Project-based learning: An evidence-based way to improve social studies

A national panel calls for an overhauled approach to teaching history and civics.

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By instaphotos

By Kristin De Vivo

Randy Carter, a city councilman from Pontiac, Michigan, pledged to revamp a local park after listening to a compelling presentation from local constituents. “They were able to show me with pictures and data exactly what the problems are, and I will act upon their proposal immediately,” Carter said. It didn’t matter that his constituents—2nd graders engaged in project-based learning—were years away from voting age.

I suspect more elected leaders will hear from students in this way following a national panel’s call last month for an overhaul in history and civics education. The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative, a collaboration of teachers, historians, political scientists, and others, is seeking major investments for a revamped approach toward teaching history and civics. Instead of continuing the current overreliance on lectures, textbooks, and rote memorization of facts, the EAD panel says schools need to provide students with more depth of knowledge and an inquiry-based approach. The recommendations call for educators to use driving questions as the basis of lessons, allowing students to engage in critical thinking, analysis, and collaborative problem solving.

The recommendations coincide with a declining investment of time and resources related to history and civics education, as is explained in the EAD report. Poor scores on related assessments are further evidence that it’s time for a change. Fewer than one-fourth of U.S. 8th graders were considered proficient in civics on the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The NAEP results were not significantly different from those released in 2014.

Thankfully, we don’t have to invent something new. Rigorous project-based learning clearly meets the panel’s recommendations and is a highly effective way to teach social studies, history, and civics. Project-based learning (PBL) is an inquiry-based approach in which students are active learners who work on complex and authentic tasks.

What the Research Shows

Leading researchers, including those in Michigan, along with Lucas Education Research, released four studies last month showing that PBL had positive effects on student outcomes in social studies, science, and language and literacy. Students and teachers find rigorous PBL to be highly engaging and helpful in connecting classroom learning to the world beyond school.

In one of the randomized studies involving 2nd grade students, University of Michigan and Michigan State University researchers found that using a project-based approach led to five to six more months of growth than normal in social studies for 2nd grade students. The children used a curriculum that encompassed many of the EAD recommendations, including helping students pursue authentic civic action, like improving a local park in their community or creating marketing materials to encourage visitors to settle in an area.

It’s not just young children who benefit from this type of instructional approach. High school students who were enrolled in a project-based version of an Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course outperformed their peers receiving more traditional instruction, with an 8-percentage point increase in passing scores, according to a randomized study by University of Southern California (USC) researchers. In the second year, the PBL advantage revealed as much as a 10-percentage point increase in passing scores on the AP exam.

The project-based AP course includes five projects organized around the overarching question, “What is the proper role of government in a democracy?” Each project involves simulations in which students take on roles that help them experience the content. For example, in one lesson, students act as delegates to the Constitutional Convention. In another, they organize and execute a political campaign.

This approach is also helpful for students from all income levels. In the AP exam study, both students from high-income groups and low-income groups enrolled in the PBL version of the course outperformed their peers taking the traditional AP course. This is important, as districts nationwide are working toward providing underserved students with greater access to AP courses. Research has shown that students from low-income families are more likely to get stuck with instructional approaches that ask too little of them. Anna Saavedra of USC, the lead researcher on the AP study, explains that some educators and policymakers believe that students who have been underserved aren’t ready to have student-centered instruction or drive their own learning. “The results of this study really challenge that notion,” she says.

The EAD initiative recommends that schools do away with outdated resources to ensure diverse stories and perspectives are integrated throughout history and civics instruction. With project-based learning, the diverse backgrounds of students and their families are assets to incorporate into teaching and learning experiences.

Giving PBL a Try

Key characteristics of PBL include making the projects central to student learning, aligning them with content standards, and ensuring they’re authentic, engaging, and encourage collaboration. Students also need opportunities to reflect on their work and receive meaningful feedback.

One place for teachers to access free PBL curricular resources is Sprocket, an online portal hosted on the Lucas Education Resource site. Teachers who want to give PBL a try, however, don’t have to have a full-year curriculum immediately available. Educators can take small steps toward engaging students in projects. For example, consider the following:

  • Start social studies lessons with a driving question. For instance, rather than describing the different branches of government to students, ask a question like, “How do different branches of government work together to make laws?”
  • Balance marking up assessments with asking students to evaluate their own work. Have students share what they think they need to learn and how they’ll try to acquire that knowledge.
  • Give students the chance to work together. The EAD panel noted that one of the challenges to teaching civics involves guiding students to listen to their peers and participate in civil debates. In the project-based AP curriculum, students hone this skill with activities that allow students to engage in perspective taking and productive discourse.

Amid the pandemic’s remote or hybrid learning format, educators might have to modify their project-based instruction. For example, without class supplies, they might have to ask students to use materials found at home to engage in projects. For collaborative assignments, educators can consider asking students to engage family members or use digital tools like video sharing to connect with peers. Public presentations may be over virtual platforms instead of in person, but they can still be meaningful.

The Educating for American Democracy report came out during a national reckoning over racial justice in America, following the siege of the U.S. Capitol, and the conclusion of a bitterly divided presidential election. Adopting a better approach to teaching social students and related disciplines is an important step we can take toward bridging our divides. By teaching social studies through project-based learning, schools can foster collaboration, agency, and effective communication skills. PBL also empowers students to tackle authentic issues in their community and the broader world. Though there is no single instructional method that can solve the country’s educational shortcomings, project-based learning has an important role to play.


Kristin De Vivo is the executive director of Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Previously, she served as vice president of research and validation at Scholastic Inc.