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As Project-Based Learning Gains in Popularity, Experts Offer Caution

Looking to engage a child with ADHD? To take a new approach to high school in an urban school district? To reinvigorate community college?

For more schools and districts, the answer has been project-based learning, or PBL. It's one of a number of student-led approaches to education, including Montessorimaker spaces, and Expeditionary Learning, that seem to be becoming more common in public schools. But experts say that educators need to take steps to make sure that the approach is more than just a fad.  

One group focused on the quality of project-based learning is the Buck Institute for Education, a California-based nonprofit. The Buck Institute's growth attests to the popularity of project-based learning: The group trained 500 educators in project-based learning in 2010; in 2016, it trained 15,000. It has established partnerships with 25 school districts over the same time span. 

The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as "a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge."

But John Larmer, the Buck Institute's editor-in-chief, said that in some schools, project-based learning is introduced without the necessary supports or understanding.

Too often, Larmer says, educators confuse what he refers to as "dessert projects" with the complex, problem-based, student-led tasks the Buck Institute is referring to when it talks about project-based learning. In the Buck Institute's definition, the project is the main vehicle for learning, not an add-on. Larmer uses an elementary history lesson about missions in California as an example. The dessert project might be a diorama of the mission built after students have already learned about the topic; a project-based learning style unit would kick off with students being asked to determine where to locate a new mission, and, in the process of answering that question, learning about the history and context of missions in the state. 

Larmer has also blogged about the "perils of PBL's popularity." In that post, he notes an increase in offerings of instructional materials that claim to be project-based but don't quite fit the bill; the difficulties teachers face in finding the time to learn about project-based learning and create rigorous projects while also trying to meet accountability targets and work within existing schedules; and the fact that some schools use project-based learning only with the strongest or the weakest students.

In a recent Education Week webinar, Larmer, Andre Daughty, and Eric Wycoff—teachers who also lead trainings for other educators on project-based learning—discussed strategies for effective project-based learning. 

The Buck Institute has developed a set of "gold standard" guidelines for PBL to help address some of those concerns. Larmer said that project-based learning is "not just another way to cover standards;" it's an altogether different philosophy about teaching and learning. 

Daughty and Wycoff both described how they were able to use projects with elementary and high school students to cover content. Daughty, for instance, helped introduce project-based learning in an urban school where students did not have recess. The third graders were tasked with answering the question "What Makes a Great Story?," and used an app called Stop Motion to create videos. (You can see their presentations and projects, along with some resources for creating and assessing projects, here.)

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about project-based learning. A 2008 review of research on the topic from ASCD noted that teachers must possess a deep knowledge of their content and be able to model problem-solving strategies for students in order for the approach to be effective. This summer, the Seattle Times featured an op-ed from a student who felt that project-based learning had not prepared his classmates for college, where they were expected to work independently. In 2014, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a defense of the lecture as a means of modeling problem-solving to young people. And in the Education Week webinar, many teachers were enthusiastic but concerned that they would not be able to implement the Buck Institute's vision for "gold standard" project-based learning given time constraints and other expectations in their schools.

Larmer's hope is that with guidelines and training in place, project-based learning will be more than a fad. Whether or not that's the case, many students and teachers will soon be learning more about its merits and challenges: A Google search on July 22 turned up nearly 20,000 news stories, including at least a half dozen from this past week, about schools with project-based learning. 


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