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Time to Debunk Those PBL Myths

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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What are the myths you hear most often about project-based learning? Here are some PBL misconceptions I encounter with surprising regularity:

  • "Projects may be fun, but they'll never prepare students for ____ [fill in high-stakes test of your choice]"
  • "If kids work in teams on projects, one or two will do all the work and the others will coast"
  • "PBL won't work with my students because they are ____ [fill in the challenge of your choice]"
  • "I'll never have time to cover all my content if I spend time on projects"
  • "Projects just aren't rigorous"
  • "Parents will wind up doing most of the work"
  • "We can't do PBL because we don't have ____ [fill in the technology of your choice]"

Once you start listening for PBL myths, you'll hear them in the most surprising places. During a long flight recently, I was reading to pass the time. I nearly tossed my e-reader when author Liane Moriarty had her adult characters in Big Little Lies scrambling to finish their children's projects. (To be fair, her adults-behaving-badly were comically misguided on many levels. But still.)

If we dispel the myths, we can concentrate on helping teachers and students achieve the meaningful learning that's possible through high-quality PBL. So, let's get busy.

Projects versus PBL

Let's tackle the biggest myth first -- that projects are fun but fluffy. Not academically rigorous.

There's a reason why this misconception endures. Many of today's adults remember doing "projects" when they were in school. Remember those dioramas, solar system mobiles, and other assignments that involved lots of cardboard and Styrofoam but probably not much inquiry or critical thinking? Chances are, those hands-on activities were assigned after the serious learning was over.

My colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education have been outspoken about distinguishing between projects and project-based learning. They rightly describe PBL as main-course learning, not dessert. (Read their "Main Course" blog post.)The point isn't that short-term, hands-on activities are without merit. Rather, you can't expect students to gain the full benefits of PBL unless you give them time and the instructional support needed for an extended, in-depth, inquiry experience.

Students might, indeed, construct a final product to apply and demonstrate what they've learned. But that product won't be the whole project, and it will result from a process that incorporates collaboration, critical thinking, and improvement through feedback and multiple drafts. The Edutopia video, "5 Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning," sets the record straight by focusing on PBL as a route to rigorous learning. Watch the overview video or the five-part series here:

Coverage vs. Deep Learning

Here's a related myth -- that you won't be able to cover your curriculum if you're spending class time on PBL.

Wrong again.

PBL isn't an add-on or side trip to your students' learning. It's the main event.

When teachers design PBL experiences, they start with a thorough understanding of their content standards. Moreover, teachers consider the reasons why those standards matter. What are the big ideas of their discipline? How do those ideas connect to the world beyond the classroom? Good projects make content standards relevant. That makes learning more purposeful and concepts more memorable for students.

Teachers who are new to PBL (and parents who don't understand the difference between projects and PBL) sometimes need convincing that students will, indeed, master academics this way. Looking at the research about PBL can help overcome skepticism. Here's a research overview. In addition, Knowledge in Action is an ongoing research project, sponsored by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, about using PBL in advanced placement classes, known for high expectations when it comes to content mastery.

The Shape of Deeper Learning

A new report from the American Institutes for Research, offers a look at the learning that happens in high schools where project-based learning is a core instructional strategy. Schools included in this proof-of-concept study are part of the Deeper Learning Community of Practice, an initiative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Read an earlier post about deeper learning.)

Deeper learning, in a nutshell, emphasizes academic content, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and an academic mindset. Schools in the Deeper Learning Network use PBL as an instructional strategy to accomplish these goals.

What happens in deeper learning settings? According to AIR report, students master academic content through projects that also emphasize critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. They understand the real-world context for their studies. They benefit from a range of assessments -- including long-term (portfolios and exhibitions) and formative feedback -- and also from differentiated instruction during projects. They not only prepare for college admission, but develop the habits of mind to be successful in college.

More Myths to Bust?

Which myths do you hear most often when it comes to PBL? How do you counter the misconceptions? Please add your thoughts in the comments, and let's do some myth busting together.

