“I told my faculty members when they’re applying for summer grants for PD: only research-based practices will get priority funding for grants; the rest of the applications go to the bottom of the pile.”

“When speaking to one group of the faculty, be sure to provide research-based evidence for Project-Based learning; some of these teachers are very particular about that.”

“As a caveat I would not accept any data found from a nonacademic non-peer reviewed resource as reason for change or implementing new strategies.”

I’ve encountered each of these messages separately in the past few weeks, and I value them all as good reminders for me to try harder to ground my educational positions and advocacy with evidence from quality research, especially from academic peer-reviewed journal published research.

So what about Project-Based Learning?   PBL is a practice I advocate for frequently here at 21k12, and I do based largely on my own  2008 research, in which I spent five days shadowing students at PBL immersive schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and New Technology High School in Sacramento, and spent about 15 days doing the same at more traditional high schools, and concluded that the PBL schools were far superior in the way they engaged, challenged, and enriched the students and their learning.  It was a bit of an overwhelming recognition, the degree of difference and the degree of superiority I observed. I’ve written about this at length here.

But, in all fairness, this “research” hasn’t been published anywhere other than on the blog, and it hasn’t been peer-reviewed in  by academic researchers.

But there is very good peer-reviewed journal published research available on PBL; let’s review.

Over at Buck Institute for Education they highlight the meta-analysis studies published in the 2008 Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 4-11.

In the journal’s introductory article which I’ve embedded below, by Jason Ravitz, Ph.D. until recently the Research Director for Buck Institute for Education, the research is summarized. (Note: I assisted Jason with editing this piece, for which I’m recognized in the acknowledgements).

The available evidence is promising. Compared to alternative teaching methods, PBL holds its own on standardized tests of concept knowledge and excels on other kinds of outcomes. Walker and Leary’s meta-analysis combined 201 outcomes reported across 82 different studies. They focused on the average effect size of differences in studies comparing students who received a PBL-based curriculum to those who did not. (more…)

[Note: I've added further clarification to my argument in a comment below the post]

We call it PBL– Project Based Learning– but inevitably as we immerse ourselves in the practice and the thinking about it, we recognize the limitations of this term.

As I increasingly write and share thoughts about PBL, I find, and I know others do too, especially helpful the clarification provided by explaining what it isn’t– as for, example, it’s not Project-Oriented Learning, not an enrichment activity or an independent assignment– and the illumination offered by the metaphors– PBL is not the dessert, it’s the entree.

One of my concerns is that the term PBL makes a mistake in reinforcing the understandably pervasive, but in my eyes problematic, perception that the project itself– the thing students make or present or publish or post– is what the PBL experience is all, or mostly/especially, about.    It isn’t.    But saying PROJECT based learning makes it sounds as if it is.

“Learning by doing,” (LbD), or “Learning by Project Preparation” (LbPP) would, I’m arguing here, better capture convey the heart of what I call high quality, 21st century PBL.  (as do inquiry based learning and challenge-based learning, both of which are in the conversation but, in my experience, far less prominent/established as PBL).

Rethinking PBL this way helps us rethink how best we assess student learning in PBL, something for which that many teachers in surveys report feeling especially under-prepared for and lacking in proficiency.

The heart of my argument here is that despite the understandably common norm,  we shouldn’t assess the project.  Don’t.  

Don’t choose or create and apply a rubric for a “quality project,” and don’t tell student that their grade is based on the quality of their project.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t grade student learning– although I realize there are many who wish we could dramatically reduce or eliminate grading.   No– I’m operating inside the current conventional world of schooling and grades, the same one in which most of us live.

Assess not the project, but instead, assess the 3-6 things you’ve decided you want students to want students to know, or know better, and be able to do, or do better, at the end of the unit.

In assessing these concrete, specific, public things, you will most certainly seek and accept as evidence of their learning their final projects/products, but we’ve now re-conceptualized that assessment in meaningful ways.   And, essential to remember, is that we will seek and accept other things in addition to the project as evidence of their learning.

Time out here for a minute.  Let’s review what other key PBL resources say about assessment.

First up, the excellent free guide from High Tech High entitled Work that Matters.    Here from that book is the guru Ron Berger on the topic.

Assessment isn’t just about the final product.   Teachers often mistakenly presume that a project’s final product is the only thing they should assess, which leads them to assume that they should be able to tell whether the kids learned what they needed to learn by looking at the final product.

Actually, assessing what kids know is ongoing throughout a project. The product is the motivation for learning the material, but it won’t demonstrate that they learned it all. For example, in the physics standards project (see page 51) each kid only demonstrated one physics concept, so how do you know that they learned the rest of the material?

The answer to this question is that the project isn’t the assessment. You can assess what they’ve learned before the book project comes out, and afterwards. In Physics Standards they gave all the students a physics test with all the concepts in it. You need to do assessment throughout the project so that when they’re doing great artistic stuff, you know that they know what they need to know. You can’t leave it all to the end.

Ron Berger, Chief Programme Officer,
Expeditionary Learning

Note the emphasis he places here on not leaving assessment all to the end, and indeed, the project might not be able to capture and convey all the things you want students to learn.   You have to assess more than just the project, and you can give tests along the way, even.  Tests! 

work-that-mattersOn the following page of the High Tech High booklet, this is reinforced: “You may want to have a separate assessment of knowledge, such as an exam.”

And more:

Has the student learned the curriculum content required for this project?

