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Does Project-Based Learning Lead to Higher Student Achievement?: Understanding the Benefits of PBL

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
Related Tags: Education Trends, All Grades
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The Edutopia Web site regularly publishes examples of innovative teachers who use project-based learning (PBL). From Eeva Reeder's high school geometry class to Newsome Park's project-dominated approach, we know that more and more educators are using projects to engage and challenge students, integrate curricular areas, and promote higher-order thinking skills.

PBL Lead to Higher Achievement

Every PBL proponent says it's a better way to teach and learn. Teachers and students say they wouldn't go back to the old way of doing things. So, why aren't more people doing it? What I most often hear is that there isn't time because students need to be taught so much material for high-stakes tests. This rationale implies that people view PBL as "extension units" -- simply fun, hands-on activities. If that's what you think, you're not thinking twenty-first-century PBL.

The teachers I know who truly understand how to do PBL design projects (and accompanying assessments) do so with curricular standards in mind. They include students in development of project ideas that are real and important to the kids. They focus on an "essential" or "critical" question that guides the PBL-investigation process. They think about assessment at the beginning and decide on project deliverables that allow for multiple forms of assessment. All this good planning and thinking leads to students who are well-prepared for tests. (The assessment issue is an interesting one, and I'll muse more on that in a future posting.)

Here's the challenge I put out to you great teachers who believe in the PBL approach and who believe you do it well. Whether it's right or wrong, in order for PBL to be more prevalent in our education system, we need the evidence that everyone is asking for: that PBL is correlated with higher test scores. If you're teaching primarily through a PBL approach, tell us what you do, how you do it, and how you know PBL met the mark with the whole testing-conundrum issue.

If you're new to PBL and want to know why so many of us put our eggs in the PBL basket, visit Place-Based Learning MEASURES Up: Tips on Local Learning on the what, why, and how of project-based learning. You should also consider these other great resources: the Buck Institute for Education's Project Based Learning Handbook and The Online Resource for PBL.

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Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

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Edutopia Team

Thanks to B. Smoot and Judi Carmona for bringing up career and technical education. What a wonderful word "vocation" is. What a wonderful thing to find work that excites and engages you! Vocation = your calling. I believe that we owe it to all students to show them a range of occupations, and honor their choices if they've found their "calling" while still in high school. That's what vocational education can do--speak to the interests that drive you to succeed.

Also, we all agree that vocational education should NEVER track kids into jobs because certain kids are deemed "not college material." (You'll see from other posts in the Spiral Notebook blog that at-risk kids do well when they are held to high standards, supported by caring adults, and given the "right" kind of education -- one that is infused with problem-based/project-based curricula. Be sure to check out Ron Smith's posts.)

However, in a knowledge-based economy, it's my belief that career and technical educators need to prepare their students for some sort of post-secondary education. Having just a high school diploma is not going to cut it anymore. The Knowledge/Information Age (the Digital Age) is transforming every aspect of our lives -- including how we work. Even in the traditional "trades," like auto mechanics, keeping up with new technologies, and new processes and procedures, is the new order of business. It's critical that students realize that learning never ends. Our goal, then, is to help students learn how to learn since they will need to continually upgrade their skills for whatever career(s) they choose.

So...shouldn't we offer all high schoolers the opportunities to explore careers; shouldn't we allow all kids to learn academics in the context of career-based projects? Career and technical education does not narrow options for students; it's a great way to reinvent high schools -- to relate academics to the world outside of high school (including the world of work). Those of us interested in career academies and other learning communities that relate academics to the real world have been talking about the new three-R's for some time: Rigor, Relevancy, and Relationships. Betsy Brand, Director of the American Youth Policy Forum, has a great article that will explain more clearly than I can do in this post. Read "Reforming High Schools: The Role for Career Academies."

Also, read these articles and watch the accompanying videos on the site to see best practices:

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