There is no golden ticket to the solid, well-rounded, 21st Century education our students need. While we hope they will become critical thinkers and problem-solvers of the highest order, the truth is that it takes a village to get them there. Instruction, while based on solid pedagogical practices, is still a bit hit and miss and involves a lot of trial and error. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a certainly start.
When designed well, PBL can be an excellent way to help students acquire not only content knowledge but the practical application behind it. If students see a real-life authentic application of what they are learning, and if they can use what they learn to benefit those around them, they likely will remember it longer. Their learning experience will have positive meaning and they will likely be more motivated to use a similar approach in other content areas.
However, PBL is easy to criticize because it is not widely understood or practiced. It looks different than a standard learning paradigm and it takes an experienced teacher to implement it well. On the surface it looks less organized, less content-driven, and guided by students. A good PBL unit, however, has been planned and organized well and is based on solid content area standards that are communicated and assessed throughout the project. PBL promotes student inquiry and gives them freedom to lead their own learning experience, though they are scaffolded throughout the process and offered many tools to help them.
An obvious downside of PBL is that it takes a significant amount of time to plan and implement well. For this reason, many teachers and schools don’t see it as a practical option, as it takes time and resources they don’t feel they have. However, schools and individual teachers can start somewhere and start small. With a little research and determination, one project can be tried, then another, then another, until teachers and students demonstrate desired outcomes. As success stories spread, others will be more likely to give PBL a try.
The Buck Institute for Education lists three areas for further research on PBL: Synthesis (summaries of research conducted across multiple sites or multiple studies); Outcomes (research that can range from improved attitudes to standardized test scores); and Practices (differences in use of PBL, including tools and professional development designed to improve teaching and learning). There is significant research to show that PBL increases academic test scores, results in more effective learning, contributes to longer retention, improves student 21st Century skills, and is especially helpful for lower-achieving students (BIE, 2009).
If even part of these outcomes prove true, then PBL is worth a shot. Students truly deserve the very best we have to offer.
Buck Institute for Education. (2009). Does PBL work?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/does_pbl_work