George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Bob Pearlman: Project-Based Learning

April 25, 2002

Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for 21st-century school development. Formerly the director of strategic planning for the New Technology Foundation, now the New Tech Network, and before that, president of the Autodesk Foundation, he speaks and consults in the United States and abroad on 21st-century learning and is a longtime proponent of project-based learning. In this interview, he discusses project-based learning and how schools can better prepare students for the world of work.

1. How would you rate the success of public education in preparing students for the new economy?

Kids are not getting a good education in this country. It's true that they're getting a better education than people got thirty, forty years ago, but they're not getting an education that really prepares them for life in the new economy. [In] my years in California working four years at a company called Autodesk and then working in Silicon Valley for a regional organization that worked with all the major high tech companies -- Cisco, HP, Intel, Sun -- one of the things that we found is that kids were just totally unprepared to work in these environments. Most people think that that's a skill thing - [that] they didn't have the technology skills. It wasn't true.

What they were unprepared for is they did not have the behaviors appropriate to working in these settings. Nobody cared whether they had a high degree or not. Nobody asks you whether you went to Harvard or wherever you went. Instead, what you find in these environments is that it's a very classless environment where the question is: Can you do the work? And can you behave in the group? Are you a good person to work with? Are you fun to be around? When you get in a meeting do you know how to listen, as well as articulate a solution or an option that the group can follow?

Kids do not learn these things in our schools today because the schooling experience is too limited, it's not real world enough, it's not connected to adults, they're disconnected from all sorts of realities. And unless we extend education and extend the experience and improve -- basically reinvent -- the experience for our kids in schools, they're not going to be well-prepared at all.

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2. You are a proponent of project-based learning as a way to connect students with life beyond school. Please describe a good example of project-based learning.

Here in Marin County, where we actually promoted through the Autodesk Foundation a tremendous number of projects, there was an outstanding project that really birthed a lot of other projects, in the whole region and in the country, and that was in the early, mid-90s -- the fresh-water shrimp project. And this was a project that fourth graders [worked on] at Brookside School in San Anselmo, California, in which two classes worked together to save the California fresh-water shrimp.

The problem was that up in [the] West Marin area, a great cattle region, the cattle were destroying the creek beds -- small creek beds that were the home of this unique California fresh-water shrimp. They did this by just walking through the creeks, pushing dirt down, destroying the water, and the problem was: How do you get them to stop doing that? When you spoke to the cattle ranchers, on whose land these creeks existed, they didn't want to do anything about it because they thought it would be as expensive as anything to put up fencing to keep the cattle from going there. So the kids actually worked with the ranchers -- a human relations kind of situation where they had to take into account the cattle ranchers' interests, not just berate them morally, but they had to see: How do we get them to work together with us?

So the solution -- and it took a long time to execute the solution -- was for the kids to raise money and be able to finance the planting of shrubbery along the creek beds, and also cattle bridges so the cattle could cross the creek. This was done with farmers throughout the region. It took several years to do this -- the kids testified in the U.S. Congress about this problem, tremendous publicity ensued for this species [that risked] becoming extinct, and as a result they were able to save the California fresh-water shrimp.

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3. How does the teaching of writing in schools differ from the experience of writing in the world of work?

Writing is still the most important form of communication. Too often in schools that's just an individual exercise. What really brings writing to life is, of course, having an audience, and collaboration with another person can enhance your writing.

There's nobody really in the adult world that really writes alone all that much. Usually it's done in collaboration or there are editorial teams or you write and present and you rewrite. It's just not the way it is done in schools. And, of course, when you have a chance actually to do a project where you can do much more than write, having a team makes an enormous difference, and people taking on different roles and working on things and having people you can bounce things off and being part of a planning team is a very significant experience for anybody.

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4. Please describe the work at “technology high schools” such as New Technology High School in Napa, California.

There are many schools across the country, across California, that are technology high schools, or [what] some of us might call "technoid" high schools, in which technology makes no difference in the learning. [In these settings] it just supports the old kind of learning.

At a place like New Technology High School, what is really going on is kids are doing projects and they have a requirement to present their projects. In order to present them effectively to a group they've got to make a video, they've got to make a Web site, they've got to do some way that tells a story of what they've learned and what it means. And so they are using technology in a profound way to both develop their projects, their products, and to exhibit them to their local audiences. And in their case every kid at school has a publicly published digital portfolio for the entire time of their career so wherever they are at any point in time, what they're about is on their Web site publicly and anybody can see what they are doing. So they are exhibiting their work and then communicating, and this is something not going on with [many] other kids.

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5. What role can parents play in promoting project-based learning in schools?

People are going to have to learn about it, see it, hear it, feel it, and to get the concept in their minds. And once they do, and once we get to a period where people are able to say, "How come that kid is so articulate and productive and my kid isn't?" When you start hearing parents talk that way and then they say, "But it's because of what happens in their school and because of what they're asked to do in their school and what they're given the opportunity to do in their school that their experience is not good enough and rich enough," then you'll get the parental demand that will really drive all this.

Right now [some] parents don't fully understand it, although lots do. Anybody who knows anything has a friend somewhere who says, "I want that for my kid. I want a more experiential learning environment for my kid. I want them doing more stuff. I don't want them just sitting there." You'll start to see that happen. It won't happen universally, but it will happen more and more.

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6. What effects do good school-to-career programs have on student learning?

In Boston, where I came from before I went to California, it actually has the best school-to-career programs in the country. These programs have actually demonstrated tremendous longitudinal success where you do have these studies, [that demonstrate] very clearly, much higher college-going rates, much higher college retention rates, great indicators of post-secondary success.

Interestingly enough, no study has yet shown better high school test scores, but the Boston studies have shown higher grade point averages and, of course, attendance goes through the roof and dropout rates are decreased. So the findings are very significant, and I mention that because these have yet to really drive policy across the United States and this is another example where good educators and then, in this case, good business people working together have really discovered a new element of a high school experience. I'm not saying [this] has to be for everybody kid in America but most kids in America would benefit from them. At least kids ought to have the option to have these kinds of deep experiences.

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