What do student projects look like in your school? In most classrooms, so-called student ‘projects’ look like sugar cube pyramids, styrofoam ball solar systems, coat hanger mobiles, and dioramas. Or maybe posters, brochures, or PowerPoint presentations. Or 3-dimensional structures made out of construction paper, cardboard, paper mâché, and other materials. The common factor across these ‘projects’ typically is the presentation of low-level facts found from a textbook or the Internet. But none of these rise to the level of ‘gold standard’ project-based learning (PBL), opportunities for students in which they are doing deep, complex thinking work over many days or weeks, usually in collaboration with others and enhanced by relevant, meaningful uses of digital technologies.
As leaders, why should we care about project-based learning? Because if we want graduates who are critical thinkers and problem solvers, we have to create learning environments in which students get to practice those skills in meaningful, authentic ways. Higher-level thinkers don’t just magically emerge from low-level thinking spaces. And that means we have to expect more from what we have traditionally called a learning ‘project.’
The Buck Institute for Education has outlined 8 essential elements of PBL, including significant content, a driving question, opportunities for inquiry and innovation, and high levels of student voice and choice. Typical classroom ‘projects’ lack these essential elements and thus are mostly busy work. The content isn’t significant because it’s just recall and regurgitation. There is no big question driving students’ efforts. And every student work product looks the same, which, as Chris Lehmann notes, means that it isn’t a project, it’s a recipe (e.g., 20 identical student posters of a cow’s digestive system!). We can do better…
There are many different models for creating high-quality PBL experiences for students. For example, here in Iowa the Iowa BIG School in Cedar Rapids has organized its entire school day around rich inquiry and problem solving. The Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Newell-Fonda, and North Union school districts all have two-week PBL sessions in January or May in which students spend 50 or more hours immersed in deeper projects. Some Iowa teachers are experimenting with genius hour, 20% time, and other structures to facilitate student passion projects. And across the country and planet a bevy of other models are emerging as well.
John Dewey famously reminded us that we learn what we do. If students spend 90% of their time making a poster / mobile / shoe box float and 10% of their time writing down facts that they quickly look up and rarely retain, we can’t really say that significant learning is occurring. The products look nice but there’s little substance behind them. As leaders, I encourage you to walk around your schools and look at the ‘projects’ that your students are doing. Ask yourself if the creation of those student work products requires deep, complex thinking and problem solving. And, if not, get some conversations started about how to make student projects richer and better…
What do student projects look like in your school?
Image credit: Russ M