Project-Based Learning: It’s All About Who is Doing the Work

Insights   07 May 2019
By Tim Kubik, Project ARC, and Dayna Laur, Project ARC


Today’s young learners want the opportunity to co-create personalized learning arcs that work for them. They are also capable of it. The most vital question driving education today, is whether today’s adult learners are willing to learn how to do that with them.

Tim Kubik and Dayna Laur

It’s difficult to argue against the need for a reimagined education system that transforms the learning arc for today’s students. In the past, the learning arc was defined as simply passing through predetermined coursework based on a select few summative assessments. Today, the learning arc is drastically different—as we are seeking to enable young people to be successful in a fast-moving world. The pace of change requires more frequent formative assessment of course content (i.e. knowledge), yes, but also an assessment system that measures the dynamic set of attributes and skills we believe our learners need to be successful today and in the future. With this understanding, we can look into a more specific inquiry. Is well-designed project-based learning (PBL) part of the shift needed to reimagine the learning arc for today’s students?

Advocates within and beyond the Deeper Learning Network argue PBL creates learners who are more likely to develop the essential skills required for the jobs of the future. Critics of PBL caution us from getting too excited about PBL’s system-changing potential. In 2016, Giséle Huff, Executive Director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, Board Member at iNACOL, and signatory on Education Reimagined’s “A Transformational Vision for Education in the US, noted, “Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.”

Huff celebrates the learning by doing focus of PBL, but, from her personal experience, she has a few other important points for consideration: “It is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe; PBL suffers from a significant “free rider” problem; and PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers…not enough such people exist.”

Working with schools from around the world, we acknowledge there are only a small number of schools fully implementing learner-centered PBL models of learning. The lack of full implementation examples is likely why Huff expresses so much caution. However, we have seen many more sites that have successful pockets of PBL within their more traditional models, which begs the question: What makes those pockets successful in schools still coping with industrial-era systems? Let’s explore two powerful examples from Loveland, CO and Downingtown, PA.

Highlighting Pockets of Success

Loveland, CO

In 2016, Gina Vigil’s and Sarah Beal’s 3rd Graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Loveland, Colorado, took on dynamic projects that required mentorship from outside technical experts. The high-level goals of each project were to solve an intractable community issue with supportive funding by the Thompson Education Foundation.

With a homeless population that doubled in the previous year and 65% of the learners on Free or Reduced Lunch, many learners focused on serving those without access—connecting to their everyday challenges within low-income households. One group of learners decided to create a water bottle refilling station. The learners had to state their case to the district’s Superintendent and the Foundation’s Director—expressing why their idea was worth the investment.

The learners needed more than a guest speaker on pitch day; they needed an engaged community partner with the technical expertise to help them make their case. Working with their community partner throughout the project, the learners were able to transfer and apply their understanding of math budgeting, persuasive speaking, and introductory concepts of engineering and design. Two years later, the team of now 5th graders are getting to see their proposed water station become a reality.

Downingtown, PA

If you were opening a brand new building that would serve 1,200 pre-teens coming from ten elementary schools, how would you cultivate a sense of community? For Marsh Creek Sixth-Grade Center Principal, Tom Mulvey, and his fellow educators, the answer was simple: ask the learners.

The challenge was posed to every 6th grader: “How can we use art to define who we are as individuals, a community, and agents of change?” In a partnership with United Way, each learner developed a plan to solve a local problem that was important to them. As this cross-collaborative experience unfolded, learners sought ways to define a new Marsh Creek community that addressed issues like finding homes for shelter pets, recycling, and caring for senior citizens.

The finished products resulted in a local TEDx talk on art and identity; and an art fair in which all 1,200 art pieces were displayed throughout the entire Downingtown community. In fact, several chosen pieces were then taken to the state capitol for an extended showcase.

Working to Learn with Technical Experts

Although the projects above are markedly different, they share a common theme that was best articulated by a 6th-grade teacher in Downingtown, Pennsylvania:

“We changed this project from being future-focused—“how will you change the world when you grow up?”—to one that is present-tense—“how will you change the world right now?” [We] knew they could do it, and because the ones they want to help do not have the time to wait for them to grow up, they need their help, their creativity, their kindness, right now.”

