened to these educators share strategies and wrestle with challenges, I found myself wishing their discussions could reach an even larger audience. If our old ideas about school are going to change anytime soon, this conversation needs to move from the frontier to the mainstream.

What ideas can you bring to the discussion? How do you talk about what works in education in your community?

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

ian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Monica go to National Academy Foundation

Sonia Bannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have worked as a 5th grade teacher, a 4th grade teacher and now a communication specialist (which really translate into technology). PBL is a wonderful learning strategy for students. From a teacher standpoint, it takes a lot of time to prepare and execute. I have done PBL for the Civil War and the Revolutionary War and Native Americans in Arkansas. It is difficult to observe 24-28 students during a PBL activity. It is an effort to make sure everyone is on task. It is nice to think that all students are doing what they are supposed to be doing but that is not always the case. With these obstacles, I continued to have PBL in my classroom. This summer I had the rare opportunity to visit a primary school in Bogota, Colombia. This school and its district revamped their teaching three years ago to revolve around PBL. Teachers have been trained to diagnose multiple intelligence's of students. They are also given training on how to observe. I know it sound silly, but there has to be an observation plan. Teachers have checklist and walk around their classroom taking notes. At the end of the week, they conference with children explaining what they observed. Teachers also go for training on PBL constantly and are given ample time to prep together. I have not looked at Project Foundry (the online PBL management system), but it may be the answer to many educators dilemmas on how to organize and observe PBL activity. It is holistic grading which is hard to defend to parents.

Sonia Bannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit a primary school in Bogota, Colombia. The school and their district revamped their educational system 3 years ago. They turned primarily to PBL and Multiple Intelligence. Teachers were extensively trained prior to the switch and continue to be trained during. The teacher I spoke to absolutely loved her job. The questions I asked were the following: How do you keep your students on task? Teachers have been trained to observe and to facilitate. These were not skills taught to teachers in the past. Teachers walk around with a check list and conference with students weekly. If a student is not on task, the student is conference with that day. Parents have also been educated on the new system (at least the ones who cared to me educated, which was most). How do you grade or evaluate student progress? The "report card" system had changed dramatically to a rubric and checklist and at the end of every project, there are parent/teacher/student conferences. Teachers are given time to plan together and given time to conference with students and parents during the school day. That is something that does not happen here in the United States. Teachers are trained in how to observe and take notes on student progress. I think PBL would be more popular in the U.S. if teachers were given some guidelines and training.

Suzie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like such a smart, systemwide approach to introducing PBL. By involving teachers, students, and parents, and reconsidering everything from planning time to classroom observations to assessment, this school is removing barriers that can get in the way of project success. Thanks for expanding the conversation with a field report from Bogota.

Shane Krukowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Monica,

If you want practical perspective, talk with the folks at Hudson County Schools of Technology in North Bergen, NJ.

Shane Krukowski
Project-based Learning Systems

Sarah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of PBL is quite interesting to me as a pre-service elementary teacher. I have a B.A. in Mathematics, so naturally I've studied the way it is taught in the elementary level. I am an advocate of investigations learning, teaching the concepts of math in a way that students actually understand the material, as opposed to simply memorize it.

I love the idea of applying this inquiry-based learning to other areas of education. While some students who are able to "do" school, memorizing what needs to be memorized and applying these concepts in future assignments, many simply are not able to. Even the students who are able to be successful through traditional instruction will benefit greatly from physically applying knowledge. More importantly, every student will be able to use concrete examples from personal experience to internalize necessary information.

I have not looked into Project Foundry yet, but I'm greatly intrigued by the idea of PBL, and plan to in the near future.

Thank you for introducing this form of education to me.


Richard Redding/Savannah Georgia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is the first I have heard of PBL....and it has caught my interest. Thank all of you for introducing this new concept to me and I am looking forward to learning more. Thanks again!

Molly M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I did my student teaching experience in a city school district (ranked top 10 Urban Schools in our nation). Two times a school year they have what they call a 'Expedition.' Each grade level is responsible for a certain topic to cover. Throughout each half, students work vigorously completeing different projects that span their topic. For example, the second graders had the Erie Canal. We did a brochure for the parents for when they came to Expedition night. Another project was art related, working on different types of lines and medias to use. Basically the Erie Canal was worked across all subject areas; projects for all. They truly learn a lot throughout the process.

The school I am referencing is known as the 'School of Inquiry,' a lot of what they do on an every day basis is project learning based from inquiry. I think by far it was the most beneficial learning experience that I have had thus far. I would like to use it in my classroom on a regular basis when I have my own someday.

Molly M's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It really does help the students to learn it, rather than memorization. Look at the experience I had on my below post. The students truly learn! I had second grade students recalling information they learned for their first grade expediditon. It's fun and it's completely authentic assessment across the board. They show what they know through doing. It is amazing when done right!

Rachel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know the quote "don't judge a book by its cover," but is there also a saying, "don't judge an article by its title?" Because, the second I saw this article's title, I knew it would be the one that I wanted to respond to. I am a kindergarten teacher in a small public school in Maryland and I fully support project based learning. That being said, even though I love initiating and participating in project based learning, I have only had a few experiences with it. The way the curriculum is set up in my county; there is very little room to study a subject which is purely of the interest to the students. We have been told what we need to teach in order for the student to pass assessments, and there is little time for anything else.
During my first year of teaching, our social studies unit was based on construction and learning about the construction site. In order for my students to better understand this topic, I decided that we would build something; that was my initiation. Once I decided that we would build something, the rest was all up to the students. They chose to build a castle. First, we learned all about blueprints, safety procedures and even hard hats. However, when we were getting ready to build the castle, we also had to do "research" to find out what kinds of things are in a castle. Not only did my students drive this project; we learned what they wanted to know about and I also learned! We learned about turrets and the "keep" (jail) and different roles of castle dwellers. It was a fantastic project, and when we were finished, we invited every class in the school to come visit our castle and we practiced oral language by giving tours. This was one of my favorite experiences in teaching so far.
However, I only did this once, during my first year of teaching. Last year, my second year, I just ran out of time to do anything this extravagant. I would love to do something this year, but it seems as though the county is putting more and more pressures on us and we are unable to do these creative projects where students learn so much. Have you ever done anything like this? Does your curriculum allow it?

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