When reflecting on PBL I always think of Chris Lehmann‘s now classic talk “The Schools We Need” that he presented at Ignite Philly 2008. In that talk he paints the picture of schools that are, among other things, heavily project-based. He’s got a great hierarchy that illustrates the need for what he calls an “understanding driven” system. We used to put tests at the top of this pyramid but he suggests that place be reserved for projects. And I agree with him.
I’ve got three main reasons for buying into this idea that project based learning should be the ultimate assessment.
#1 We teach kids not content
Chris mentions this in his talk. This is the core reason why PBL works so well. Students are more engaged when there is something real on the line (authentic assessment) or at least when there is the illusion of something real (mock trial for example). Because we are humans it’s in our nature to work on teams with a common goal. We are simply wired to be drawn to projects, goals, tasks. This is of course, why the opposite is true for memorizing facts. Of course, there is a place for facts. It’s a little tough in a debate about world hunger to have to stop and Google a simple fact about international food supply, etc. It would kill the argument. But overall humans like to completely engage in something like a project. And we are teaching humans, remember!
#2 PBL Forces Teacher Collaboration
This one may seem a little out of left field but I feel this hidden power behind PBL is worth mentioning. This may be true to some extent with any new initiative in a school, but PBL really does make teachers collaborate in new ways. If your high school, for example, makes a move towards PBL this would mean that your teachers who may have previously worked more in isolation would be forced to collaborate more. This happens because in true PBL work there is quite a bit of cross curricular work to be done. In extreme cases where a school goes all in with PBL this means teachers have no choice but to work together on what becomes total cross-curricular projects. For example I know that ISB Beijing is experimenting with PBL using a school-within-a-school concept. They have completely adjusted the schedule, allowing time special project time on certain days of the week. Any kind of PBL that is operating at that level must bring teachers together. In another case in Danville, KY 40% of the teachers have left the district since they started PBL. This sounds extreme, but what it means is that those who remain will be stronger collaborators. Those people who believe in the direction the district is taking remain and will carry things forward as a stronger team.
#3 It Fosters Individualized Learning
With PBL there are always roles and responsibilities. When every student does not have the exact same role, that lets students shine in the area where they are more specialized. For example, when a group chooses some form of multimedia to present their findings, there are likely going to be students who excel at certain elements. Someone in the group will be able to see the bigger picture, getting students to focus on the right part of the project. Someone else may be a whiz at the video editing piece. The resident artist or writer will have their place. This will allow students to individualize their learning, taking their own personal perspective on the project. By making it their own, they get the chance to use their skills, really prove themselves in an area of interest to them. In the perfect scenario the teacher allows time for good cross-training as well. With enough time the “coder” and the artist get to show each other their work/techniques. Everyone wins.
So I encourage you as an individual teacher to get out there and try PBL. Just because your whole school is not on a PBL kick does not mean that you cannot get your feet wet and try this out yourself. I am sure you will see the benefits!