Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Can PBL Help Pave the Way to College Success?

February 26, 2013
Credit Photo credit: Courtesy of Alliance College Ready Public Schools
Alliance College-Ready Public School Student Technology Leaders collaborating to assess projects completed by their peers.

In high-poverty neighborhoods of Los Angeles, students attending Alliance College-Ready Public Schools have good reason to be hopeful about life after high school. This network of 21 public charters has sent more than 95 percent of its graduates on to college since it was founded in 2004. But we all know that getting into college isn't the finish line. "What does it take to stay in college? What does a student really need to know to be college-and-career ready?" asks Toria Williams, director of innovation and technology for the Alliance. "That's an ongoing conversation here."

Some of the answers about college readiness may soon emerge from an initiative called College YES. Funded by a five-year, Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, College YES emphasizes project-based learning, student leadership, STEM education, and technology integration as building blocks of student success. Generation YES, a nonprofit that encourages students to take a lead on improving their own education through technology, is partnering with the Alliance to implement College YES. To track results, Gen YES has introduced a technology platform that's custom-made for PBL.

It's too early for formal research results but, informally, teachers are seeing the growth that happens when students step up as leaders and have occasion to think critically about authentic problems in their communities.

Real-World Learning

For a recent project, ninth-graders from Watts tackled this driving question: Which career choices would most benefit my community? To arrive at their answers, students researched not only interesting career fields but also the social and economic issues facing local families. "That's what learning should be about," says Williams. "It's not a bunch of isolated facts you think about during the school day and then have no application to the world you see when you're walking home."

Meanwhile, sixth-graders applied their understanding of earth science to respond to this question: Could this city shake? When they presented their earthquake-readiness plans to a gathering of parents, adults got a glimpse of the deeper learning that emerges through PBL.

Meanwhile, students and teachers gained newfound appreciation for the communication skills that are embedded in projects. "Having a public audience opened our eyes," Williams says. "Guess what? We really have to teach our kids how to communicate, how to be ready to answer questions that they may not have expected."

From "Culture Shock" to Student Leadership

Williams doesn't attempt to sugar-coat the challenge of introducing technology-rich PBL across 18 schools that are participating in this grant. "It's a culture shock," she admits. "PBL requires a mind shift for teachers." She attended the PBL World conference last summer to build her own understanding, and has been offering professional development to help teachers get more comfortable with PBL strategies. The initial goal is for students to experience at least two projects per year, one in STEM and the other in an advisory setting that emphasizes college readiness.

The introduction of PBL means students also have to get used to new ways of learning and working with peers. "They've been in a system designed around getting ready for the test. Now we're asking them to think critically and solve problems," Williams says. "It's challenging."

Many students are stepping into new leadership roles as a result of College YES. Each school site has recruited a cohort of 12 to 20 Student Technology Leaders, who are trained by Gen YES on technology literacy. Student Technology Leaders support their teachers in integrating digital tools into PBL. They also serve as peer mentors during projects.

At the end of projects, Student Technology Leaders assess their peers' work against the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards. That means students have to think critically and look for evidence that their peers have mastered standards. "They're learning how to hold each other accountable," Williams says. Final project assessment is still done by teachers.

As College YES has gotten underway, the role of Student Technology Leaders has steadily expanded. At a recent professional development event, Williams watched student leaders explain to an audience of teachers "how to make your class more interesting by integrating technology. Here were our students leading professional development for adults!" Some student leaders also keep websites up to date for teachers or principals, or offer after-school mentoring for students who want extra time to work on their projects.

Student Technology Leaders at one school recently hosted a parent night, teaching adults where they and their children can access local tech resources. The event was a wake-up call for parents about the importance of technology for learning. "Parents don't always make the connection that their kids need technology for academic success. They may see them at home using Facebook or Instagram, but don't see them working," Williams acknowledges. The event helped parents understand, "This is why our kids need technology." That added another piece to the college-and-career readiness puzzle.

Platform for Learning

Keeping track of all the components of digital PBL can be a management challenge, especially for teachers who are new to this approach. Generation YES has developed a technology platform to help teachers and students manage and assess the learning that unfolds during projects. The platform is also proving to be useful for tracking research data.

Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation YES, says the platform enables teachers to design project plans and classroom lessons that are aligned to the Common Core. The system allows for online collection of project plans, student work, comments, and assessment. Teachers can add their most successful projects to a showcase site, accessible to schools across the system. "We now have all our schools running on this system," Martinez says, "so this is a real, scalable thing, not a prototype."

For grant-funded programs like College YES, the platform affords researchers a window into what's happening in the PBL classroom. In the long run, researchers may be able to connect the dots between what students learn through projects and their accomplishments after high school.

Stay tuned for future updates when those results are released, giving us all a clearer picture of what it means to be truly "college and career ready."

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • College Readiness
  • Curriculum Planning

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