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Michael,
Thanks for sharing your perspective. The research review I included in my post goes into specific outcomes for different content areas, which may interest you (http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-practices-disciplines).
You're absolutely right that teachers need time and professional development to get comfortable with PBL. (Here are two studies that look at teacher satisfaction with PBL: http://bie.org/images/uploads/general/8f4baac9013c77ceeeddb9dc5b870f8a.pdf and http://bie.org/object/document/west_virginia_study_of_pbl_impacts )
You're also correct that PBL is not a panacea. Nor does it have to be an exclusive teaching strategy. Although there are several networks of wall-to-wall PBL schools (including New Tech, which you mention), there are many more examples of schools where students experience PBL among other instructional approaches.
Given the constraints you describe (i.e., "I have 144 days to teach a 177 day curriculum in Algebra 1 so that my students have been taught all the state standards with 15 days of review prior to testing on day 159"), I understand your reluctance to depart from a test-prep approach. PBL is challenging in schools that use pacing guides or require strict adherence to textbooks. But I wonder, is passing that test the only goal that matters for your students? Do they see a value for Algebra beyond your classroom? Can they apply what they've learned in new contexts? Will they remember much after they've taken the test? Do they have a voice in their own learning?
Some of the most effective PBL teachers I've met have been career changers. Like yourself, they saw the need for 21st-century skills in workplaces that require collaboration and self-management. Don't our students deserve a chance to start developing those important skills now?
Again, thanks for taking time to join this conversation.
Best,
Suzie

