Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Project-Based Learning Engages Students in Meaningful Work

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Project-Based Learning Engages Students in Meaningful Work

Article excerpt

Students at High Tech Middle engage in project-based learning.

For four decades, researchers have demonstrated that project-based learning (PBL) can be an effective way to engage and motivate middle grades learners (Yetkiner, Anderoglu, & Capraro, 2008). Although definitions vary in the specifics, PBL is typically considered an approach to teaching in which students respond to real-world questions or challenges through an extended inquiry process. PBL often involves peer collaboration, a strong emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills, and interdisciplinary learning (Edutopia, 2008; Markham, Larmer, & Ravitz, 2003; Thomas, 2000).

When PBL is thoughtfully designed and implemented, evidence suggests that it can be more effective than traditional instruction for teaching concept mastery in core academic disciplines, supporting long-term knowledge retention, improving mastery of 21st century skills, and preparing students to synthesize and explain concepts (see, e.g., Boaler, 1997; Strobel & van Barneveld, 2008; Walker & Leary, 2008). Additionally, there is some evidence that PBL can be more effective than traditional instruction in increasing student performance on standardized tests (Geier, et al., 2008) and that it can be especially effective with lowerachieving students (Mergendoller, Maxwell, & Bellisimo, 2007; Lynch, Kuipers, Pyke, & Szesze, 2005).

However, even the most fervent advocates for PBL will acknowledge that it is not always used effectively. As the Buck Institute for Education (n.d.), a non-profit dedicated to studying and supporting the development of PBL notes on its website:

At its best, PBL can be the catalyst for an engaging learning experience and create a context for a powerful learning community focused on achievement, self-mastery, and contribution to the community. At its worst, it can be a colossal waste of time for all concerned. (para. 3)

PBL often fails when the emphasis falls too heavily on the "project" element of the title rather than on the "learning." When teachers focus on what students can make and do, instead of what they can investigate and uncover, projects are guilty of what Wiggins and McTighe (2005) term the "activity-oriented sin of design" (p. 16). Projects that come at the end of a unit of study, are peripheral to core concepts, or are intended to demonstrate what has been learned rather than actively engage students in new learning might all be characterized as "hands-on without being minds-on" (p. 16) and fall outside the realm of what is considered to be PBL. The sugar cube pyramid that students construct at the end of the Egypt unit, the science fair model volcano, and the diorama book report are all classic examples of projects that may be fun but fail to engage students in meaningful learning. This article describes the implementation of PBL in a school that has avoided many of these pitfalls and has successfully engaged middle level students in powerful learning through projects.

Examples of PBL

When PBL is done well, it can energize students, faculty, and school communities. High Tech Middle (HTM) is an example of a middle level school where PBL has had a dramatic impact on student achievement and the campus environment. Part of the larger High Tech High charter school organization, HTM serves a diverse population in the San Diego area. Students at the school are admitted by lottery and come from a wide range of academic and socioeconomic backgrounds. HTM graduates go on to college at a rate of 99%, and the school's standardized test scores are among the strongest in the county.

PBL has been central to the success of HTM, a school founded on the principles of personalization, common intellectual mission, and adult-world connection. Teachers design projects to respond to the interests and needs of their students, explore the core concepts of their disciplines, and build on their own passions and strengths. …

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