George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

For Engaging Projects, “Keep It Real”

Authentic learning is key to PBL

June 20, 2012

Editor's note: Today is the third in a series of posts from PBL World, a global gathering of educators interested in project-based learning. Join the conversation on Twitter by following the hashtag #pblworld.

Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, suggested a new "essential element" for high-quality project-based learning in his keynote to the PBL World audience on Tuesday. His advice for high-quality projects? "Keep it real."

How do you make sure that PBL feels like the real deal? Seidel, a veteran of working with students who have been disengaged from traditional school, offers three questions to guide project design:

  • Ask yourself, how can we make this realer?
  • Ask your students, what do you love to do or make?
  • Ask your students, what do you want to see change in the world?

The answers should get you on the right track to projects that will build students' academic understanding along with the skills they need to succeed in real-life situations. To avoid "fake real" projects that matter only within the classroom, Seidel suggests a simple solution: Step outside.

Growing Network of PBL Educators

Seidel's vision has been shaped by working with a number of PBL schools and networks of schools that use the project approach successfully, including Big Picture Schools, High Tech High, and the New Tech Network. Seidel's book, Hip Hop Genius, focuses on a unique PBL success story, the High School for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn. Rather than "warehousing" youth at risk, he says, HSRA offers students a place to be creators of culture and entrepreneurs who are applying the real-world skills they learn through interest-driven projects. (Watch this video from HSRA student Alia "Lene" Jackson.)

PBL World, co-sponsored by the Buck Institute for Education and Napa Valley Unified School District, is a five-day gathering of educators from across the U.S., along with several other countries. Participants have varying levels of experience with PBL. Some are brand-new to this way of teaching and learning, while others have been experimenting with PBL and want to develop new strategies for designing, managing, and assessing projects.

PBL World, the first such event, is a diverse group of 450 educators and facilitators. What's obvious to me, from sitting in on the intensive workshops, is their shared commitment to doing what's best for students. Acquiring the tools and strategies to succeed with PBL is hard work, but these participants are putting their energy into rounds of peer feedback and revision to make their project ideas better.

After Seidel's keynote, one member of the BIE National Faculty said she watched some of her workshop participants jettison the project plans they had started the day before and restart on something "more real." By the afternoon, they were off and running with revised project plans that built in more relevance along with academic rigor.

Learning to give and receive feedback is an essential PBL skill, and something that participants are practicing at PBL World with poster sessions, fishbowl discussions, and ongoing conversations. Ron Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence, shares a proven process for peer critique in this video.

Gems to Share

Practical insights about effective PBL are coming fast and furious at PBL World. These gems are getting shared to the outside world just as quickly by this collaborative, connected group. The stream of tweets made #pblworld a trending topic on Twitter on Tuesday.

Two gems from Seidel's keynote made a powerful impression on this audience:

In urban planning, it's typical to seed a grassy area and let pedestrians show where the paths should go. The areas where footpaths appear in the grass are known as "lines of desire." Seidel suggests paying closer attention to the lines of desire when it comes to student learning. "Find your students' lines of desire and then provide the right footing under them," he suggests.

For good reasons, educators pay considerable attention to assessment. That's true at PBL World, where participants are thinking hard about assessment plans for their projects. For "real" assessment, Seidel suggests borrowing a page from hip hop. Authentic assessment in that culture is called "show and prove." You can't do it by writing an essay or taking a test about performing-you have to show and prove your chops. In PBL, think about what students can show and prove through authentic project work.

More PBL Resources

For more ideas about assessment in PBL, download a free copy of Edutopia's classroom guide, Top Ten Tips for Assessing Project-Based Learning.

Learn more about comprehensive assessment in the Schools That Work package, Comprehensive Assessment: A New York City Success Story.

For more strategies to engage students, read Edutopia's recent blog series on that topic. It kicks off with the post, "How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged?"Stay tuned for more updates from PBL World. If you have questions or are looking for specific resources about PBL, please add to the comments.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Place-Based Learning

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.