Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Louis Gomez: Project-Based Learning

October 1, 2001

Louis M. Gomez, associate professor of learning science and computer science at Northwestern University, discusses project-based learning.

1. Why is project-based learning important?

I think there are lots of important elements to projects. But maybe, for me, the most important is that the project activity gets learners to think about themselves differently. So if you do a really thorough, in-depth social studies project or literature project that forces you to confront the original text, it allows you to think about yourself as an investigator, as a writer, and perhaps, because of the progress you make, you get to see yourself in a light that you've never seen yourself in before. It challenges you to see yourself differently.

I mean, there are lots of other reasons that projects are important. You get to learn new skills, you perhaps get to talk to people you wouldn't have talked to before. But for me, the key element is that you learn about yourself and get to see yourself in a way that you didn't see yourself before that activity and I think that's really, really powerful for young people.

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2. What impact does project-based learning have on student achievement?

People often ask, what's the evidence that this kind of learning improves achievement? And I think the evidence is mixed. Though I do believe there is a growing body of evidence that shows that children engaged in what people typically think of as project-based learning achieve better, where better can be in the form of standardized tests, where better can be [that] you see products of work that are more complex, more in-depth than you would typically expect. And I guess I think the latter of these is probably the more powerful kind of evidence.

And there's also a growing body of data that suggests -- and this is perhaps equally important -- that when children find themselves in so-called project-based environments, they find themselves in environments where teachers ask a lot of them. And there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that when you ask a lot of children, they try their best to deliver. And when they try their best to deliver, they achieve more.

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3. Why is it important for children to have an audience for their work?

When you figure out a way to give anyone, especially youngsters, an audience for their work, they pay more attention to their work. And the audience can be their peers. The audience can be people beyond the school. We collected data here recently that show when children are asked to do work for outside others in the community, they take this work very, very seriously. They have skills in modeling. They have skills in Web site design that they know other people will use. It leads to really detailed time on task for this work.

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4. How does project-based learning connect with life beyond school?

I think lots of people make the claim that project-based learning has workforce relevance. And it does, but I think more fundamentally this style of learning has life relevance, it has workforce relevance, it has citizenship relevance, it has family relevance. It's about learning in ways that people live. And I think that it's relevant to all the ways in which people are productive citizens and then productive workers. And certainly it has workforce relevance.

But the primary reason to do this kind of learning isn't simply because in ten or fifteen or five years you'll be a productive worker. The reason to do it is you think of yourself as a productive person when you do it.

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5. Why is project-based learning perceived to engage a broader range of students than more traditional forms of learning?

A lot of people argue -- and we have seen in some of our work -- that students traditionally thought of as not being able to "get it done" do very well in project-based settings. And I think that at least part of the reason for this is that in these settings, there are lots of different ways to show what you know. While it's important to be able to show what you know based on what you remember, sometimes it's important to be able to show what you know based on what you learned outside of school and finding ways to make it relevant to what's going on inside of school. So I think the reason people report this is really quite simple. Project-based learning environments are multifaceted and varied and it gives you lots of different opportunities to demonstrate competence.

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