It’s understandable that some parents and guardians are skeptical about project-based learning. Flashbacks may come to mind of arts-and-crafts projects that required more attention, time, and resources from parents at home than hands-on learning in school.
I can relate—I recall needing to go out and buy expensive foam pumpkins for my kids in order to “dress” them as a character from a book they had read around Halloween. While some families probably found this fun, I’m not sure how much my kids got from the experience in terms of developing literacy skills.
Communicating That PBL Is Different From ‘Doing Projects’
What’s the alternative? We know today that high-quality project-based learning (PBL) has a strong evidence base and that it doesn’t look like what I’ve described above. However, to build a PBL culture in your classroom and school community, it’s helpful to have communication strategies to help parents and other community members see why PBL is a solid instructional strategy that will set their students up for future success. It’s not so different from having the right vocabulary and rationale to explain shifts in math and reading instruction to parents, especially when those instructional changes look quite different from what parents experienced in school.
The quality and design of projects matter, of course, so the most important first step is making sure your projects are aligned to essential design elements. Research has shown that projects should be central to your lessons, authentic, and engaging, and should foster collaboration and allow for student reflection and feedback.
Be prepared to explain to parents the difference between project-based learning and “doing projects.” In trying to understand PBL, parents will be drawing on their own experience as students, and this may have involved a lot of crafting projects like the one described above. PBL practitioners use the term dessert project to describe projects that are mainly for fun and that happen at the end of a unit, after the learning has already happened. In true project-based learning, the project should be the main course and really drive the learning.
Parents as well as students will see this distinction more clearly if you have designed your rubrics for projects around key learning standards, including those assessed on an end-of-course exam such as an AP exam. In this way, parents can see the connection between the projects in class and the learning targets ultimately assessed in more traditional ways.
A Few Talking Points
Helping families learn about these elements and the role of a project in your curriculum is a good move. When you’re ready to start communicating about the methods you’re using in the classroom, here are some points you can share:
- PBL allows students to practice skills and competencies that are valued in college and work, and promote successful engagement in civic life. These include solving unstructured problems, collaborating, and communicating well with others.
- PBL ensures that students are leading their learning and carrying the cognitive load in the classroom, which is often a more engaging and effective way to learn, especially if you incorporate student voice and choice in your project design.
- Project-based approaches support student success on Advanced Placement exams and other key assessments that students take today. Recent research by Lucas Education Research, Edutopia’s sister organization, found that students in PBL classrooms outperformed students in traditional classrooms on AP science and government and politics exams, as well as other assessments across grades and subjects.
- Rigorous, engaging projects allow students multiple access points to show what they know and can do, and to engage in deeper learning. For students who need an extra challenge, the sky is the limit in a well-designed project. They often challenge themselves—crafting an oral argument in an AP U.S. Government class that sounds like the work of an actual attorney, or meeting professional specifications with an engineering design project. Students who need scaffolding can take on a role that includes extra supports while still doing work that is cognitively complex.
Family engagement supports student success, and project-based learning is a great way to engage parents and guardians. Parents may be able to lend their professional expertise. For example, I’ve had parents who were appellate attorneys serve as my chief justice when we were doing a moot court. But you can also engage them simply as important figures in their students’ lives so that students can really see themselves and their families in the curriculum. For example, students might interview a family member as part of a project. In a PBL-based AP Environmental Science class, students can work with family members to examine their ecological footprint. In an elementary-level science curriculum, students can consider family and community needs as they design a local garden.
Scaling up project-based learning—creating bigger and better project opportunities for students, ones that may have them getting outside the school or taking on interdisciplinary challenges—can be challenging, and parents can be strong champions for the work you do, helping school leaders and other teachers understand PBL’s value.
Once parents understand the benefits of rigorous, high-quality PBL, they may say, “Why didn’t I get to do this in school?” rather than “What am I expected to buy now?”