Apr 292011

Project-Based Learning Made Easy

By Bob Lenz


“Project-based learning is great but it is too hard for teachers to do well.” I have heard this belief stated more times than I can count. Is PBL really so difficult that only a select number of masterful teachers, innovative schools, and dynamic school leaders can pull off high quality projects? I don’t think so.

In the service of inspiring educators to embrace a performance-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment by highlighting great projects, I am worried that we actually dissuade teachers and leaders from using this approach. As learners we need to be presented with challenging yet attainable tasks in order to gain our full engagement. A bar set too low is boring and a bar set too high is daunting — why even start on this task if I will fail?

To dramatically increase the number of students and teachers engaging in project-based learning and performance assessment we need to highlight examples that are attainable. Rather than ask teachers to become master designers of curriculum, we should encourage teachers to tweak, or adapt, their current work to give it a more performance-based flavor. Here are a few examples from Envision Schools using a few of our design principles for instruction:

Academic Rigor — Ask a Question

In addition to mapping from state content standards, we use inquiry as driver for almost all projects, units and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid lab unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” She can teach the content as she always has but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong but many will. Most importantly, the students will own the content because they applied it.

Balanced Assessment — Write an Essay with a Rubric

Like most tenth graders in the country, Envision Schools’ students read To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike most tenth graders, their assessment of learning will include more than a test to measure their mastery of the facts about the novel. Our students are asked to write a multi-page textual analysis that requires the students to think critically about the novel by analyzing text, making inferences, and drawing conclusions. The student’s papers are assessed using a common textual analysis rubric that is shared by all English Language Arts teachers. Of course, this takes more time for both the learner and the teacher but the addition of an essay that requires critical thinking is not a huge instructional challenge for teachers.

Active Exploration and Adult Connections — Conduct an Interview

Envision students are required to write a proficient college-ready research paper to graduate. This could be completely an academic affair but with a small twist — students will be more engaged and learn important college and career skills. In a US History class, the teacher asked the students to interview an adult — not at the school — who was alive during the historical period or is recognized as a content expert, such as a college professor.

In addition to learning the research process and the history content, students learn how to locate a resource and set up and conduct and interview. We have seen the attention to detail and quality rise significantly with this approach — the students want their resource to be impressed by their paper.

Making a classroom more performance based can be as simple as asking a question, writing an essay, and conducting an interview. I don’t think that is too hard and the payoff will be significant for the learners and the teacher.

Related Resources

A great place to start!

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