by Suzie Boss
The fourth PBL World Conference kicked off today under sunny skies in Napa, Calif., with inspiring keynote messages from two prominent education thought leaders and two empowered students whose lives have been shaped by project-based learning experiences.
Bob Lenz (@pblbob), incoming executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, which hosts PBL World, set the tone for the day by recalling a poetry project he did as a fifth-grader. The project generated an authentic product, shared with a public audience, and it made him love learning. Convinced of the transformative power of such experiences, Lenz embraced PBL when he became a teacher and later, when he launched a network of high schools, Envision Education, that teach entirely through projects. Throughout his career, he has continued to ask, “Why can’t we do this for all kids?”
John Mergendoller (@johnmbie), who is concluding his long tenure as executive director of BIE, shared with the audience the quest that he has been leading for the past year: defining a “gold standard” for high-quality PBL. “How can we make sure that what happens in PBL classrooms is worth everyone’s time?” BIE has tackled that question project-style, deepening the inquiry through research, interviews, expert insights, and many rounds of revision and reflection. The result is a framework for “PBL done well,” described in detail in the new book, Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning.
The audience of 700 educators, representing a dozen countries and 42 U.S. states, learned that the role of the teacher gets deliberate attention in the new gold standard. Mergendoller observed that projects don’t run by themselves. “It’s the teacher who provides guidance,” he added, leading students to deeper academic understanding and development of success skills. The gold standard also emphasizes authentic, real-world work and—with a nod to John Dewey—reflection across the arc of a project.
What happens to students who have the benefit of high-quality PBL? Two graduates of PBL-based high schools wowed the audience with their stories and insights, reminding attendees why student voice matters in PBL.
Katie Wynne (@reluctntbarista), a 2011 graduate of DaVinci Charter Academy in Davis, Calif., just graduated from George Washington University in Washington, DC, with a degree international affairs. She’s now embarking on a GWU graduate program focusing on Advocacy in the Global Environment. A scholarship will help fund her pursuit of a master’s degree.
“PBL did not teach me to sit quietly,” Wynne said. Rather, projects put her on a path to “be adaptable and be confident in forging my own life and career.” In college, she leveraged her considerable collaboration and planning skills to help her be successful in internships and to lead student-run events.
Victor Arellano (@Victor_8) is a 2015 graduate of Impact Academy in Hayward, Calif. He will be the first from his school district to attend an Ivy League school when he starts at University of Pennsylvania this year.
Arellano, describing himself as “a math guy,” said his PBL experiences go far beyond academic success. “This gives me hope for human solidarity in the future. I can’t think of a wiser investment.”
PBL World continues all week on the campus of Napa New Tech High School. Follow the conversations with the Twitter hashtag #pblworld. Watch for daily blog posts for keynote highlights and interviews, and catch more highlights in the PBL World community on Google+.