(1)
Mr_deLarios's picture

I love PBLs but until high stakes testing is done away with, PBLs will never flourish where they are most needed. 8th grade social studies TEKS to cover by the high stakes STAAR test:
STAAR logo
Grade 8 Social Studies
Assessment
Eligible Texas Essential
Knowledge and Skills
Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Assessment
Based on Revised Curriculum
Reporting Category 1:
History
The student will demonstrate an understanding of issues and events in U.S.
history.
(1) History. The student understands traditional historical points of reference in
U.S. history through 1877. The student is expected to
(A) identify the major eras and events in U.S. history through 1877, including colonization, revolution, drafting of the Declaration of Independence, creation and ratification of the Constitution, religious revivals such as the Second Great Awakening, early republic, the Age of Jackson, westward expansion, reform movements, sectionalism, Civil War, and Reconstruction, and describe their causes and effects;
Readiness Standard
(B) apply absolute and relative chronology through the sequencing of significant individuals, events, and time periods; and
Supporting Standard
(C) explain the significance of the following dates: 1607, founding of Jamestown; 1620, arrival of the Pilgrims and signing of the Mayflower Compact; 1776, adoption of the Declaration of Independence; 1787, writing of the U.S. Constitution; 1803, Louisiana Purchase; and 1861-1865, Civil War. Supporting Standard
(2)
History. The student understands the causes of exploration and colonization eras. The student is expected to
(A)
identify reasons for European exploration and colonization of North America; and Readiness Standard
(B)
compare political, economic, religious, and social reasons for the establishment of the 13 English colonies. Supporting Standard
(3)
History. The student understands the foundations of representative government in the United States. The student is expected to
(A)
explain the reasons for the growth of representative government and institutions during the colonial period; Readiness Standard
(B)
analyze the importance of the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and the Virginia House of Burgesses to the growth of representative government; and Supporting Standard
(C)
describe how religion and virtue contributed to the growth of representative government in the American colonies.
Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 2 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(4) History. The student understands significant political and economic issues of the revolutionary era. The student is expected to
(A)
analyze causes of the American Revolution, including the Proclamation of 1763, the Intolerable Acts, the Stamp Act, mercantilism, lack of representation in Parliament, and British economic policies following the French and Indian War; Readiness Standard
(B)
explain the roles played by significant individuals during the American Revolution, including Abigail Adams, John Adams, Wentworth Cheswell, Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, James Armistead, Benjamin Franklin, Bernardo de Galvez, Crispus Attucks, King George III, Haym Salomon, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, and George Washington;
Supporting Standard
(C)
explain the issues surrounding important events of the American Revolution, including declaring independence; writing the Articles of Confederation; fighting the battles of Lexington, Concord, Saratoga, and Yorktown; enduring the winter at Valley Forge; and signing the Treaty of Paris of 1783; Readiness Standard
(D)
analyze the issues of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, including the Great Compromise and the Three-Fifths Compromise; and
Supporting Standard
(E) analyze the arguments for and against ratification.
Readiness Standard
(5) History. The student understands the challenges confronted by the government and its leaders in the early years of the republic and the Age of Jackson. The student is expected to
(A) describe major domestic problems faced by the leaders of the new republic such as maintaining national security, building a military, creating a stable economic system, setting up the court system, and defining the authority of the central government;
Readiness Standard
(B)
summarize arguments regarding protective tariffs, taxation, and the banking system; Supporting Standard
(C)
explain the origin and development of American political parties;
Readiness Standard
(D) explain the causes, important events, and effects of the War of 1812;
Supporting Standard
(E)
identify the foreign policies of presidents Washington through Monroe and explain the impact of Washington's Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine; Readiness Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 3 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(F)
explain the impact of the election of Andrew Jackson, including expanded suffrage; and Supporting Standard
(G)
analyze the reasons for the removal and resettlement of Cherokee Indians during the Jacksonian era, including the Indian Removal Act, Worcester v. Georgia, and the Trail of Tears. Supporting Standard
(6) History. The student understands westward expansion and its effects on the political, economic, and social development of the nation. The student is expected to
(A) explain how the Northwest Ordinance established principles and procedures for orderly expansion of the United States;
Readiness Standard
(B) explain the political, economic, and social roots of Manifest Destiny;
Readiness Standard
(C)
analyze the relationship between the concept of Manifest Destiny and the westward growth of the nation; Supporting Standard
(D)
explain the causes and effects of the U.S.-Mexican War and their impact on the United States; and Readiness Standard
(E)
identify areas that were acquired to form the United States, including the Louisiana Purchase. Supporting Standard
(7) History. The student understands how political, economic, and social factors led to the growth of sectionalism and the Civil War. The student is expected to
(A)
analyze the impact of tariff policies on sections of the United States before the Civil War; Supporting Standard
(B)
compare the effects of political, economic, and social factors on slaves and free blacks; Supporting Standard
(C)
analyze the impact of slavery on different sections of the United States; and Readiness Standard
(D)
identify the provisions and compare the effects of congressional conflicts and compromises prior to the Civil War, including the roles of John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster.
Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 4 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(8) History. The student understands individuals, issues, and events of the Civil War. The student is expected to
(A)
explain the roles played by significant individuals during the Civil War, including Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln, and heroes such as Congressional Medal of Honor recipients William Carney and Philip Bazaar; Supporting Standard
(B)
explain the causes of the Civil War, including sectionalism, states' rights, and slavery, and significant events of the Civil War, including the firing on Fort Sumter; the battles of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg; the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation; Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House; and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and Readiness Standard
(C)
