George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's note: Today's guest blogger is Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, youth development, and 21st-century school design. He formerly directed the Buck Institute for Education's national training program in PBL and is the primary author of BIE's Handbook on Project Based Learning.

College readiness, always a hot topic, is getting hotter. The Obama administration has set a national goal of having the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world by 2020. Yet at the same time, researchers tell us that two out of five college students are not equipped to handle the academic, financial, and social responsibilities of college. (Download a recent report on college readiness from ACT) In other words, 40% of high school students aren't "college ready."

Predictors of College Success

What's really interesting is that, once again, the research reminds us that the deficiencies in college readiness don't represent cognitive deficits. I realize that many high school graduates require remedial courses to learn to write an essay or master basic math. But this research shows that the biggest predictor of college success is a student's conscientiousness, as measured by dependability, perseverance, and work ethic. The next best predictors are agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional balance. All this, in my mind, leads to one conclusion: More project-based learning.

Role of Social-Emotional Learning in PBL

What do these personality attributes associated with college readiness -- dispositions, as they're known to psychologists -- have to do with PBL? Let me briefly digress to explain how PBL and social-emotional learning support one another.

In the last two decades, social-emotional learning experts have settled on three factors that support the success of a young person: (1) A solid relationship with an adult mentor, such as a parent, priest, teacher, or coach; (2) a sense of mastery that develops as the mentor guides the young person forward and reviews their performance; and (3) an internal sense of meaning and purpose that comes as the young person is offered opportunities to explore questions of value and relevance.

PBL draws upon these exact elements for success. Great PBL begins with a respectful relationship between teacher and student. PBL is also a process of learning, not merely a method for ingesting information for a test at the end of the unit. This process allows for plenty of regular, ongoing feedback, which leads to student mastery. And, at the heart of a good project is a relevant, open-ended, student-centered question that speaks to a student's innate desire to know more about the world and how he or she fits into it.

Bottom line: If you use PBL in the classroom, you are not only teaching the stuff of school, you are supporting the social-emotional development of your students and getting them ready for college.

PBL to Teach Student Behavior

I'll just add one other thought: What if you want to specifically teach work ethic, perseverance, or dependability -- the kinds of dispositions that really prepare a student to be a self-managing learner in college? PBL works well here, too, if you use well-designed rubrics that identify the exact behaviors you expect, teach students how to use the rubrics to guide their behavior, and -- the critical piece -- put a grade in your grade book that reflects how "dependable" a student has been in the project.

Common core standards for social-emotional learning are coming, but there will never be a test or national curriculum for "dependability." So you will need to judge these "soft" skills by "soft" standards. It's not that difficult, however. Most teachers and students know what this behavior looks like in practice -- and they can identify the necessary levels of performance. (If you need sample rubrics, visit my site and click "contact.")

Thom Markham, Ph.D., President of GlobalRedesigns, and Senior National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education, is a psychologist and educator who served as a Director with Active Learning, Inc., an innovative motivational and learning skills camp program for high school and college students, taught at an award-winning high school, where he led school reform efforts and developed a highly-acclaimed internship-based program, and co-founded the Marin School of Arts and Technology, an innovative charter high school in Novato, California.

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Terry Adkins's picture
Terry Adkins
High School Agriscience Teacher from Maryland

[quote] To get to my real question, when do you do it and how much planning do you put into it? I really want to know so I can prepare for my meeting to "pitch" the idea.[/quote]

I admit that there is a good deal of planning involved the first time you incorporate a successful project. It is very important that rubrics are clear as far as what is expected for the final project and what is expected for a team climate as well. I use a teamwork rubric as well.After the project gets rolling I enjoy being a facilitator and have time to connect with individual students as they teach me what they've learned. I have had to look at my curriculum carefully to cut the fluff and find days for a project. I've used projects as end of unit assessments. In terms of pitching the idea, there are several benefits to be promoted. Projects can allow students flexibility to produce an end result of their choosing that demonstrates their knowledge. Greater student buy in leads to a positive classroom environment. It is also gratifying to see students excited about learning your subject matter.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

This is for Anthony Hyman. I am also a math teacher and I incorporate PBL strategies into my lessons every day. My daily lesson is kind of like a project that I give the students. The project is that they learn a section in our textbook. I write a detailed lesson plan and then give it to the kids to execute. The lesson outlines vocabulary activities, reviewing worked out examples in the book, and examples that they have to work out. It is a refreshing change from a teacher centered lesson. The activity gets very collaborative; they help each other and have lots of questions for me. Sometimes I interrupt them with a demo, but I do lots of one on one. I think the reason PBL works so well is that the kids are doing it themselves rather than listening to or watching someone else do it (whatever it may be). It takes some effort on your part to write a plan with enough detail that the kids can execute it, but the payoff is well worth it. I suggest you just try it. Tell the kids one day that we are trying something new; pass out the lesson plan and tell them to get to work. You will be surprised how much they can cover and how well they learn it without you showing them every single step. I've never done this with grade 7, but I have with grade 8, algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2, integrated math, and math analysis. Let me know if you need more specifics.

