Project Based Learning: Yesterday’s News or Tomorrow’s Headline?
By John Larmer
Project Based Learning (PBL) is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st century students, promote deeper understanding of content, and build success skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication. At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), we think PBL is even more than that. We believe that participating in enough high-quality PBL in their K–12 years can be absolutely transformative for students. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their abilities as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power. PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects.
You’ll notice I use the term high-quality twice in the above paragraph, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become one of yesterday’s education fads, for which much is promised and little delivered. Because if it’s not done well, PBL faces three dangers. One, teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Two, many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are labeled “project based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL,” but they’ll find little change in student engagement or achievement—certainly not a transformation. Three, PBL might be relegated to special niches instead of being used equitably for all students in the “regular” program, and teaching and learning in most classrooms will remain traditional—which, again, will mean little change in the education of most students.
To help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education, BIE has developed a model we call “Gold Standard PBL.” There are two parts to the model: the Essential Project Design Elements and the Project Based Teaching Practices. BIE has written a book describing this model and the research behind it, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, which was copublished with ASCD and helps teachers and schools implement the model with our professional development services. We intend to use the model as the basis for a sustained effort to promote and increase national and worldwide use of high-quality PBL for all students.
In my session at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference in Atlanta, we will explore the challenges of implementing PBL well and learn about the Gold Standard PBL model. We will also consider what schools and districts need to do to make PBL a widespread, sustainable practice in their classrooms.
John Larmer is the editor in chief of the Buck Institute for Education. He authored or edited BIE’s project based curriculum units for high school government and economics and was a contributing author of the Project Based Learning Handbook. He is a writer and editor of BIE’s PBL Toolkit Series, including the PBL Starter Kit (for middle and high school teachers), PBL in the Elementary Grades, and PBL for 21st Century Success. Larmer also coauthored Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning.