Victor Arellano, who spoke at the PBL World conference, said project-based learning ignited his love of education

After overcoming a childhood of poverty and proximity to gang violence, Victor Arellano graduated from high school in Hayward last month and is now headed to the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship.

He credits his mother, Veronica, a Mexican immigrant and single parent, for teaching him to value education. But he says something else made him fall in love with learning: a classroom method called project-based learning, or PBL.

Arellano, 18, spoke during a keynote panel at “PBL World,” a week-long conference in June which was attended by 700 educators from 42 states and 12 countries. The event was hosted by the Buck Institute for Education, based in Novato, just north of San Francisco. In recent years, the institute has become a leading global champion of project-based learning.

The method engages students, individually or in teams, in active experiences which might include researching a topic, conducting interviews, producing theatrical performances, and manufacturing products, as opposed to  learning content by reading and listening to lectures. Projects can be a part of diverse curricula, including English Language Arts, mathematics, science, history, or a cross-curricular combination.

Originally known as “experiential education,” project-based learning is more than a century old. Yet in recent years, it has been attracting new interest throughout the United States and beyond, as 43 states including California implement the Common Core State Standards. Proponents of project-based learning say it’s an ideal way to meet the new standards’ expectations that students improve in their ability to solve problems, communicate, and collaborate.

“The Common Core lays out what it wants kids to do,” said Buck Institute executive director Bob Lenz.  “PBL is the instructional strategy that allows them to do it.”

Arellano told how his interest in learning caught fire as a sophomore, while studying at the Impact Academy of Arts & Technology in Hayward, one of three schools run by the Envision Education charter school network. That’s where his  pre-calculus teacher, Clifford Cheng, challenged him to watch a video of the British soccer star David Beckham kicking balls into trash cans, and then figure out the balls’  trajectory. More than a simple math problem, the assignment required Arellano to write a paper including  graphs and formulas to explain his initial prediction and reasoning, show how he got his answer, and later defend his work verbally to his adviser.

Inspired, Arellano ended up doing even more. He researched the average speed at which professional soccer players kick balls, calculated the time the balls would take to hit the can, and devised an original formula that Cheng said he found so impressive that he used it in subsequent lessons.

Arellano said that such naturally engaging challenges — and Cheng’s encouragement — gave him his first strong sense of relevance and autonomy in the classroom. “It taught me that my schoolwork was important,” he said. “It’s not just memorizing facts and spitting them out.”

In 2001, 13 years after its founding, the Buck Institute for Education chose to devote itself entirely to researching, championing, and disseminating project-based learning. Since January of 2013, the institute has conducted 181 three-day “PBL 101”  workshops in California, training  more than 6,300 teachers. This summer alone, it will  run 350 workshops in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Interest in project-based learning has been “exploding,” said Lenz, who previously was a  founder of Envision Education. Lenz said that Arellano’s story echoes a common theme among students he’s met. “You hear it all the time,” he said. “Project-based learning can make a profound difference in students’ lives.”

Buck Institute staff members say they decided to focus on project-based learning because both teachers’ anecdotal experience and research have shown that when it’s done well, it can be both more motivating and effective than more conventional methods.  Yet they say  it is still rarely taught in teacher preparation programs.

Other educational experts contend that state of affairs is changing. William Penuel, a professor of educational psychology at Colorado University at Boulder, who has published widely cited research on project-based learning, said the approach is part of the UTeach model, a high school teacher-preparation program for science, technology, and math, which is used at some 30 universities.

Buck Institute officials also say that far too many U.S. schools today either don’t provide project-based learning at all or rely on a poor substitute: rote classroom projects long familiar to many students and parents.

A project they say almost always has  empty educational calories is the traditional California grade-school assignment to build a replica of a Spanish mission while studying early state history. Although the exercise might well include innovative aspects — for instance, requiring students to learn engineering concepts in designing their buildings — all too often, they say, students end up spending time merely gluing and painting.

“It is my goal in life to do away with the California mission project,” said David Ross, the Buck Institute director of partnerships and outreach. Ross said the typical mission project “has convinced a generation of teachers that they are engaged in PBL, when in fact they are just mechanically repeating a showcase activity that is traditional but ineffective.” Most importantly, he said, they usually doesn’t produce any improvement in students’ ability to communicate, critically think, collaborate or be creative.

The Buck Institute offers a definition of project-based learning that extends beyond the notion of simply producing an object, such as a diorama or model. Instead, they say, it is a “set of learning experiences and tasks that guide students in inquiry toward answering a central question, solving a problem, or meeting a challenge.” The institute’s website provides a checklist of a  “gold-standard” project’s essential elements, including: a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, student’s revision of work, and public presentation of results.

In one of several workshops held at last  week’s conference, Buck facilitator Andrew Miller told his audience of about 35 educators that a fundamental shift with  project-based learning is for teachers to think of projects as a “main course,” rather than “dessert.”

In other words, instead of giving students a project at the end of a unit, as a treat, the project itself should be the vehicle for learning, Miller said. Teachers would still explain concepts and procedures, but students would be actively engaged from the start.

“You don’t teach the content because then they don’t ‘need’ to know anything,” Miller told his listeners.

Miller groaned theatrically as he showed a slide of another familiar rote grade-school project — a model of the solar system, with the sun and planets all carefully painted. “How long did the students take to make  this, and what did they learn?” he asked rhetorically.

