Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Project-Based Learning Not Just for STEM Anymore: The Research Is Clear That Social Studies and Literacy Are Fertile Ground for Robust Project-Based Learning Units

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Project-Based Learning Not Just for STEM Anymore: The Research Is Clear That Social Studies and Literacy Are Fertile Ground for Robust Project-Based Learning Units

Article excerpt

Second graders stand before the chairperson of their city's Chamber of Commerce, presenting detailed brochures they have written that contain compelling characteristics of their local community. The chairperson has arranged to place children's brochures into welcome packets the chamber sends to new and potential residents. Students have taken an important step to convincing others about assets in their community and gained valuable knowledge and skills in the process.

This scene represents the final step of a unit developed to teach geography and key content literacy skills as part of Project PLACE, a Project-based Literacy And Civic Engagement curriculum for 2nd graders (Duke et al., 2014).

The project engaged students over 20 sessions to develop brochures intended to persuade new and potential residents that their community is a great place to live. Each student's brochure highlighted natural and human community attractions such as lakes, rivers, libraries, and athletic centers. The brochures included local maps with keys indicating points of interest. This was an educational unit for students to wrap their young minds around important geography and literacy concepts and skills, including graphical comprehension, using an index, and persuasive writing. All of that occurred in a real-world context and purpose--making it a prototype for project-based learning.

But perhaps the most notable features of the project is that the content it aims to teach derives from social studies and literacy rather than the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines typically associated with project-based learning (PBL). Indeed, the popularity of project-based learning has been driven in part by a growing number of STEM schools and programs. In your district, for example, it should be no surprise if the STEM school or program down the street--emphasizing a curriculum based on inquiry, hands-on learning, and problem solving--is furthest along in adapting and integrating project-based learning.

But STEM subjects are not the only fertile ground for project-based learning. Social studies and literacy content, as demonstrated by the 2nd graders' brochures, can be addressed in project-based learning units.

Key research

Despite greater attention to project-based learning in STEM education, some of the most powerful evidence in support of PBL comes from social studies education research. At the high school level, for example, students who participated in collaboratively designed learning units centered around complex, authentic challenges exhibited better scores on Advanced Placement (AP) tests than students in typical AP classes (Parker et al., 2013). Similarly, project-based learning fostered better learning of macroeconomics concepts and improved problem-solving skills than traditional lecture-based instruction (Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2006).

Studies with middle school students also demonstrate PBL's potential in social studies (MacArthur, Ferritti, & Okolo, 2002). Research also has documented compelling social studies growth via PBL with young learners (Halvorsen et al., 2012). Our current large-scale study examining the effect of project-based units for 2nd graders (Project PLACE) produced significant social studies learning compared to status quo instruction--specifically in economics, geography, history, and civics and government (Duke et al., 2016).

Literacy research also points to the power of project-based learning. Numerous studies have shown that literacy develops more quickly, and students have greater literacy motivation in contexts when students:

* Read and write for purposes beyond school;

* Read and write material they see as relevant to their lives;

* Read and write texts similar to those found outside school;

* Read and write texts on topics of interest to them;

* Make choices about what they read;

* Write for an audience beyond a teacher; and

* Have the opportunity to collaborate (Guthrie, McRae, & Klauda, 2007; Purcell-Gates, Duke, & Martineau, 2007; Puzio & Colby, 2013). …

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