analyze Abraham Lincoln's ideas about liberty, equality, union, and government as contained in his first and second inaugural addresses and the Gettysburg Address and contrast them with the ideas contained in Jefferson Davis's inaugural address.
Supporting Standard
(9) History. The student understands the effects of Reconstruction on the political, economic, and social life of the nation. The student is expected to
(A) evaluate legislative reform programs of the Radical Reconstruction Congress and reconstructed state governments;
Supporting Standard
(B) evaluate the impact of the election of Hiram Rhodes Revels;
Supporting Standard
(C) explain the economic, political, and social problems during Reconstruction and evaluate their impact on different groups; and
Readiness Standard
(D) identify the effects of legislative acts such as the Homestead Act, the Dawes Act, and the Morrill Act. Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 5 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
Reporting Category 2:
Geography and Culture
The student will demonstrate an understanding of geographic and cultural
influences on historical issues and events.
(10) Geography. The student understands the location and characteristics of places and regions of the United States, past and present. The student is expected to
(A)
locate places and regions of importance in the United States during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries; Supporting Standard
(B)
compare places and regions of the United States in terms of physical and human characteristics; and Readiness Standard
(C)
analyze the effects of physical and human geographic factors on major historical and contemporary events in the United States.
Readiness Standard
(11) Geography. The student understands the physical characteristics of North America and how humans adapted to and modified the environment through the mid-19th century. The student is expected to
(A) analyze how physical characteristics of the environment influenced population distribution, settlement patterns, and economic activities in the United States during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries;
Readiness Standard
(B) describe the positive and negative consequences of human modification of the physical environment of the United States; and
Supporting Standard
(C) describe how different immigrant groups interacted with the environment in the United States during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Supporting Standard
(23) Culture. The student understands the relationships between and among people from various groups, including racial, ethnic, and religious groups, during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The student is expected to
(A) identify selected racial, ethnic, and religious groups that settled in the United States and explain their reasons for immigration;
Readiness Standard
(B) explain the relationship between urbanization and conflicts resulting from differences in religion, social class, and political beliefs;
Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 6 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(C)
identify ways conflicts between people from various racial, ethnic, and religious groups were resolved; Supporting Standard
(D)
analyze the contributions of people of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups to our national identity; and Supporting Standard
(E)
identify the political, social, and economic contributions of women to American society. Supporting Standard
(24) Culture. The student understands the major reform movements of the 19th century. The student is expected to
(A) describe the historical development of the abolitionist movement; and
Supporting Standard
(B) evaluate the impact of reform movements, including educational reform, temperance, the women's rights movement, prison reform, abolition, the labor reform movement, and care of the disabled.
Readiness Standard
(25) Culture. The student understands the impact of religion on the American way of life. The student is expected to
(A) trace the development of religious freedom in the United States;
Supporting Standard
(B)
describe religious motivation for immigration and influence on social movements, including the impact of the first and second Great Awakenings; and Supporting Standard
(C)
analyze the impact of the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom on the American way of life. Readiness Standard
(26) Culture. The student understands the relationship between the arts and the times during which they were created. The student is expected to
(A) describe developments in art, music, and literature that are unique to American culture such as the Hudson River School artists, John James Audubon, "Battle Hymn of the Republic," transcendentalism, and other cultural activities in the history of the United States;
Supporting Standard
(B)
identify examples of American art, music, and literature that reflect society in different eras; and Supporting Standard
(C)
analyze the relationship between fine arts and continuity and change in the American way of life. Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 7 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
Reporting Category 3:
Government and Citizenship
The student will demonstrate an understanding of the role of government
and the civic process on historical issues and events.
(15) Government. The student understands the American beliefs and principles reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other important historic documents. The student is expected to
(A)
identify the influence of ideas from historic documents, including the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, the Federalist Papers, and selected Anti-Federalist writings, on the U.S. system of government; Readiness Standard
(B)
summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation; Supporting Standard
(C)
identify colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and explain how those grievances were addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights; and Readiness Standard
(D)
analyze how the U.S. Constitution reflects the principles of limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and individual rights.
Readiness Standard
(16) Government. The student understands the process of changing the U.S. Constitution and the impact of amendments on American society. The student is expected to
(A)
summarize the purposes for and process of amending the U.S. Constitution; and Readiness Standard
(B)
describe the impact of 19th-century amendments, including the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, on life in the United States.
Readiness Standard
(17) Government. The student understands the dynamic nature of the powers of the national government and state governments in a federal system. The student is expected to
(A)
analyze the arguments of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, including those of Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, James Madison, and George Mason; and Readiness Standard
(B)
explain constitutional issues arising over the issue of states' rights, including the Nullification Crisis and the Civil War.
Readiness Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 8 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(18) Government. The student understands the impact of landmark Supreme Court cases. The student is expected to
(A)
identify the origin of judicial review and analyze examples of congressional and presidential responses; Readiness Standard
(B)
summarize the issues, decisions, and significance of landmark Supreme Court cases, including Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, and Gibbons v. Ogden; and Supporting Standard
