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February 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 5
Teaching Students to Think
Jane L. David
In this new column, Jane L. David shares with readers what research says about the effectiveness of current education reforms.
In the coming months, David will examine the research behind such approaches as retention in grade, incentives to attract teachers to high-poverty schools, and small learning communities. In framing the issues and drawing conclusions, she will draw on articles from peer-reviewed journals and reports from research institutions as well as her own 35 years of experience studying schools and districts.
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Whether students investigate what happens to their family's garbage or design an entire city, project-based learning aims to engage them in realistic, thought-provoking problems.
The core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience. Advocates assert that project-based learning helps prepare students for the thinking and collaboration skills required in the workplace.
Project-based learning creates opportunities for groups of students to investigate meaningful questions that require them to gather information and think critically. Typical projects present a problem to solve (How can we reduce the pollution in the schoolyard pond?); a phenomenon to investigate (Why do you stay on your skateboard?); a model to design (Create a scale model of an ideal high school); or a decision to make (Should the school board vote to build a new school?).
Although projects are the primary vehicle for instruction in project-based learning, there are no commonly shared criteria for what constitutes an acceptable project. Projects vary greatly in the depth of the questions explored, the clarity of the learning goals, the content and structure of the activity, and guidance from the teacher. The role of projects in the overall curriculum is also open to interpretation. Projects can guide the entire curriculum (more common in charter or other alternative schools) or simply comprise a few scattered hands-on activities. They might be multidisciplinary (more likely in elementary schools) or single-subject (commonly science and math). Some are whole class, others small group, and some individual.
Fully realized project-based teaching has never been widespread in mainstream public schooling. Teachers have little training or experience in the approach. Moreover, the time demands of projects, especially in today's context of standards, high-stakes tests, and pacing guides, understandably discourage many teachers from venturing into the kinds of collaborative student investigations that form the foundation of project-based learning. Because teachers tend to find this approach difficult to implement with low-performing students and may lack supporting technology, it is less likely to be embraced in high-poverty schools, which could increase rather than lessen existing inequities.
The broad and varied definitions of project-based learning make it difficult to identify a distinct body of research on its practice. In fact, only a few studies have measured the effects of project-based learning on student achievement.
Boaler (2002) compared student mathematics achievement in two similar British secondary schools, one using traditional instruction and the other using project-based instruction. After three years, students in the project-based-learning school significantly outperformed the traditional-school students in mathematics skills as well as conceptual and applied knowledge. In fact, in the project-based-learning school, three times as many students passed the national exam.
The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University (1992) evaluated the effects of a series of video-based adventure simulations it developed. "The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury" provides a structure for students to work collaboratively on simulated real-world problems that require applying mathematical knowledge and reasoning. Compared with a control group, students who used the Vanderbilt series scored higher in solving word problems and in planning. On tests of basic math concepts, both groups scored the same.
Beyond academic outcomes, the Boaler and Vanderbilt studies both found that experience with projects reduced student math anxiety and resulted in more positive attitudes toward math. Boaler also found positive effects on equity: The link between performance and student economic level disappeared in the project-based school and increased in the traditional school.
In his comprehensive review of the limited research on project-based learning, Thomas (2000) found some evidence that this approach enhances the quality of student learning compared with other instructional methods. He also cited evidence that project-based learning is effective for teaching processes such as problem solving and decision making, but much of this research lacked comparisons with other methods.
The handful of studies that have measured the effects of project-based learning have looked at programs that were more well developed than the vast majority of projects created and carried out by individual teachers. Research on these more typical versions of project-based learning has not focused on the results but instead has shed light on the challenges of implementing this practice in classrooms.
Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik, and Soloway (1997) documented several challenges teachers face in implementing projects. Among these are the length of class periods and the pressure to cover curriculum topics. Because inquiry-based projects take more time than teacher-centered instruction does, their use raises the perennial question of breadth versus depth. Teachers also need skill in managing multiple activities. Many projects use technology—for example, to provide simulations, opportunities for Internet research, or collaboration with others in a remote location—which makes additional demands on the teacher.
To use project-based learning effectively, teachers must fully understand the concepts embedded in their projects and be able to model thinking and problem-solving strategies effectively (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Worthwhile projects require challenging questions that can support collaboration, as well as methods of measuring the intended learning outcomes. Without carefully designed tasks, skilled teachers, and school conditions that support projects, project-based learning can devolve into a string of activities with no clear purpose or outcome.
These studies suggest that project-based learning, when fully realized, can improve student learning. However, the research also underscores how difficult it is to implement project-based learning well. Together these findings suggest caution in embracing this practice unless the conditions for success are in place, including strong school support, access to well-developed projects, and a collaborative culture for teachers and students.
Yet, teachers can use the key ideas underlying project-based learning in some measure in any classroom. Using real-life problems to motivate students, challenging them to think deeply about meaningful content, and enabling them to work collaboratively are practices that yield benefits for all students.
Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3, 4), 369–398.
Boaler, J. (2002). Learning from teaching: Exploring the relationship between reform curriculum and equity. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 33(4), 239–258.
Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1992). The Jasper Series as an example of anchored instruction: Theory, program description, and assessment data. Educational Psychologist, 27(3), 291–315.
Marx, R. W., Blumenfeld, P. C., Krajcik, J. S., & Soloway, E. (1997). Enacting project-based science: Challenges for practice and policy. Elementary School Journal, 97(4) 341–358.
Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. San Rafael, CA: Autodesk Foundation.
Editor's Note: Because of an editor's error, the last paragraph of Jane L. David's December 2007/January 2008 column was incorrect. The correct version reads as follows:
As one of several strategies designed to support strong instructional leaders and teachers, walk-throughs can be helpful. Used alone or to enforce compliance, however, they are likely to backfire.
Jane L. David is Director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reform (Education Week Press, 2006).
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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