Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up

November 26, 2010

I was talking with a group of teachers who are relatively new to project-based learning. Near the end of our conversation, one of them asked a question that took me by surprise: "When do we decide to quit?"

I asked her to elaborate. "Some students just aren't getting it," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to reach the end of the project and they won't know the content."

It seems her first project wasn't going quite the way she had envisioned. Her natural instinct: retreat to the familiar territory of texts, tests, and teacher-driven instruction.

I assured her that she wasn't the first teacher to encounter challenges with PBL. In fact, fresh in my mind was a recent post by an Australian teacher recounting her project-based learning "teething problems."

PBL 'Teething Problems'

On Bianca's Blog, Bianca Hewes describes the opening days of a project with her grade 10 students. It started off brilliantly. Students appeared to be deeply engaged in discussing the driving question that she had set before them: How could education officials redesign the high-stakes English test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today's world? To get them fired up, she shared a YouTube video featuring a rant by a college student called "An Open Letter to Educators."

She then challenged students to come up with policy recommendations and make their own YouTube videos. She promised them an authentic audience, including folks with the authority to influence decisions.

What happened next? Her blog continues:

"So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep. You guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn't collaborated despite having Edmodo. They hadn't done any research. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No."

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Bianca's initial reaction was to "take my ball and go home," as she puts it. Her students told her they were more comfortable with old-school instruction, and so she gave it to them. Desks she had arranged for group work went back into neat rows. Animated student discussions came to a halt, replaced by teacher lectures and rote note-taking. Quizzes proliferated. Netbooks went into storage. It was as if they had all been "banished to the cave," Bianca writes.

It didn't take long for students to notice the difference. They worried that they weren't really learning anything this way, except how to follow orders, cram for tests, and write fast. Could they give that project another try?

They could. But this time around, their teacher would be more deliberate about teaching critical skills such as teamwork and time management. She would use formative assessment tools to check in on their progress. She would be sure to have the right scaffolding in place so that students could get comfortable as self-directed learners, and get help if they needed it.

Gradual Release -- Not Retreat

Project-based learning can pose challenges for teachers as well as students, especially when both are new to this approach. As Bianca discovered, some project management skills may need to be taught explicitly. Formative assessment has to happen early and often, and a teacher needs to be ready with support for students who are struggling. Handing over responsibility to the learner happens gradually, not all at once.

Good projects -- like real-life challenges -- also teach us about persistence. Figuring out what to do if you encounter challenges is part of the learning experience.

In an insightful new book called Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman explores what it takes for kids to "get really good at something." Researchers call this developing mastery. Cushman has discovered similar patterns and attitudes among teens who are driven to become architects or artists, rappers or rowers. Often, their expertise develops outside school. It may start with a spark that ignites their interest, but the path to mastery is long-term. A motivated teen with stick with it despite challenges, "because the hard parts connect to a result she can clearly visualize," Cushman tells us.

Supportive relationships also play a critical role for kids who are motivated to work toward mastery. And so does what Cushman calls "deliberate practice," in which kids gain new skills and knowledge through purposeful small steps.

In her interviews with these highly motivated teens, Cushman discovered that few of them expressed much excitement about the work they did at school. There was one bright spot, however. Interdisciplinary projects "stood out for them as a remarkable exception," Cushman reports. The same students who described feeling bored at school "caught fire when they were asked to take on challenging 'real world' projects as part of their academic curriculum." When they had opportunities to do projects, these students recognized a familiar-if sometimes difficult -- path toward mastery.

So, what was my short answer to that teacher who asked about giving up on a project? Please don't! But by all means, figure out why students are struggling and step in with the support they need to get back on track. And bring what you learn into your next project.

Reflective teachers like Bianca teach their students valuable lessons about learning from missteps and making mid-course adjustments. I'm willing to bet that her next project will be more successful, and that her students will gain some valuable life lessons along with a deeper understanding of important content.

Have you ever called it quits on a project? What have you learned -- the hard way -- about scaffolding student success? Please share your insights.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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