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Project-Based Learning is Great, But Students Still Need to Learn Something

Three ways that teachers manage to do both successfully

January 6, 2022
students doing group work

After studying hundreds of teachers from around the world who were using project-based learning (PBL) in their classrooms, Zachary Herrmann, executive director of the Center for Professional Learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, including this important insight: Students love working on projects and get excited about their work, but excitement alone isn’t enough. As he points out in his new book, Core Practices for Project-Based Learning, written with his Penn colleagues and published by Harvard Education Press, “If students are engaged but not learning something meaningful, PBL has failed in its mission.”

The hurdle for many teachers is finding a way to make project-based learning do both.

“The truth is that our subjects are full of compelling problems and perplexing puzzles. Unfortunately, as teachers, we sometimes reduce our subjects down to facts and figures to be memorized, rather than authentic problems to be explored,” says Herrmann, a graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education's Doctor of Education Leadership Program. “Rich examples of project-based learning find ways to tap into the big questions of our subjects in ways that are compelling and meaningful to our students, as well as the disciplines.”

For many teachers, making project-based learning successful can feel “overwhelming and intimidating,” Herrmann and his colleagues write, but it can be done — and done well. Here are three things that teachers they studied who did it well, generally did:

1. They elicited higher-order thinking. 
Accomplished teachers who use project-based learning in their classrooms didn’t just break students into groups and then send them off to work on their own. These teachers circulated the classroom as students worked, asking questions that got students to analyze what they were working on. 

“We engage in higher-order thinking in response to something — a question, problem, or challenge,” says Herrmann. “Therefore, teachers need to make sure that there is a compelling problem driving the project, one that actually requires higher-order thought. But the project design isn’t enough on its own. Teachers must constantly support students to think more deeply through the questions they ask.” This can include asking questions like, “Why do you think that?” “Do you think it always works that way?” “ Tell us more,” or simply, “Why?”

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“Rich examples of project-based learning find ways to tap into the big questions of our subjects in ways that are compelling and meaningful to our students, as well as the disciplines.”

2. They oriented students to subject-area content.
Even while students were actively engaging in their projects and learning valuable skills in the process, like how to work with others and persevere through challenges, these teachers kept bringing the core learning for that subject — the key concepts and the big ideas — back to the center of students’ attention.

“We often talk with teachers who are concerned that if they release control and let kids’ ideas be the engines that drive instruction, they’ll struggle to keep the big ideas in the subject area at the center of their students’ attention,” says Sarah Schneider Kavanagh, an assistant professor at Penn and one of the authors of Core Practices for Project-Based Learning. “For example, one of the English teachers that we worked with complained that whenever she led discussions in her English class, the kids would leave the text behind whenever they got really engaged and excited. They’d start talking about interesting ideas, but they’d veer away from the text itself. For her, learning how to keep orienting her students to the text in the ways that she asked questions and the ways that she prompted students to respond to one another was a big shift.”

3. They engaged students in disciplinary practices. 
The accomplished PBL teachers didn’t ask students to simply memorize facts, but to actually think and act like the professionals and scientists in the fields they were studying.

As Schneider Kavanagh says, “One of the teachers that we worked with transformed a project which had previously focused on researching what scientists in her area had done to solve local environmental problems related to waterways. She transformed the project so that her students were doing what scientists do rather than just learning about what scientists have done in the past: She had them develop testable questions related to local waterways and then she had them design and conduct experiments that would help them answer those questions. Finally, she had them communicate their findings to representatives of local environmental agencies and community groups. She realized that that best way to learn science was to engage in science rather than watching it from a distance.”

What Exactly Is Project-Based Learning?

According to the authors, project-based learning isn’t new — the ideas date back to the progressive era — but this approach to learning is having a moment, in part because project-based learning matches well to 21st-century learning goals around collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. And while project-based learning doesn’t have one exact definition, Herrmann and his co-authors say it “includes identifying a project or problem that students work on (often with peers), engaging in sustained inquiry, getting feedback and critique that supports revision, sharing the work with a wider audience, and then reflecting on the learning that happened across the whole process. Although practitioners and scholars may conceptualize these elements in somewhat different ways, all of them incorporate most of these components in their project-based practice.”

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