Project-based learning leads to deeper instruction

Measuring the progress of an engaging instructional program
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 15, 2015

When I tell colleagues that our district is in its second year of a transition to project-based learning (PBL) districtwide, only a few questions emerge.

Years ago, I would have expected “What is PBL?” Now there are many districts in our region who have opted for the structured approach, led by the Buck Institute for Education.

In the Portola Valley School District, after a lengthy community input process to design our strategic plan during the 2012-13 school year, we landed on project-based learning as an approach to provide a well-rounded, challenging instructional program for transitional kindergarten through grade 8 students. (In California, we have transitional kindergarten. For the most part, it is required statewide for any children born in September, October and November.)

All students, regardless of their socio-economic or cultural backgrounds, deserve the opportunity to discover their own voice through PBL and the authentic learning that can come from exploring the true depths of a question.

Realistic problems

PBL is a pedagogical approach that supports student learning through the experience of solving realistic problems, such as answers to “Where would you place a 22nd mission” or “Do beavers belong in the Guadalupe River?”

Broadly, PBL is defined as “a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.”

PBL aims to equip students with the “four Cs”Ñcritical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. PBL is also a great complement to the implementation of the Common Core standards. Finally, PBL has been found to improve students’ ability to collaborate and to resolve conflicts while imbuing them with higher motivation and confidence.

Structured program

Five core components exist with PBL. Here are the key points in any structured district program that supports projects from the exploration stage to become intentional learning experiences:

Projects must be central to the curriculum. While projects are often incorporated into standard instruction, project-based work is the primary teaching strategy in PBL programs.
PBL projects must be focused on questions that drive students to deeply engage, and even struggle, with material they are expected to master. Structuring projects around themes may be insufficient.
Project design is a critical starting point for PBL. The questions students explore must incorporate learning objectives, appeal to student interests and align with their existing skills. Students must engage in a constructive investigation that transforms knowledge they already have and incorporates new knowledge.
Projects should be student-driven and allow for student autonomy and responsibility. Within those parameters, a PBL project can be highly structured and guide students to optimal solutionsÑor, at the other end of the spectrum, it may have no clear solution at all.
Projects must be authentic in that some element must be realistic and not a purely academic exercise. The answer to the question “Why should we need to know this?” should be clear, and the issue is one of real importance to the students.

Year one

In year one of implementation, a small group of teachers and administrators were trained in the Buck Institute for Education’s three-day PBL approach. The group also designed projects for students to work on. These projects were later showcased to introduce parents to PBL.

During Summer 2014, the rest of the staff worked with the same trainer, supported by those with a year of PBL under their belts. The classified staff also experienced an overview of PBL so they, too, could support students in the classroom. We look forward to sharing our learning with parents and the greater community as the year progresses. DA

Lisa Gonzales is superintendent of the Portola Valley School District in California and vice president of Legislative Action for the Association of California School Administrators.