(C)
evaluate the impact of selected landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Dred Scott v. Sandford, on life in the United States.
Supporting Standard
(19) Citizenship. The student understands the rights and responsibilities of citizens of the United States. The student is expected to
(A)
define and give examples of unalienable rights; Readiness Standard
(B)
summarize rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights;
Readiness Standard
(D)
identify examples of responsible citizenship, including obeying rules and laws, staying informed on public issues, voting, and serving on juries; Supporting Standard
(E)
summarize the criteria and explain the process for becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States; and Supporting Standard
(20) Citizenship. The student understands the importance of voluntary individual participation in the democratic process. The student is expected to
(A) explain the role of significant individuals such as Thomas Hooker, Charles de Montesquieu, John Locke, William Blackstone, and William Penn in the development of self-government in colonial America;
Supporting Standard
(B)
evaluate the contributions of the Founding Fathers as models of civic virtue; and Supporting Standard
(C)
analyze reasons for and the impact of selected examples of civil disobedience in U.S. history such as the Boston Tea Party and Henry David Thoreau's refusal to pay a tax. Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 9 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(21) Citizenship. The student understands the importance of the expression of different points of view in a constitutional republic. The student is expected to
(A) identify different points of view of political parties and interest groups on important historical and contemporary issues;
Supporting Standard
(B)
describe the importance of free speech and press in a constitutional republic; and Supporting Standard
(C)
summarize a historical event in which compromise resulted in a peaceful resolution. Supporting Standard
(22) Citizenship. The student understands the importance of effective leadership in a constitutional republic. The student is expected to
(A)
analyze the leadership qualities of elected and appointed leaders of the United States such as George Washington, John Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln; and Supporting Standard
(B)
describe the contributions of significant political, social, and military leaders of the United States such as Frederick Douglass, John Paul Jones, James Monroe, Stonewall Jackson, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 10 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
Reporting Category 4:
Economics, Science, Technology and Society
The student will demonstrate an understanding of economic and
technological influences on historical issues and events.
(12) Economics. The student understands why various sections of the United States developed different patterns of economic activity. The student is expected to
(A)
identify economic differences among different regions of the United States; Supporting Standard
(B)
explain reasons for the development of the plantation system, the transatlantic slave trade, and the spread of slavery;
Readiness Standard
(C) explain the reasons for the increase in factories and urbanization; and
Supporting Standard
(D) analyze the causes and effects of economic differences among different regions of the United States at selected times in U.S. history.
Readiness Standard
(13)
Economics. The student understands how various economic forces resulted in the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The student is expected to
(A)
analyze the War of 1812 as a cause of economic changes in the nation; and Supporting Standard
(B)
identify the economic factors that brought about rapid industrialization and urbanization. Readiness Standard
(14)
Economics. The student understands the origins and development of the free enterprise system in the United States. The student is expected to
(A)
explain why a free enterprise system of economics developed in the new nation, including minimal government intrusion, taxation, and property rights; and Supporting Standard
(B)
describe the characteristics and the benefits of the U.S. free enterprise system during the 18th and 19th centuries. Supporting Standard
(27)
Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of science and technology on the economic development of the United States. The student is expected to
(A) explain the effects of technological and scientific innovations such as the steamboat, the cotton gin, and interchangeable parts;
Readiness Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 11 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
(B) analyze the impact of transportation and communication systems on the growth, development, and urbanization of the United States;
Readiness Standard
(C) analyze how technological innovations changed the way goods were manufactured and marketed, nationally and internationally; and
Supporting Standard
(D) explain how technological innovations brought about economic growth such as how the factory system contributed to rapid industrialization and the Transcontinental Railroad led to the opening of the west.
Supporting Standard
(28) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of scientific discoveries and technological innovations on daily life in the United States. The student is expected to
(A)
compare the effects of scientific discoveries and technological innovations that have influenced daily life in different periods in U.S. history; and Supporting Standard
(B)
identify examples of how industrialization changed life in the United States. Supporting Standard
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 12 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011
Social Studies Skills
These skills will not be listed under a separate reporting category. Instead, they will be incorporated in the test questions in reporting categories 1-4 and will be identified along with content standards.
(29)
Social studies skills. The student applies critical-thinking skills to organize and use information acquired through established research methodologies from a variety of valid sources, including electronic technology. The student is expected to
(A)
differentiate between, locate, and use valid primary and secondary sources such as computer software, databases, media and news services, biographies, interviews, and artifacts to acquire information about the United States;
(B)
analyze information by sequencing, categorizing, identifying causeand-effect relationships, comparing, contrasting, finding the main idea, summarizing, making generalizations and predictions, and drawing inferences and conclusions;
(C)
organize and interpret information from outlines, reports, databases, and visuals, including graphs, charts, timelines, and maps;
(D)
identify points of view from the historical context surrounding an event and the frame of reference which influenced the participants;
(E)
support a point of view on a social studies issue or event;
(H)
use appropriate mathematical skills to interpret social studies information such as maps and graphs;
(J)
pose and answer questions about geographic distributions and patterns shown on maps, graphs, charts, models, and databases.
(30)
Social studies skills. The student communicates in written, oral, and visual forms. The student is expected to
(A) use social studies terminology correctly.
STAAR Grade 8 Social Studies Page 13 of 13 Texas Education Agency
Student Assessment Division
Spring 2011

