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June 22, 2017
PBL Isn’t Just Curriculum; for Some Students It’s a Lifeline.

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

We at the Buck Institute have been making the case for PBL as an educational equity strategy. For all students, and especially those from historically disadvantaged groups, a great project can be a transformative experience. Students gain a sense of agency in the world, confidence in themselves as learners and problem solvers. They gain the ability and the desire—and the grit, perseverance, and success skills that it takes—to tackle real-world problems in their lives, communities, nation, and world.

The title of this post is a quote from this morning’s keynote speaker at PBL World 2017, who told some stories that brought the equity argument home in a big way for the audience.

Carlos Moreno is co-executive director of Big Picture Learning, which is part of the Hewlett Foundation’s Deeper Learning network along with BIE and other PBL-oriented school networks. He received this year’s PBL Champion award from BIE. As Bob Lenz said when he introduced Carlos, Big Picture was pretty much the original “personalized learning” network because of its emphasis on knowing each student well. That’s the key to its success in transforming the lives of students, and a key piece of equity work, where close relationships with adults are so important.

Carlos told of students whose lives were turned around because of PBL and the personalized approach in Big Picture high schools, of which there are now 60 across the U.S. and 13 in other nations. In their schools, students work for four years with the same advisor/teacher to create a program tailored to each student’s interest, centered around an internship in the community for 2-3 days a week. Students do projects within their internships and learn via PBL in school too.

The Secret Sauce
According to Carlos, Big Picture’s success is due to four ingredients:

  • Pay attention to the whole student
  • Focus on students’ strengths, not gaps or weaknesses
  • Allow students to demonstrate what they know and assess them in multiple ways
  • Encourage “leaving” to learn – in community-based internships

He told of four students in his advisory group when he was a teacher at a Big Picture school whose PBL projects helped transform their lives. One girl, who had absent parents, did a project on hypertension, sparked by her grandmother’s suffering from it.  She dug into the science of it, learned about Body Mass Index (BMI) testing, and planned and conducted community workshops, working with an expert from the local hospital. She’s now a phlebotomist studying to become a nurse.

Another girl, a mother at 15, did projects because she wanted to help other students, such as a health and wellness fair, a transition program for incoming 9th graders, and a CSI-style forensics demonstration. She’s now a college graduate who works for Big Picture. A 10th-grade boy who “knew about business from the streets” as Carlos put it with a wink, worked with a local entrepreneur to create his own business plan.

Carlos told a moving story of one student he did not reach, who was shot and killed at age 19, then left the audience at PBL World with this message: “Lead fearlessly and remember to love hard.”


A video of Carlos' keynote can be found here


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