The process followed here is much the same as for the assessment of skills,with one important difference: your project plan should include the essential curriculum content for the project. As a result, much of this will be considered ‘non-negotiable’, though it is still important to have students co-construct the process.

So, for example, you might ask students to determine how they will present the content knowledge they’ve acquired through the project (they might do this through an essay, quiz, presentation, film, etc). (more…)

Suzie Boss, Mike Gwaltney, and I had the great pleasure to present, share, and discuss this topic with about 50 workshop attendees here at NAIS AC 13.

In addition to the slides, we have built out (thanks to Mike) a full website of materials and resources for our presentation, which you can find here.    It’s shortened ULR is tinyurl.com/leadpbl   Below is a screengrab of the front page.

Leadership for PBLThis is a topic about which we are all very passionate, of course, and eager to support in the future.  We’ve created a user group inside isenet here, which we invite all to join us in.    We intend to do things with this group in the future to continue to support this important work.

Thanks to all who came and participated– let’s go forward with this important work.

lightbulbHeadBenchmarks, projects, inquiry, presentations– these words trip off the tongue of Science Leadership Academy as easily and frequently as do the words test, quiz, and paper for most “regular” school students.

But, in contrast,  they do so with a different intonation, a tone of pride and seriousness of purpose.

I’ve just completed spending a day visiting classrooms in session (last time I attended educon, this day was a snowday and school was cancelled) and speaking with, listening really, to SLA students, as this was the agenda for day 1 of educon.

There are many things to be impressed with and excited about at this school– to be sure.   So student centered is it that one friend here, Greg Bamford, observed in conversation, “The sign of SLA’s student-centered genius? When you walk into a class, everyone’s working – but you have no idea who the teacher is.”

photo (28)

It is a  a cliche, perhaps, of Educon observations that these students are especially articulate about and proud of their school– and I heard this loudly.   Students told me they think their PBL education is far preferable to the norm, that it “requires they become more independent, responsible, and collaborative, that it is better preparation for college and life.”

They say that at first their friends at other schools are jealous that, mostly, educon students don’t have tests and quizzes to stress about, but that envy diminishes as they recognize increasingly how demanding it is to have “benchmarks” every quarter in every class.

But what interested me most specifically was how fluent these students are with the school’s “jargon,” its practices and concepts of inquiry driven, project based learning.   Every student I spoke to went there, explained it to me, often patiently in the manner of someone who has to explain it often, and proudly.

In working with educators on developing PBL, project-based learning,  so often these days, I often hear– and anyone who works in this field often hears– the response that as much as the teachers think it is valuable or important, they regularly encounter push back from their students– their students don’t want to do PBL.  (more…)

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Above are the slides for my presentation today to the Association of Colorado Independent Schools Heads and senior administrators, a three hour workshop.   Sadly, I (again!) made the mistake of trying to stuff in too much information, and several of our intended activities and videos had to be cut.

Below are first, some of the key links to think to which I referred, and below that, some of the videos I showed or intended to show as part of the presentation.

A very valuable reference is the excellent presentation, Measuring What We Value by Lyons and Niblock.   (Note: I borrowed/adapted a small number of these slides for integration into my presentation: My thanks to Lyons and Niblock. )

My thanks to Lee Quinby, the very fine ACIS executive director, and all those who took the time for the session this morning.

Links:

This free publication, dated to February 2012, is a valuable and economically efficient vehicle for enhancing the understanding of any faculty which is making the move toward PBL.   If it were me, I’d think about distributing it widely, making it available in a printed version for those who prefer reading that way, and use it as a faculty summer reading option or for part of a year-long faculty study of PBL.

Coming as it does as an addition to the existing literature on project-based learning, and most particularly the many resources available from BIE, both free and priced, the new book offers both reiteration, valuable as that is and well supported with examples, and a few new notes.  I thought it’d be most helpful to identify what it adds to the conversation, and most particularly where its emphases are different/additional to what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements (and, of course, which I think are especially important).

These differences/additions can be best summarized with four C’s:

Currency, Critique, Collaborative Colleagueship, and (Traditional) Components. 

1. Currency: The booklet opens with a helpful commentary on why PBL now.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma.

Firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness.

Surely all of us exmaining PBL would find many more reasons to add to the mix, most importantly that an embrace of PBL methodology follows naturally upon the previous embrace of teaching 21st century skills as our first and foremost “outcomes” priority.

2.  Critique.  BIE’s essential elements includes, importantly, one entitled “Revision and Reflection”  (though I’ve always been curious why in that order: wouldn’t one normally reflect before revising?). (more…)

I enjoyed a great day presenting at ISACS last week in Louisville.

Below you’ll find most of my materials from those presentations; thank you all who attended and thank you ISACS for inviting me.

Innovative Schools, Innovative Students:  A near identical version of those slides is available here.

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Innovation is Iteration: the Marshmallow Challenge

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After this highly interactive and energetic workshop, participants shared with me a set of great ideas they had for bringing the marshmallow challenge back to their schools.  One person spoke of being at a K-8 school with “family groups” composed of one student for each grade k-8, and using them there; another said she was at a PS-12 school where the pressure to be perfect and right all the time felt very strong and she wanted to do a school-wide marshmallow experience; another explained they were moving toward an iPad 1-1 implementation very slowly, concerned they needed to get everything in order just right before launching and that she wanted to do this to encourage people to jump in and start experimenting.

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