Michael Linch's picture

The fact that I have a good deal of PBL training and that I am presently taking a year-long PBL course from Texas A&M should be enough to show that I am not anti-PBL per se but I too have done enough of it to know that it does not engage every student and there are far more variables involved than the research I have seen has looked into. Another place to see research on project-based learning is the closely related problem-based learning at http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ijpbl/. This is the site for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem Based Learning. There are many others but when I completed a master's paper it was not my goal to prove anything but to ascertain relevant facts in a short time period about the worthiness of the method. It has merit but I have not found it to live up to the claims that BIE and other proponents make. When anyone has money tied to an outcome then I am skeptical and BIE sells PBL to teachers and schools. I want to answer some of your questions:

But I wonder, is passing that test the only goal that matters for your students? For most of my students passing both the course and the state end-of-course exam matters because they will tell you that they would walk if the law did not force them to attend school with strict guidelines about what courses they must take. I think many of those kids would welcome a master-apprenticeship program that taught only what was needed to become skilled at a specific craft. Oh how often they have told me that we love you Mr. Linch but we don't love math or physics and we won't choose a career that requires this stuff.

Do they see a value for Algebra beyond your classroom? No

Can they apply what they've learned in new contexts? No, and the majority do not seem to care that they cannot.

Will they remember much after they've taken the test? No, when they come back after summer break the geometry teachers feel as though the kids never took Algebra 1.

Do they have a voice in their own learning? No and I am not convinced that most are mature enough to provide input that would actually benefit them especially when they tell me things like (1) we would quit school if parents and government allowed it, (2) we need more games, (3) we need more music, and (4) we need more entertainment.

Don't our students deserve a chance to start developing those important skills now? This question is more complicated than it seems at face value. They deserve what they are willing to work for. My on-level and mostly below level students have made it clear to me in 3 districts in 5 years that most of them do not wish to work hard for that diploma. I pity them because they are establishing habits that will haunt them in the workplace.

Do I believe that STEM PBL (you may want to check out inquiry-based, challenge-based, and problem-based learning too) has a lot to offer? I do. Do I believe it is an easy method to employ? I know better than that. It takes teachers and students a lot of time to adjust. It takes a lot of training and preparation to become proficient which is way beyond familiar. Supplies cost money and so far the schools in which I worked were unwilling to pay.

NCLB is diametrically opposed to PBL. We are test-centered and schedule-driven. In the 3 years that Texas has had STAAR Algebra 1 EOC exams my passing rate has been 98%, 100% (Pre-AP 8th graders), and 95% (on-level 9th graders). Yes, the passing scores are insanely low at 37% of 54 questions. My contract depends not on all the wonderful 21st Century skills I teach but on test data. The two years I taught Pre-algebra to 8th graders I had a 75% pass rate followed by a 57% pass rate that climbed to 83% after the second exam. I was told by a principal in one district that (1) my intelligence was not an asset and (2) the 75-90 hours I spent in my classroom a week was not all that important and (3) that some parents wanted a grade for their children not an education. Those parents almost succeeded in having me relieved of teaching Algebra 1 until one mother put her foot down claiming it was about time her daughter had a teacher that challenged her. I left the district over this. We need a new paradigm but for now the old school is fighting hard to stay on top even though it is a 20th century outdated mode of education.

