Why Project-Based Learning is Real Learning

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Why Project-Based Learning is Real Learning
Dr. Caulfield here.  One of the positions I thoroughly enjoyed in my career was as an elementary science specialist, during which I brought hands-on science experiences to six elementary schools.  There was always much excitement and learning. Students could share information at the end of the experiences which could only have come from their problem solving interactions with the materials. A parent once stopped me to share a story. Her son and his friends were coming home from a baseball game, sitting in the back of the car, likening the action on the field to cell functions which they had discovered through microscope studies of pond water samples which they prepared themselves.  She was amazed not only at their mastery of what a cell could do, but their ability to make appropriate analogies to a completely different series of events.
As the science specialist, I traveled from school to school in the mornings and afternoons, sometimes including two classes at a time, with  hands-on, interactive, laboratory experiences stored in a portable cart. Eventually I involved Seton Hall University and pre-service educators to participate as part of my process, expanding their science pedagogy knowledge.  Throughout the many classes, locations and varied situations, I never once had a problem with any student. They were always intently engaged with the learning. Often students see me now as adults and recall with vivid detail experiences they participated in (“Hey – I remember you!  You made my hair stand up with that electricity machine!”).
This hands-on, Project-Based Learning (PBL) I provided for students facilitated deep levels of understanding and higher-order thinking and processing.  Simply memorizing the parts and functions of a cell could never have accomplished the same outcome for these students. Children interacted with each other to strategize solutions, solve problems and support conclusions.  Each lesson began with an explicit and highly focused goal that clearly identified what skills or learning students would master by the end of class.
Project-Based Learning is not about grades  – it’s about mastery. It provides the teacher with multiple options for assessment along with an in-depth level of knowledge about student understanding.  PBL allows kids to “fail forward,” leveraging “mistakes” to evolve a deeper understanding about the subject of their investigation.  Students can struggle past difficulties toward a solution, taking ownership for their learning.  The teacher becomes a learning/thinking guide and coach.
Project-based learning has been around for quite a while.  It can be traced back to the early 1900’s and John Dewey. He was a supporter of “learning by doing,” which is fundamental to the concept of Project-Based Learning.  As a model of instruction, PBL is student-centered, which differs from teacher-centered instruction. Since students are the stars of the show, PBL encourages both deeper levels of learning and significant 21st century skills:
  1. Collaboration and teamwork
  2. Creativity and imagination
  3. Critical thinking
  4. Problem solving
  5. Flexibility and adaptability
  6. Global and cultural awareness
  7. Information literacy
  8. Leadership
  9. Civic literacy and citizenship
  10. Oral and written communication skills
  11. Social responsibility and ethics
  12. Technology literacy
  13. Initiative
Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University where she founded the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and served as the faculty sponsor of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, which she helped to redesign.  She presents six principles from the neuroscience of learning which help explain why PBL is so important for deeper learning. The link that follows connects you to the article with more information.
  1. The brain is malleable. This means that rich stimuli cause the brain to change and adapt in response.
  2. People learn through conversation and interaction with others.  Learning and thinking is deepened through discussion and interactive social experiences.
  3. Emotion and learning are completely interrelated.  Interest, positive emotions, concern for others and liking the teacher all excite the brain and motivate us to learn more effectively.
  4. Deep engagement and curiosity, looking at evidence, and reflecting all build the brain and promote deeper understanding.
  5. Feedback and reflection have a huge impact on growth and learning which supports formative assessment rather than grades.
  6. Learning and achievement are tightly tied to developing an identity.
Recent studies at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Stamford University have all discovered links between Project-Based Learning and increased academic achievement, the “soft skills” of 21st century skills, addressing the needs of diverse learners and closing achievement gaps and increasing students’ motivation to learn.  Review the three links that follow for more intensive information on this research:
Implementing PBL can be daunting so start slowly.  For instance, provide opportunities for student choice in types of homework assignments.  Then gradually move on to larger projects. While this involves giving over responsibility to students for their learning and adopting a “guide on the side” role, it is worth it.  The payoff in student engagement and mastery is so significant you will never want to go back to a more traditional practice. Believe me, your students will thank you for it. Check out the related resources below.  Enjoy the experience and let me know your feedback!
Yours in Learning,
Maryrose Caulfield


Tips for beginning Project-Based Learning.  https://www.edutopia.org/article/starting-small-pbl
Advice for focusing on the learning in PBL.  https://katielmartin.com/2018/07/14/project-based-learning-are-you-focused-on-the-project-or-the-learning/
A researcher-practitioner partnership in San Francisco shows promising results for middle school  science students. https://www.edutopia.org/article/boosting-student-engagement-through-project-based-learning
Researchers in Michigan show that project-based learning in high-poverty communities can produce statistically significant gains in social studies and informational reading.  https://www.edutopia.org/article/new-study-shows-impact-pbl-student-achievement-nell-duke-anne-lise-halvorsen?utm_campaign=crowdfire&utm_content=crowdfire&utm_medium=social&utm_source=social#23959413-tw#1498596053634#23959413-tw#1500920240003#23959413-tw#1504057203188#23959413-tw#1520448586332
The many merits of using project-based learning in the classroom. https://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-guide-importance
Project Based Learning can be transformative for students. https://www.bie.org/about/why_pbl
Research Spotlight on Project-Based Learning  – NEA Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education  http://www.nea.org/tools/16963.htm
Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning  http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/114017/chapters/Why-Project-Based-Learning%C2%A2.aspx
What You Should Know About Project-Based Learning   https://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/project-based-learning-benefits-best-practices.shtml
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