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

The Physics teacher wants to do a cross discipline lesson with my math analysis class. What a great opportunity for PBL. You have seen those steel ball toys that have about five steel balls on strings and you pull the end one away and let it fall back to collide with the rest and then the one on the other end swings out and then back to collide etc. Well, my idea is to make one with bowling balls. The kids can analyze the forces and the end product will be way cool.

Tracy's picture

I agree with Anthony. The way our standards are set up now, there is no way to do project based learning every day in math class. In Ohio, there are over thirty standards that need to be covered within the school year. Due to the sad fact that schools now have to be geared towards standardized testing, teachers have to teach to the test and make sure that the thirty plus standards are covered. I do throw in some PBL through out the year. Unfortunately due to time constraints, I can only do a few. But, the results are powerful.

The good news, at least for Ohio, is that the standards are changing soon. Instead of having thirty standards, each grade level is focusing on four main concepts. Now, teachers can go more in depth with each concept to develop student mastery understanding. With less time constraints, I believe many more PBL applications will be enforced. Which will lead to greater team interaction, high self confidence, and student success!

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Math is tricky. There is a lot to know and having a lot of standards is unavoidable. It seemed impossible to me until I just stopped teaching math to the kids. It's too hard, there is way too much that they need to know (and they are not interested in listening). Instead, I started teaching the kids how to learn. We can't teach them, but they do a great job teaching themselves (a PBL principle). I'm not always using PBL, but I always use PBL principles, theory, and techniques.
Tracy says, 'teachers have to teach to the test' and 'teachers have to ... make sure that the thirty plus standards are covered.' This is clearly impossible. But a student is able to learn all these things when we teach them how to learn and guide them to do the learning. It becomes very collaborative. It is not easy and there are different problems when you use these techniques. I am far from perfect at it. It seems that some students are not motivated regardless of what you do. But, the volume and depth of the learning I see in many students gives me hope and drives me to learn more about how to use PBL, DIY, and student centered learning.

Michael's picture

I absolutely agree that it is essential that we are preparing our students for life after high school. A recent statistic released in my school district stated that of the 46% of students who actually graduate from high school, a mere 5% of them are prepared for college. PBL is a great method of learning, and while it may be challenging for both the teacher and the students, the payoff is well worth it. Too many students are graduating without the ability or willingness to work cooperatively or dependably. PBL is a powerful tool to teach motivation and team work.

Melody Singleton's picture

The project ultimately directs how I organize the groups for maximum learning and effort.I make every effort to consider the talents and skills of each student so that they feel a part of the learning community and are motivated to participate and achieve independent and group success. This is not always easy; however, I often find myself modifying projects to include each student's level and abilities. I also develop rubrics along with the students so that the criteria for success is agreed upon before the project begins. That way, each student is well aware of what is expected of them and how they can experience success. Usually this is enough to spark creativity and willingness to do their part. I have been blessed to experience few bumps in the road up to this point.

Melody Singleton's picture

I love the idea you shared with Anthony and would like more specifics. I teach 5th grade, but I believe they would be able to accomplish the task and experience similar success. It would be a refreshing change for them and me if you do not mind sharing.

Melody Singleton's picture

I agree with what you said about teaching children how to learn. I am a third year teacher, and I must admit that I found myself becoming overwhelmed with all of the objectives and skills that were to be covered over the course of the year, and being self-contained certainly did not help! I called myself working smarter this year. I took it upon myself to apply the age-old saying that less is more. We work on strategies to increase vocabulary, thinking, expression, application, and generalization in each of the subject areas, and I have seen a dramatic improvement in student learning. Of course,that does not mean each child is motivated, but it is becoming contagious. As more students begin to experience success and realize that they are capable of learning, they begin to push themselves as well as their classmates. They have become a very encouraging group.

SP's picture

Great article Thom. I know from my experiences as a student and then later as a prof that group work was killer. Students today have no clue how to work in groups or how to do basic project management. I believe so strongly in this that I created a FREE website called which provides students with a platform to manage their group work online. It enables them to create private pages for their group where they can share files, schedule meetings, do a project outline, task management etc. It also provides articles and guides to show students how to get their work done more effectively.

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