(1)
Michael Linch's picture

Andrew, I watched 2 videos with great interest. I liked the first about Big Picture Learning schools and I cry inside because that is not the national norm. The leaving to learn video upset me a bit because there was this piece that asserted that kids who did well in the traditional paradigm could not think well. I am one of those kids who did well under that paradigm and most PBL kids will not earn $2 million for any employer and that $2 million blossomed into much more because my projects led to Caterpillar obtaining a 17025 ISO certification which brought in more business. As amazing as this may sound, some kids hate PBL. I have had kids beg for worksheets because they are less work and very familiar. I love your last paragraph about inadequate indicators. Corporate America wants to push its training responsibilities down to the k12 world because that will alleviate a lot of training expense and since it already pays a lot in taxes it would get a better return on the tax dollars. I work 80+ hours a week trying to teach my kids and I do it for $42,500 which is what it pays a 26 year-old who graduated at 21. I am 54 with 30 years of industrial experience and my BS NET has 168 hours at a 3.76 GPA. I dreamed of a classroom with TI Nspires and Navigator, Vernier sensors, motion detectors, digital multimeters, and other technology but it is not going to happen. Sadly, this will be my last year as a teacher because the frustration is great and I do not spend much time with my own family trying to raise achievement levels for my school.

(1)
Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Michael,
Your frustration is both palpable and completely understandable.
For a totally different look at what school might offer students like the ones you describe (who would prefer an apprenticeship over academics), take a look at ACE Leadership Academy in Albuquerque. (http://nationswell.com/new-mexico-network-break-mold-schools/) Their approach may be one piece of the new paradigm you're looking for.

Anne Shaw's picture
Anne Shaw
Director, 21st Century Schools

Suzie, I love the ACE Leadership Academy! Thanks for that wonderful information.

Michael,

I also just remembered a project you may find of interest. It is called the EAST Initiative. Let me share with you how I found out about it:

I was visiting a school district in Arkansas, just across the border from Oklahoma. I was conducting some professional development for the teachers. While there, the high school teachers kept saying that I really needed to see their EAST Lab. I wondered what an EAST Lab could be.

This school district was very small, very rural. The high school population was 350 students.

After the workshop some of the teachers took me to see this lab. Before we entered they said, this room contains a half million dollars worth of software and hardware - state of the art. In fact, they said, architectural firms and hospitals in nearby Fort Smith were envious of the equipment! And, they said, we did not spend one penny to get it!

They obtained the equipment through the EAST Initiative. All that was required was that they provide one classroom space and one, full-time teacher to man the lab. In other words, make it truly accessible to the students at all times.

The teacher manning this lab had no clue as to how to use any of the equipment or software. However, the students learned how to use it on their own and with the help of nothing more than technical manuals and some online support. This was about 10 years ago, and you know how much more advanced the Internet is today.

These students were highly motivated, and were able to teach themselves. They created all kinds of amazing things:

1. A virtual tour of NASA - some of the students had been on a field trip to NASA, where they took pictures. Upon their return they used their photos to create a virtual tour of NASA. Other students could come in and put on the head gear and the gloves and tour NASA!

2. Architecture - students designed a building for the community. Then they created the blueprints and printed them out on their professional printer. The superintendent drove me past the nearly completed building which was under construction.

Wow! Talk about real world curriculum!

3. Art and Photography - the teachers proudly showed me displays of some incredible art some of the students had created using various software programs to modify photos.

These students had won many national awards for their projects!

This initiative is only in 5 states, and not in Texas at this time, but it could be!

http://www.eastinitiative.org/

Here is a very inspiring video about the Star City School District in Arkansas, which is part of the EAST Initiative:

http://www.katv.com/story/27410119/star-city-students-raising-the-bar-fi...

