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?”