ASCD’s always excellent magazine Educational Leadership, hits another home run with this month’s issue (Feb 2008). The overarching theme, Teaching Students to Think is supported by a dozen articles from a wide range of perspectives – teaching, classroom practice, assessment, content areas, and more.
One article of particular interest to tech-loving educators is Jane David’s What Research Says About Project-Based Learning. Educators often find that technology supports project-based learning, and vice versa. So finding research that supports project-based learning and outlines successful practice is one more tool in the toolkit of technology-using educators.
This article is a terrific, easy-to-read introduction to project-based learning and clear, quick summaries of relevant research. Many people believe that project-based learning is “good”, but something akin to magic. Articles like this can dispel some of these myths and help define what project-based learning might look like in real life. Some conclusions:
- Some studies measure project-based learning impact on student achievement. Not surprisingly, it’s not as simple as test scores. Some studies found simple test score increases across the board or in different populations, but some didn’t. But improvements were seen in more complex assessments – attitudes towards learning, problem-solving, and planning ability. (Do you hear 21st century skills here?)
- The wide variety of project-based learning experiences make a single research conclusion hard to find. However, this same variety meant that project-based learning is adaptable to many classrooms.
- Some studies focus on the challenges of project-based learning–outlining the obstacles created by short class periods, mandated curriculum, lack of teacher planning time, and narrow focus on multiple choice tests. There are some terrific nuggets of information here about what commitments a school needs to make to create a serious project-based learning environment. It’s not something you just do every other Tuesday.
These studies suggest that project-based learning, when fully realized, can improve student learning. However, the research also underscores how difficult it is to implement project-based learning well. Together these findings suggest caution in embracing this practice unless the conditions for success are in place, including strong school support, access to well-developed projects, and a collaborative culture for teachers and students.
Yet, teachers can use the key ideas underlying project-based learning in some measure in any classroom. Using real-life problems to motivate students, challenging them to think deeply about meaningful content, and enabling them to work collaboratively are practices that yield benefits for all students.
I’d like to add that students themselves can be part of the solution that makes project-based learning possible in schools. Students can learn to be mentors in their own classrooms, leveraging the teacher’s ability to assist more students and overcome logistical obstacles. Student ownership of the project and encouraging a collaborative environment increases the likelihood of success. By including students in the planning and implementation of project-based learning, you gain student perspective and an opportunity to teach students valuable skills. They learn how to advocate for their ideas, plan, troubleshoot, and work in a group. When technology is involved, students can become experts in the technology too, and help mentor fellow students which further supports the collaborative process.
Our TechYES model of student technology literacy certification is built on this kind of research and practical experience. Student peer mentors can make project-based learning possible in situations where the obstacles might otherwise be too high. We believe that technology literacy and project-based learning are inseparable from 21st century skills. It’s too important to write project-based learning off as a “nice to have.”
Hopefully this article finds its way into administrator inboxes world-wide.