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by Loretta Goodwin
Senior Director, American Youth Policy Forum

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October 6, 2016
PBL: We’re Not Flying by the Seat of Our Pants Anymore!

by Loretta Goodwin
Senior Director, American Youth Policy Forum

When it comes to Project Based Learning (PBL), many teachers often feel like they are in uncharted territory. In terms of training, resources, and data, many educators are eager to embrace learning projects that engage students in hands-on learning, but they don’t know where to start.

A few years ago, while attending a 2008 Education Commission of the States National Forum in Texas, I participated in a site visit to Manor New Technology High School. The school, which opened in 2007, was just beginning to use PBL. I remember one teacher saying, “We are building the plane while flying it – we’re flying by the seat of our pants.” She and other teachers were eager to pursue using PBL, but their teacher training program had not really prepared them for it. Undaunted, however, they proceeded to teach themselves and one another.

Fast-forward a few years, however, and what a different scenario we now observe regarding making PBL a reality for more and more students –and helping teachers get the necessary preparation!

Since that visit to Manor New Tech, I have led many AYPF study tours to schools where more and more teachers are using PBL to engage students in deeper learning.  This focus on deeper learning includes grappling with issues of equity, working to ensure that all teachers hold high expectations of all students, and provide them with the supports they need to be successful.

To do this, educators need access to preparation programs and ongoing professional development to hone their PBL skills. Happily, they are finding more receptive school environments that encourage and support PBL. They also have access to training provided by organizations such as the Buck Institute for Education, the training at High Tech High (HTH) in San Diego, and training offered by the New Tech Network. Teachers who are able to visit schools such as HTH and Envision Schools in the San Francisco Bay area are able to see PBL in action and talk to teachers who are implementing these projects, as well as students who are learning content and skills such as problem solving, communication, and critical thinking. They are able to witness firsthand many of the impressive outcomes of PBL, such as those I have seen on our study tours, described below.

What I’m Seeing Now: PBL Done Well
At Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS) in New York City, students in grade 6 worked on a project to design what a potential new school building could look like if the school’s expansion plans materialized. In math, they calculated what the flooring costs would be, based on square footage. In science, they created a blueprint for a rooftop garden that would provide the lunchroom with fresh produce. The project they worked on had them excited and interested, as it related to a real-world problem with immediate relevance to their lives. Leading their learning were teachers who participated weekly in professional development around PBL provided by the school. The school culture is supportive of teachers, providing time for them to collaborate, research, and plan projects together. Teachers also benefited from being in “student” learning mode at EL Education’s National Conference, Institutes, and Site Seminars, where they can access many resources including planning templates such as a Project Plan Template that includes learning targets, assessments, texts and writing tasks.

At HTH, we watched a group of students work on assembling a Tiny House – inside the school building!  This project was facilitated by the environmental sciences teacher who worked with students to investigate the topic of the home and how to use energy efficiently within it. Teachers at HTH have access to professional development around PBL, learning how to develop, analyze and critique PBL plans and design principles. And new teachers are assigned mentors to help them as they explore the world of PBL. In this project, students began by studying home energy consumption, collaboratively decided on a design for the home, and then constructed it with the help of a building contractor. Students had to write solicitation letters to companies to request donated items, such as steel. When we visited, they were busy installing a toilet, intent on correct placement according to their blueprints. Once completed, the Tiny House would offer bed and breakfast to travelers who were interested in learning what it means to live small. The myriad skills students acquired during this project included conducting research, using math, and communicating with fellow students and external contractors. In conversation, students noted that they will carry this learning forward into their lives as they seek housing in the future and contemplate energy consumption more generally.

Hopeful Signs
In both these instances, and many others witnessed at schools such as Los Angeles High School of the Arts, Envision Schools, and New Tech Network schools, students are taking ownership of their learning, thinking critically about the projects they are working on, solving problems on a regular basis, and learning to work in teams. They are engaging with experts to augment their own learning. Their teachers are facilitating student learning – they are collaborating with colleagues, forming the necessary interdisciplinary teams, and designing and constantly refining the projects that students work on. Teachers are addressing issues of student voice and choice in the project design, ensuring that all students have the supports they need to be successful. And they are utilizing the host of resources now available to make PBL much more accessible.

I am heartened to witness this proliferation of and interest in PBL, as it recognizes that students learn best when they are engaged in learning that is authentic, relevant, and hands-on. A while ago, many educators were building the PBL plane while flying it. While much progress still needs to be made, especially in including this kind of preparation in more teacher training programs, there is now much more help available for teacher and student learning to take flight.


Loretta Goodwin is a Senior Director at the American Youth Policy Forum. Follow her on Twitter @Learningzest and @AYPF_tweets.


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