Helping project-based learning take hold

The Buck Institute for Education, which focuses on professional development and materials to support project-based learning, believes that, as with most complex instructional approaches, there are many conditions that need to be met for schools to embrace project-based learning.

First, says Executive Director John Mergendoller, teachers must fully understand the concepts they are teaching. They also need to know they are not trying to force learning on the students, but instead are encouraging students to approach learning themselves.

Then, there needs to be an accountability system that ensures students are staying on track. "You can’t just turn kids loose on the project," Mergendoller says. "There has to be a defined set of benchmarks, check-ins with the teacher."

The fluidity of this approach to learning also can discourage teachers from incorporating project-based learning into their curriculum, because it can be hard to ensure that all standards are being met–and tricky to recycle lessons from one year to another.

With project-based learning, students are in charge of their own learning. "So if they want to investigate the water in school to see if it contains lead, that’s where you go," says Peter Rillero, associate professor of science education at Arizona State University and a consultant for Adaptive Curriculum. "Every year, the project could be different."

Starting small, and letting teachers see the excitement and learning that take place with a project, can help them become willing to incorporate more project-based learning into their instruction.

"Students go from class to class and say, ‘I’m in Miss Jones’ class and we’re doing this really cool thing,’ and then the other teachers go to Miss Jones and say, ‘What are you doing with your class? The kids are so excited….’" explains Donna Gilley, career and technical education coordinator for the Metro Nashville Public Schools.

It also helps when schools have an integrated curriculum. "It’s good for a teacher to teach all the subjects instead of having them compartmentalized, so you can do one project and learn math, science, social studies, writing, [and] language arts," Rillero says.

For schools that don’t have an integrated curriculum, teachers from different subject areas can team up on projects.

Of course, Gilley adds, the teachers can’t do it alone. To make project-based learning the best it can be, schools should coordinate with outside organizations–with industry, with museums, and with other places that will make projects come alive for students.

Teachers also should not work in a vacuum; school leaders should give them plenty of time to collaborate and plan projects.

"We entrust teachers and encourage them to design the projects themselves," explains Rob Riordan, director of instructional support for High Tech High in San Diego. "To support that, [the teachers] have lots of contacts throughout the day and in the summer, where teachers are talking to each other about their work. Teachers also come in an hour before the school day with kids begins. They spend that time working in teams, studying together, and talking about the curriculum, projects, school issues, and students."

Riordan concludes: "None of this could work without professional time for the teachers."