photo of students working together
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Projects That Have Been Put to the Test

A team of researchers created and tested four social studies units that improved achievement among students in high-poverty schools. See how they did it—and download their curriculum.

June 20, 2017

Social studies is often neglected in the U.S. primary grades, and although literacy typically gets lots of attention at this age, informational reading and writing often do not. As researchers long focused on social studies and informational reading and writing education in the early elementary grades, we were frustrated by this pattern of neglect, and troubled that it is even worse in high-poverty school settings. We channeled our frustration into the development of four project-based learning (PBL) units for second grade that focus on social studies and informational reading and writing. We aimed for these units to engage children in learning that was meaningful to them, was challenging, and had connections to their lives beyond school.

Once we had developed them, we wanted to examine the effects of our units as compared to business-as-usual instruction in second grade. (Please see our article “New Study Shows the Impact of PBL on Student Achievement” for details on the design and outcomes of the study.) We found that our units resulted in greater growth in social studies and informational reading in the high-poverty schools in which we conducted the study. Among teachers who implemented our unit sessions in the way they were intended, students also showed greater growth in informational writing and motivation. The project-based units even resulted in a narrowing of achievement gaps with students tested in a high-socioeconomic-status school district that did not use our units.

Key Features of the Units

The projects have a purpose beyond “doing school.” The four projects—each designed to have 20 sessions approximately 45 minutes in length—are as follows:

  1. Economics: Producers and Producing in Our Community Students create an informational flyer about a local business for that business’s use and then create and sell their own good or service to raise money for a cause.
  2. Geography: Brochure About the Local Community Students develop a brochure to persuade people visiting or considering settling in the local community that it has compelling natural and human characteristics.
  3. History: Postcards About the Community’s Past Students develop postcards about the history of the local community to display or sell in a local institution, such as a library or historical society.
  4. Civics and Government: The Park/Public Space Proposal Project Students develop a proposal, conveyed in letters and in a group presentation, to persuade the local city government to make improvements to a local park or other public space. (See embedded video above for more on this unit.)

In each case, students had a purpose and an audience for their work beyond just their teacher, classmates, or families. Among other things, this authenticity addresses the call in the Common Core State Standards for students to “learn to appreciate that a key purpose of writing is to communicate clearly to an external, sometimes unfamiliar audience” and an emphasis in the Michigan second-grade social studies standards on the local community context.

Each unit session contributes to the project. We designed the unit session plans to frequently prompt teachers to remind children of the purpose and audience of the project and how what they are currently doing contributes to the projects. We believed this would help maintain children’s interest and make connections between and across concepts and contexts. It also allowed us to take advantage of the benefits that purpose and audience have been shown to have for second graders’ overall writing quality and willingness to revise their writing (Block, 2013).

Projects are highly standards aligned. Projects were designed to address nearly all Michigan second-grade standards in social studies and many Michigan second-grade standards (which are the Common Core State Standards) for informational reading and informational writing. Everything—from what the project is to the activities in which children engaged within sessions to the terms teachers used and defined—was determined with an eye toward how we can help children meet specific standards. The standards targeted in each session are listed at the top of that session plan.

Projects incorporate research-supported instructional practices. There are many instructional practices that have been shown in research to build content knowledge or develop literacy skills, but too often, those practices are left out of project-based learning. We made a concerted effort to include such practices—for example, by incorporating content- and literacy-focused interactive read-alouds (Strachan, 2016), explicit instruction in vocabulary (e.g., Beck & McKeown, 2007), and specific strategies for planning writing (Graham, McKeown, Kiuhara, & Harris, 2012).

Projects are field tested. Prior to being used in the study described above, all of the projects/units were developed in a collaboration of researchers and teachers. Using a design experiment methodology, each project/unit was field tested multiple times in classrooms outside of our study and iteratively revised as warranted by the data. (For a description of this process, see Halvorsen et al., 2012.)

Project sessions follow a consistent structure. With few exceptions, each session followed a similar format:

  • Whole group introduction to the session, which entailed a discussion, mini-lesson, or read-aloud to generate and sustain children’s interest and excitement about the project as well as to provide explicit instruction (roughly 10 minutes)
  • Guided small-group or individual instruction in which children have opportunities to work individually, in pairs, or in small groups on activities related to the unit’s final project (roughly 20–30 minutes)
  • Whole-class review and reflection to clarify any confusions, review key terms, and often to share student work (roughly 10 minutes)

We believe that a consistent session structure is helpful to teachers and children, particularly those new to project-based learning.

Unit and session plans are designed to be highly supportive for teachers, while providing some room for teacher and student voice and choice. In our study, teachers had no prior experience using a project-based approach, and we had limited time to devote to professional development (about three hours initially, with brief videos introducing subsequent units and an average of 11 visits from coaches), so it was important for the unit and session plans to provide considerable support through explicitness and detail. We also aimed to include explanations in the plans that themselves could act as a form of professional development (aka educative curriculum features; e.g., Davis & Krajcik, 2005).

At the same time, an important goal of project-based learning is to include opportunities for voice and choice, which we attempted to incorporate into the project designs at appropriate points.

For example, in the economics unit, children determined the local cause for which they would raise money, and in the civics and government project, they determined what aspect(s) of the park or public space they thought most needed to be improved.

We do not claim our units are ideal for all students across all settings, but in research, they did result in gains in achievement by teachers new to project-based learning, working in high-poverty settings, with limited professional development. Moreover, they provided ample opportunities for students to engage authentically with their community. To access the four units and other resources for implementation, please see the Project PLACE units.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Literacy
  • Social Studies/History
  • K-2 Primary

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