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I also saw this project related to space, which you probably already know about:

http://www.cubesinspace.com/

Michael Linch's picture

Suzie and Anne,

I looked at ACE Leadership Academy, EAST , and the news piece about the Star City School District in Arkansas and I sighed heavily filled overshadowed by that "what might have been" cloud. I once lived in Russellville, Arkansas while working for Entergy Nuclear and I will forever love Arkansas. For me, education is not a passion, it is a rage. When I was a young man in the navy learning to be an electronics technician and nuclear reactor operator I would sit in front of my book shelf and mourn as I thumbed through books on Calculus, Physics, and Nuclear Technology that I purchased in hopes of actually learning the content and going back to college for a degree. I pursued my degree from age 18 until I caught it at age 46 in 2007. I have 7 courses toward a master's degree. I am the very model of a professional student and my father once called me by that term but he meant it in a derogatory way. Last May, my district asked me to certify in Physics because of my nuclear background and because another Physics teacher was sorely needed but the district was determined not to hire anyone new. If I certified in Physics then the master schedule could be juggled so that I could teach Algebra 1 and Conceptual Physics; I have discovered the hard way that to be in 2 departments is to be in no department at all. At my expense in both time and money I not only certified in Physics but also Chemistry and Engineering then I added an ESL supplement to my license (the district paid the ESL test fee not the fee to add it to my license). I had hoped to one day attend PLTW training as well as Lego, Vernier, Kidwind, and Texas Instruments T-cubed and add the gifted-talented supplement to my license. I so love to go to conventions (ASEE anyone?) and workshops but I am mostly told no because there is no money. There is money but I am not in the clique so it won't come to me until the clique gets first grab. I believe the STEM PBL with 21st Century skills (see www.p21.org) and habits of mind will prevail but not without a good old fashioned dog fight with the edu-mob that protects status quo. The Dean of Students at Texas Middle School in Texarkana, Michael Rutherford, once told me I would be teacher of the year one day and I should seek to become a curriculum coach. I simply can no longer hold on to such dreams for an 80+ hour work week at $42,500; I cannot afford to use air conditioning in the summer and we don't heat our home until the temperature drops to about 55 degrees in late fall. I am forever grateful to McDonalds for having a dollar menu so I can buy a tea on occasion. I see jobs posted in my arena that pay $120k up and I do not want to deny my family any longer. All I ask ladies and gentleman of PBL is that when you sell it that you paint the whole picture remembering that for every piece of research you can site that supports PBL I can match with a piece that says the pain is not worth the gain when it comes to ES values and achievement scores. A lot more research is required that spans our schools down to K-level with focus on whether PBL can prevail in a low socio-economic environment where reading skills and vocabulary are as impoverished as wallets. Honestly, we need some sort of academy for teachers of the 21st Century that seeks to tie together skills in teaching through PBL with skills in other facets of our profession such as differentiating instruction (SPED, 504, Gifted), ESL, lesson planning (it is 7E now not 5E), emotional intelligence, leadership, project management, inventory management and organization, course content, technology and much much more. It has been my distinct pleasure to chat with professionals in a civil tone (so many blogs break into utter warfare) and I wish you the best in breaking a paradigm that now imperils our nation.

David Andrade's picture
David Andrade
Educator, EdTech Specialist, Education Administrator

I agree with this article - I use PBL with great success in Physics classes and engineering classes. It allows for differentiation, exploration, critical thinking, scaffolding of knowledge, application of knowledge, teamwork and communication skills.

I was taught Aerospace Engineering in college through PBL - I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute and they were pioneers in PBL back in the 60's. I saw how it led to authentic learning and prepared me for a career as an engineer, and now educator, so I used it and it worked.

Here are some resources I have on PBL:

http://educationaltechnologyguy.blogspot.com/p/project-based-learning.html

http://educationaltechnologyguy.blogspot.com/2011/09/wpi-plan-great-educ...

EmilyLiebtag's picture

We can't do PBL, because we need to focus on literacy skills...

I often hear teachers say they are shying away from using PBL for the reasons listed, but also because they feel this enormous pressure to teach reading. While this is a very real pressure in schools today, teaching literacy skills does not have to be divorced from the rest of day, nor should it deter a teacher from using PBL. Integrating these skills into projects is a very effective way to help create meaning and connections for students. Suzie's post on PBL across different subject areas has great practical examples of how to began thinking about authentic cross-curricular integrations (http://www.edutopia.org/pbl-research-practices-disciplines). Great post!

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