Last week I first wrote of my enthusiasm for this new book, an outgrowth of the fine Partnership for 21st c. skills; I also wrote about the book’s emphasis on teaching creativity and innovation as among the most important of 21st c. skills.  In this post I want to write about the book’s endorsement of project-based learning as “successful at building deeper understanding and higher levels of motivation and engagement, and at developing the 21st c. skill most needed for our times.”  What is the evidence for this, and how much do they assist with best methods?

Much of the evidence cited comes from one source, Darling-Hammond and her Powerful Learning– What we Know about Teaching for Understanding. Most compelling is this finding: “Active and collaborative learning practices have a more significant impact on student performance than any other variable.”  Also significant to this reader is that

“All the research arrives at the same conclusion– there are significant benefits for students who work together on learning activities compared to students who work alone.   The benefits include both greater individual and collective knowledge growth… teams outperform individuals on all problem types and across all ages.  In addition, individuals who work in groups do better on individual assessments as well.”

The authors go on to cite research that while factual learning via collaborative projects was equal to or better than traditional methods, but higher order, 21st c. skills are significantly higher in the collaborative approach.  Multiple examples are provided of the difference; let me quote one:

In a study of 4th and 5th graders doing a project on housing shortages in various countries, project-learning students scored way above their traditional learning control group on a critical thinking test and in their learning confidence.

How do it?  This is not easy teaching, and I need to reiterate here regularly that I recognize this.   Our authors here say “Designing and managing effective 21st c. learning projects is no small challenge… and especially so for teachers who may not have been trained this way.” As a start, we can see the hallmarks they identify for effective project learning:

  • Project outcomes are tied to curriculum and learning goals.
  • Driving questions and problems lead students to the central concepts or principles of of the topic or subject area.
  • Students investigations and research involve inquiry and knowledge building.
  • Students are responsible for designing and managing much of their own learning.
  • Projects are based on authentic, real world problems and questions that students care about.

A great list– and regular readers of this blog will realize the ways this resonates with my writings here.

For more guidance in managing project based learning, the authors go on to provide a tool they call the Project Learning Bicycle.  Myself, I am a bit conflicted about the value of this tool– I think the simple “wheels” on which it is built are useful but limited, but the remainder of the bicycle structure becomes a bit arbitrary and loses value.   The wheels they identify, for students and for teachers, display a four project phase cycle: Define, Plan, Do, Review.   OK.

This makes sense, and is a helpful in a small way outline for planning. I certainly appreciate that the pie wedge for “do” is the largest, a full half of the wheel; I find myself talking about students “doing” learning often.  The “review” section is the fuzziest to me: I would have guessed this meant students reviewing their success and revising future planning and doing, but our authors here say that review also entails presenting results to others, and I want to argue that the word “review” just doesn’t capture this.  I’d have made it a five or six phase cycle, with “produce” and “present” coming between do and review.

The book doesn’t claim to be a guide to project based learning, so it is not fair to fault too severely for its limitation in this regard; I think that there are other resources, from Suzie Boss and Buck Institute and New Technology HS that are available when schools want to move hard in this direction.