Project-based learning: We can do better than sugar cube pyramids

Shoebox float

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

9 Responses to “Project-based learning: We can do better than sugar cube pyramids”

  1. I love the idea of moving beyond the “recipes.” A school I am working with is progressing toward PBL in the classroom as well and I would be anxious to hear some of the examples of topical projects that have led to the inquiry and problem solving you mention that have the students going in all directions with their projects. Stay warm!

  2. One thing I’ve found exceptionally useful is teaching project management skills like goal setting, time management and reflection. I don’t really have a “one day, one project” philosophy – my projects occur over longer periods of time – even an entire year (regular progress check presentations and team reports, etc are critical for projects of this length).

    I also ask the students to devise a way to meet the curricular need on their own. I know that this is a skill which is difficult for a younger child to learn – but it really does make the project/solution more relevant to them.

  3. I just wrote a blog post about a cornerstone assessment that my students did as a group a while back and it is one of the most successful examples of PBL I have ever witnessed first-hand. It was driven by identifying a social problem and proposing and carrying out a potential solution (or help) to the said problem. The students identified cyberbullying as a problem they’d like to tackle and eventually created a Twitter account that tweeted nothing but kind things. Not a total solution to the problem–but a contribution to the solution. You can read about it here–>

  4. Hi Scott, I totally agree with your points. In my school, as I suspect is the case in many schools, time and curriculum are obstacles for the implementation of PBL. We do try though! I coordinate year-long interdisciplinary science projects, the research questions for which the students choose themselves. One of our more successful previous projects included an investigation of water pollution in Bangkok, which showed that water quality in the city improved following the floods of 2011.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post. I have been studying project based learning for some time now, trying to improve the PBL learning environment in my own classroom. I attended a session at the 2014 ISTE conference where I was introduced to the Buck Institute for Education resource. This has been the number one resource that I have found throughout all my searching that has helped me begin designing high quality projects for my students. I recently finished a project with my 6th graders with the driving question, “What makes a book an award winning book?” My students ended up writing some amazing children’s books! Now we are on our second big project of the school year. The driving question for this project is, “How can we create a million dollar winning commercial for the 2015 Super Bowl?” The BIE Project Design Overview and Student Learning Guide has been very helpful in my planning! Here is the link to the downloadable planning guides:

    Also, something that I have discovered about PBL is that this type of learning environment has not only captured the attention and increased the engagement of my students, but it has also created more excitement for me as a teacher, while allowing much creativity on my part.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts and experiences. We needs lots of examples and testimonials for folks who aren’t headed in this direction yet. I appreciate your willingness to share!

  7. Couldn’t agree more! It is very important for educators to distinguish between “doing projects” as a fun thing that happens after learning has occurred and using rigorous and authentic projects as the primary vehicle for deeper learning. This is an adaptive change that requires leaving behind many long established ways of thinking and their associated practices. After supporting more than 150 school transformations, we’ve learned that two things are required for teachers to make the shift. First, teachers must be supported in rethinking how people learn best. This is less about training and more about having important conversations that break down old constructs. Second, teachers need to be supported in understanding how to develop and implement high quality curriculum aligned to this new understanding. This is where BIE’s initiative to create a “gold standard” for high quality project-based learning has the potential to help ensure that once teachers make the shift, they do it well. This is really important work.

  8. This is our latest Integrated Arts project at Colchester Elementary School in CT!

  9. I completely agree with this post. When I was in sixth grade science, I remember having to create a model of a planet or animal cell. This was our big project for the year and our teacher told us that at the end she would pick a few of the best examples to save for next year’s class. I desperately wanted my project to be one of the chosen few and put a great deal of effort into its creation. But my goal was not to learn, it was to be better than everyone else. In the end I don’t believe I really learned much about the cell, other than the labels of a few key structures, because I was so focused on making it look good. She didn’t end up keeping it, by the way, and I was so upset I threw away my model. In a sense, this set the tone for the rest of the projects for years to come. As I continued my education, it never really seemed like we were doing things to understand them, but rather just to get a good grade and prove your worth compared to your fellow classmates. Furthermore, the projects were often so simplistic or vague that, even if you tried, little real substance could be pulled from them. The very first time I ever felt like I dove into an assignment with the purpose of becoming better educated on a subject was my junior year of high school, and that was just by sheer luck of the draw. I was assigned a historical figure to give a presentation on and ended up becoming fascinated by my figure, but if I had fallen anywhere else in the alphabet I could have been given someone completely different and never had this experience.

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