"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry." ~Albert Einstein
Mark Twain once famously quipped, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education," Twain, a 5th-grade dropout, did not find much value in the things he learned at school, choosing instead to work at the age of twelve by becoming a printer's apprentice. Eventually, he would begin to contribute sketches and stories to the paper he worked at, cultivating his craft through the real-world application of his talents. Albert Einstein didn't care for formal schooling either. He wrote, "education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." Einstein, who was slow to develop verbal communication, was expelled from school at sixteen for unruly behavior. While Einstein disliked the rigidity of formal education, he had an insatiable curiosity about the natural world around him. He spent countless hours lost in thought, conducting physics experiments in his mind. While both men were poor students in the context of formal education, they eventually excelled in their respective fields despite school, not because of it. Unfortunately, Twain and Einstein were not outliers. A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students found that by high school, six in ten students reported that they were disengaged from school. Further, a 2004 Gallup survey asked students to select three words from a list of 14 adjectives to describe how they felt about school. Over half of the respondents chose the word "bored," followed by "tired," at 42%. (Jason, 2017). Perhaps if schools were to augment traditional teaching methods with authentic, "hands-on" learning experiences that piqued students' interests, students, even reluctant learners, would be inspired to find joy, purpose, and meaning in their learning, leading to greater student engagement.
John Dewey, one of the preeminent educational philosophers of the 20th century, believed that children learn best when actively engaged in the learning process through hands-on learning activities. Dewey outlined this idea in his seminal work, Education and Experience (1938). He wrote, "there is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education." Along with other educational theorists such as David Kolb, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, the approach known as experiential learning was born. Experiential learning is the acquisition of knowledge in which students "learn-by-doing" by engaging them in "hands-on" learning experiences and reflection. There are many different types of experiential learning approaches, such as research projects, role-playing, interactive classroom games, science experiments, mock trials, and PBL. PBL is a form of experiential learning because "The core idea of Project Based Learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience" (David, 2008: 80).
The research demonstrating that PBL is an effective teaching strategy to raise student achievement for all students is convincing, but a closer look at a few recent studies to make the point is in order. For example, a study of PBL published by Lucas Education Research (2021) has been shown to increase social studies and literacy achievement for 2nd graders compared to a control group. The study comprised 684 racially diverse, low-performing students in a school district in the Midwest, where 65% of the student population qualified for free and reduced lunch. The experimental group received four PBL units of instruction that covered all social studies standards and some literacy standards while at the same time addressing real-world, relevant issues. The control group received traditional social studies instruction as they usually would. Data analysis revealed that PBL instruction resulted in higher growth in social studies and informational reading than in the control group. The researchers pointed out that "Despite being tested under challenging conditions, a project-based approach as enacted in this study, with PD supports, had some positive effects on a low-SES majority-minority sample of second graders' development in social studies and literacy" (Duke et al., 2021).
PBL is not only effective in social studies but can increase science achievement as well. For example, researchers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University studied 2,371 3rd grade students in 46 schools across Michigan, including urban, suburban, and rural areas. The study's results showed that students that engaged in the PBL curriculum outperformed their non-PBL peers by eight percentage points on a state standardized science assessment (Krajcik et al., 2021). Even more promising is the fact that the results of the study remained consistent even when accounting for differences in initial reading levels, gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. In other words, PBL has increased student achievement for diverse learners of differing backgrounds and achievement levels.
PBL has been shown to increase high school Advanced Placement scores as well. A randomized study by researchers from the University of Southern California sought to determine the impact of PBL on Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and Environmental Science courses. The two-year study examined five predominantly urban school districts across the country serving primarily lower SES, African American, and Hispanic students. The researchers examined the AP exam scores of students who had received PBL instruction and those that did not. The study revealed that students who received PBL instruction were eight percentage points more likely to receive a three or higher on the AP U.S. Government or AP Environmental Science Test than students who did not receive the PBL instruction (Saavedra et al., 2021). In addition to validating the efficacy of PBL in teaching the AP curriculum, the research strongly suggests that PBL is an appropriate strategy for preparing diverse students for other high-stakes end-of-the-year assessments.
As the previously mentioned studies have shown, PBL is an excellent way to raise academic achievement for all students, in other words it is a pedagogy of equity.
Unfortunately, it is well documented that our most vulnerable learners often find themselves trapped in schools characterized by large class sizes, lack of resources, and diluted curricula, taught by well-intentioned but inexperienced teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1998). A recent report published by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), titled The Opportunity Myth, details why our most vulnerable students need high-quality instructional opportunities like PBL. The report points out that many students of color, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English language learners, spent more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that were not grade-appropriate or cognitively challenging, the equivalent of six months of instructional time lost in each of the core subjects (TNTP, 2018). Some argue that because many of these students require remediation in core knowledge and skills to perform at grade level, it is appropriate for educators to implement rigid "drill and practice" approaches rather than hands-on experiential learning. As former U.S. Secretary of Education John King pointed out:
"Sometimes folks look at low-income students, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and say to themselves, 'Because they are behind in some way academically, I'm going to make a very drill-focused, sort of minimalist curriculum.' And that is exactly backward. The way that we're going to accelerate the students who most need support is through rigorous, engaging learning experiences like project-based learning when it's done well."
All students, regardless of zip code, must be afforded the opportunity to engage in rigorous learning opportunities, such as PBL, that will provide them with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to help them achieve their goals. But like John King pointed out, for PBL to be effective, it must be done right.
One of the critical design features of PBL is intentionality. This means that every aspect of the project must be created before its launch. And while observation of a PBL classroom may look chaotic and haphazard, good PBL results from significant planning and reflection. For example, high-quality PBL begins with an essential question that drives the project. The question is discipline driven and addresses a real-world problem or challenge based on student interests. The project must be meticulously planned, from the attention-grabbing activity (anticipatory set) to the final community presentation. Good PBL follows a predetermined schedule of activities. This includes a multitude of student checkpoints so that the teacher can effectively monitor student learning and remediate students who may be having challenges.
Additionally, teachers must plan formative and summative assessments of student learning aligned with standards and objectives. They must also provide students opportunities for self-reflection. Beyond the nuts and bolts of planning, implementing PBL requires a significant change in teachers' perceptions of their role in the classroom. This is because Teaching in a PBL context is a significant paradigm shift from what most teachers are used to doing. In traditional teacher-centered classrooms, the teacher's role is usually that of "sage on the stage." In this model, the teacher bears most of the cognitive load as they disseminate their knowledge to students through direct instructional approaches such as lectures, demonstrations, and textbook reading assignments. In this learning environment, students are seen as empty vessels that need to be filled up with the teacher's knowledge. As a result, these classrooms are usually marked by compliance, student disengagement, and passivity due to boredom, apathy, and a lack of real-world relevance. In the PBL classroom, however, teachers become the "guide on the side." This means that teachers serve as mentors to students, supporting them when they need it and independence when they don't. The wonderful thing about teaching in this way is that there is more class time for teachers to give students individual attention, resulting in opportunities to build meaningful relationships and student connections. It is through these relationships that PBL derives its power.
Thanks for reading! In case you are interested here is the link to my article An Introduction to Project-Based Learning Part 1
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