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Effective Project-Based Learning: Teacher Training Matters

By Monica Fuglei January 6, 2016

Effective Project Based Learning

Two years ago, my son’s class walked through the halls of their school after being asked to identify issues that needed to be addressed. Ultimately, they decided to add recycling bins to their hallways. Students researched school policy as well as cost projections and wrote a compelling argument they presented to school administration.

Class project: Add recycling bins to school hallways

This activity allowed students to practice research, argumentation, rhetoric and presentation. Rather than hearing about these valuable skills through a lecture, they acquired them through a process of identifying needs and gaps and tackling an important project head-on. They had engaged in project-based learning.

Project-based learning is driven by student engagement and desire

Project-based learning, or PBL, has become a new educational buzzword and a hot topic in many teachers’ professional development sessions. Educators and administrators are excited about a learning environment where students are engaged and active, eschewing the old lecture-based model for a new system where student desire informs the direction of learning. Because student passion and involvement is a key component of effective learning as it encourages the transfer of content information to student memory and practice, PBL is quite alluring.

Project-based learning supporters and critics respond to ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ documentary

The 2015 documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” told the story of High Tech High, a San Diego school with a student-focused learning environment that emphasizes project-based learning. The film inspired commentary on PBL from both supporters and critics.

David Brooks: Does project-based learning ask students to run before they can walk?

In his response to “Most Likely To Succeed,” columnist David Brooks agreed with the film’s premise that the traditional method of rote learning in U.S. schools is outdated. “Its main activity is downloading content into students’ minds, with success or failure measured by standardized tests,” he wrote.

However, Brooks questioned whether High Tech High’s emphasis on what he called “life skills” means that the curriculum lacks intellectual rigor. Brooks believes that project-based learning can skip over one or more of these steps:

  • Learning facts and core knowledge
  • Linking facts together to identify patterns
  • “Mental reformation,” such as learning to think like a scientist
  • Practicing that knowledge for years, which results in wisdom

Brooks reminded readers that content must be learned before can it be manipulated and challenged, writing, “The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.”

Raymond and Lenz: Brooks ‘misunderstands’ project-based learning

Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, and Jonathan Raymond, president of the Stuart Foundation, authored a response to Brooks’s criticism of the film. They pointed out that project-based learning does, in fact, require the “stairway” sequence Brooks describes. Lenz and Raymond argue that PBL”is about learning and mastering key content knowledge, demonstrating and applying both academic knowledge and cognitive skills, and building the capacity to transfer learning to new and different challenges.”

Project-based learning engages students in these competencies more deeply by involving them in projects about which they are passionate. The idea is that yes, students will acquire and then test facts, changing them into knowledge and ultimately transferring that knowledge into life, but will do so in a way that engages them. This engagement has significant payoff.

Teachers need professional development on project-based learning to implement it correctly

As PBL training and implementation expands into a variety of professional development workshops, it’s important to remember what makes this system successful. Teacher PD on project-based learning is ineffective, writes psychologist and PBL consultant Thom Markham, if teachers leave “the training believing that the underlying goal is to cover standards by cleverly posing a problem for students that teachers can already answer.”

While there is often a tendency to want to mark off achieved course competencies, one of the best ways to engage learners with a project-based approach is to allow them to find projects that matter and allow them to develop and explore those projects naturally. Markham says that design should focus on creating driving questions that encourage inquiry and exploration.

High-quality driving questions help students identify the knowledge they need

Well-designed driving questions guide students toward the knowledge they need to have without dictating their approach. They also force students to combine skills and content as they seek solutions. This allows for a natural understanding of need on the student’s part and, when students see their own knowledge and skill gaps, makes transfer of content and skills significantly more likely.

Project-based learning is not problem-based learning

Project-based learning should also not be confused with problem-based learning, which asks students to apply the content they already know to answer a rather limited and defined question or problem through application. Project-based learning, on the other hand, is designed not just to offload content to students but, as Markham has noted, to “help young people become open, curious adults.”

Correctly applied project-based learning deepens students’ engagement and knowledge

Brooks and other project-based learning critics raise significant points about ill-conceived project-based learning. These deficits can be prevented through solid PBL teacher training. With high-quality application of project-based learning, students are able to understand their gaps and find their own way to knowledge with the solid coaching of their teachers.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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