Project-Based Learning (PBL)

“What’s Worth Learning?” is Key Question for PBL Worldwide

Prioritizing topics for project-based learning

June 19, 2012

Editor's note: Today is the second 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.

When Claudia Urrea was growing up in Colombia, her family made a point of doing projects together. Whether they were focused on fun -- "building the coolest kite" -- or more practical household matters, projects taught her the value of learning by doing.

Today, as director of learning for the One Laptop per Child initiative and a member of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, Urrea is an advocate of project-based learning as a strategy to improve education throughout the developing world. With 2.5 million kid-friendly laptops now in the hands of children across Latin America and Africa, One Laptop per Child is disseminating not only affordable technology but also the pedagogy of student-centered, connected learning. "Projects move students from being told what to do to owning their learning," says Urrea.

PBL World Underway

Urrea shared her insights as the opening speaker for PBL World, a global gathering of educators interested in project-based learning. Co-sponsored by the Buck Institute for Education and Napa Valley Unified School District, PBL World gives participants an in-depth experience in designing, managing and assessing academically rigorous projects. Naturally, participants are learning by doing.

The collaborative sessions include a mix of classroom teachers and school leaders from across the U.S. and as far away as Saudi Arabia. Facilitators from the BIE National Faculty are guiding the learning experience.

The big question to ask in planning projects, Urrea says, should be, "What's worth learning?" That's equally true whether students are growing up in rural villages in Peru or enrolled in state-of-the-art schools like New Technology High School in Napa, where PBL World is taking place.

Eddy Martínez Manzueta has traveled to Napa from the Dominican Republic to learn more about PBL because he's convinced "it's the way to go" to transform the educational system in his country. He wears several hats at home, including secretary of state and executive director of the Export and Investment Center of the Dominican Republic. His country is incorporating PBL into K-12 education as well as technical education for post-secondary students. "It's what our country needs," he says, so that it will have a pipeline of capable thinkers who can solve local issues and compete globally.

One of the educators attending from Costa Rica said the professional learning experience is valuable because it is giving her new tools to incorporate into projects. "It's a more deliberate way to think about projects." Projects in education have a long history in her country, she added, but the emphasis on incorporating essential elements into PBL is new to her. These essentials include not only academic content, but also 21st century skills, voice and choice for students, and cycles of revision and reflection that allow students to improve their work and take inquiry deeper. (Watch a BIE webinar recording about the eight essential elements of high-quality PBL.)

Urrea emphasized another essential element when she talked about the importance of providing students with an audience for their work. In one project she designed in Costa Rica, NASA scientists provided the audience for students, who taught the aerospace experts how to use the Scratch programming language. Such moments are breakthroughs for students "who are used to being told what to do," Urrea says. Once they discover they can guide their own learning -- and even teach others -- there's no limit to where they can go. That's why OLPC designs technology tools for students that are "low floor" for easy entry, but have "high ceilings," so students aren't limited. (Learn more about Scratch here.)

Papert's Legacy

Urrea credits educational technology pioneer Seymour Papert with setting the direction that the MIT Media Lab continues to go, developing technology tools that help students engage with powerful ideas. (Read an Edutopia interview with Papert.) Although the tools continue to evolve -- such as software that tracks back-end data to tell a more complete story about student learning -- the philosophy is still strongly rooted in constructivism. In a nutshell, it's all about learning by doing.

For students who are new to PBL, the challenge can be getting them to take charge of their own learning. Some kids will need help making that shift. Instead of thinking about "what I learned today and might use someday," Urrea says, "help them see that what they learn today they can use today." And for many years to come.

For more resources about project-based learning, see Edutopia's newest Schools That Work package, Project-Based Learning: Success Start to Finish.

Or try some DIY professional development. The Buck Institute for Education offers a PBL Do-It-Yourself online tutorial along with downloadable tools and resources to help with all the phases of PBL.

What are your questions about project-based learning? Please add to the comments.

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