Lincoln Elementary (Loveland, CO) Principal, Michelle Malvey, shared what happens when you make this shift from preparing learners for a far off future to letting them use their learning to affect their world today:

“They have to work collaboratively. They have to assess their interests, strengths, and passions. We’re helping kids articulate their time, talent, and treasure.”

Within transformed systems of learning, like PBL, when we say learners are at the center, we aren’t ignoring the critical role adults play in these systems. Some fear the support learners need will disappear—sending them out on their own without the necessary guidance.

In Loveland, CO, Malvey’s learners had the final say in what changes they wanted to make in their community and who they contacted to make them happen. But, they were strongly supported by their educators who invited them to dive deeper into their inquiries and explore potential roadblocks they might encounter. Additionally, Malvey coordinated with the school community to build an initial database of technical experts who might be willing to help the learners with their projects. As each project unfolded, teachers enlisted technical experts with the learners’ encouragement. Once introductions were made, learners drafted emails and made phone calls with various requests as their projects moved forward.

The technical experts were impressed by the learners’ willingness to work for their learning, even if the learners’ efforts weren’t perfect. Malvey agreed, noting that:

“Our partners—like Harrington Arts—know our kids. If they need something, they call us. We’ve seen more of that takeoff. This partnership has expanded our database.”

Lincoln Elementary learners have access to these opportunities because their teachers and the technical experts in the community believe the learners want to (and can) do all of this work. Once learners have the opportunity to work with teachers and technical experts in a way that supports their learning, Malvey noted the impact goes far beyond the classroom:

“What I’ve seen [our PBL work] do is permeate learner leadership into other learning opportunities. The freedom to explore continues; they can transfer and apply their learning with reference to standards. It’s also spilling into Specials and Clubs. We’re turning it over to kids and asking: “what do you need?” They all feel comfortable with presenting, even to up to 250-300 people in a room. They have something to say. Kids come up with ideas for projects on their own during community meetings.”

This kind of real-world transfer and application of content and skills are exactly what the employers of these technical experts are looking to hire. Yet, from the outside looking in, many educators still fear their learners may not know enough to meet the academic standards they were hired to teach. To this, Kendra Vair, a teacher at nearby Conrad Ball Middle School in Loveland, where project-based learning is also taking place, replies:

Learners are making connections to the relevance of their school academics. It’s more choice and voice than I thought you could ever have in a classroom, but it’s the learning they want. It makes content relevant.”

Partnering “With,” Not “For” Young Learners

Giséle Huff was correct in saying PBL is all about learning-by-doing, and we think she would agree it must include cultivating community partnerships to do it. School projects existed well before the phrase “project-based learning” was ever coined, so we must ensure that the next project we engage learners in isn’t just another project.

There is plenty of well-designed project-based learning (PBL) available today on the internet and plenty of project-based teaching that is done well. As these pockets of success suggest, today’s young learners want the opportunity to co-create personalized learning arcs that work for them. They are also capable of it. The most vital question driving education today, is whether today’s adult learners are willing to learn how to do that with them.

This will require us to really understand what is going on when PBL is done effectively. From our view, authentic, relevant, and complex learning experiences integrate the experiences of teachers, technical experts, and learners into a collaborative project in which teachers acknowledge the agency of their learners. Learners want to connect with technical experts who can support their success in the project. As a result, the project becomes less about the teacher or the learners nailing the experience to get a top score. It becomes about collaborating for the best solutions. Now, technical experts provide value-added feedback to improve learner outcomes as they contribute to workable solutions to the authentic challenge.

For a truly learner-centered PBL experience to take place, it’s essential we ask 1) who is doing the work, and 2) how does the collaboration between the parties involved make everyone, and that work, better? Malvey sums it up best, saying: “Personalizing learning is about customizing/localizing PBL to suit the needs of the school in a local community.” When we do, we see a continuum of projects in which the pathways for successful personalization become more inviting and nearly limitless.

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