As a contrast, he then showed a short video describing a project in which students learned about the human circulatory system by interviewing a doctor on Skype, doing research in teams, and then suggesting diagnoses for a patient with a mysterious illness. At the end, each team had to explain their diagnosis and treatment recommendations to a panel of parents and community experts who challenged them with questions.

The PBL World conference was held at the New Technology High School — the founding school of the New Tech Network, a non-profit, fee-for-service professional development and coaching company that works to help redesign schools and districts. Together with the 160 mostly traditional public schools and charter schools in the network, the New Technology High school is heavily focused on project-based learning.

The Buck Institute for Education was established with a bequest by a Marin County oil heiress, Beryl Buck, but now supports itself mostly through sales of its PBL-related services and products. Its annual $9 million in revenues come from mostly texts and handbooks on project-based learning and professional development courses for teachers.

The institute’s outgoing executive director, John Mergendoller, said the bulk of its recent work has been in Texas, Tennessee, Ohio, and Virginia, where he said districts have enthusiastically sought its support.

In California, the project-based learning approach is a signature feature of schools including the Impact Academy in Hayward, which Arellano attended,  the New Technology High School, and High Tech High, a charter network of 13 schools based in San Diego.

According to an EdSource Today survey earlier this spring, superintendents of six California school districts — in San Jose, Fresno, Garden Grove, Elk Grove, Visalia, and Santa Ana — and officials at the Aspire Public Schools charter network all said their schools had either recently increased the time spent on project-based learning in response to the Common Core standards or that their districts had redesigned their approach to project-based learning to better align with the new standards.

Arellano said that his interest in school projects, and his after-school work as a janitor, alongside his mother, had helped keep him out of trouble in Hayward, even as some of his cousins joined gangs.

He told the PBL World audience that in another inspiring project at his school, in his AP government class, he ran a mock presidential  campaign. “I felt like a real politician — and had to learn about interest groups, propaganda, how to make speeches, group-management, and leadership,” said Arellano, who described himself as an admirer of the Libertarian Party but said he ran as a Republican — and won.

A teacher raised her hand and asked if Arellano had thought about running for president later, in real life.

He paused for a moment. “Possibly,” he said.

 


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  1. Proud Parent 9 months ago9 months ago

    PBL really works, both of my kids went from a GPA of 2.3 and 2.0 to 4.0 and 4.17. Both came from a private school.

  2. THE INSTITUTE OF PARENT INSIGHT 1 year ago1 year ago

    I am upset as a parent with the notion that the word INSTITUTE is used as a title to this article to perhaps give more weight to the words and sentences and paragraphs. I say the so called INSTITUTES mentioned in this article are experimenting with elementary schools and they are perhaps not using testing as a tool but instead project based group based project grades, like group science projects, but more and more and … Read More

    I am upset as a parent with the notion that the word INSTITUTE is used as a title to this article to perhaps give more weight to the words and sentences and paragraphs.

    I say the so called INSTITUTES mentioned in this article are experimenting with elementary schools and they are perhaps not using testing as a tool but instead project based group based project grades, like group science projects, but more and more and more of them so that grades with use of independent quizzes and or tests given each week may be thrown out the door so to speak by such INSTITUTES.

    I say let us not use elementary schools as test areas where teachers go deeper and students go deeper when as they enter the mine, the scaffolds of learning may give way to freefall of knowledge itself.

    Let us get back a STAR test for all schools. Let us get back simple benchmarks for all grades.

    Let us ask the INSTITUTES to use testing to gauge if their approaches work or not with regard to INDIVIDUAL student learning and mastery of subjects such as the common core mandated standards for math.

    I ask the EdSource author of this article if a follow up of a question can be asked of both INSTITUTES quoted in this article.

    and I ask it be posted in the comment section as an addendum to the article.

    QUESTION FOR INSTITUTES; WHAT DO YOU THINK OF INDIVIDUAL TESTING FOR INDIVIDUAL STUDENTS AND ARE YOU DOING IT, AND IF SO HOW OFTEN?

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 1 year ago1 year ago

      I know about the Buck Institute and various offshoots and also know of the other educational groups mentioned here. What the heck is the "Institute of Parent Insight?" All of your assertions about the need for over-testing students have been thoroughly debunked by, among others, the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC asserts its comprehensive studies show of the impacts of the national testing hysteria have not increased achievement and have actually hurt overall learning … Read More

      I know about the Buck Institute and various offshoots and also know of the other educational groups mentioned here. What the heck is the “Institute of Parent Insight?”

      All of your assertions about the need for over-testing students have been thoroughly debunked by, among others, the National Research Council (NRC). The NRC asserts its comprehensive studies show of the impacts of the national testing hysteria have not increased achievement and have actually hurt overall learning in the US because of the narrowing of the curriculum.

      Now I don’t know how the academic prestige of the NRC matches up to that of the Institute for Parent Insight. Why don’t you let us know?

    • Concerned parent 1 year ago1 year ago

      I am a member of this premier institute I.O.P.I. and the institute is concerned about the need for testing so that parents and children too can know nationwide and worldwide how their child is progressing in key areas, especially math. No, the need for some kind of high stakes testing is wanted by parents. Testing is healthy and necessary for without testing our children in California will slip even more from 42nd worst state in education. Stop expressing … Read More

      I am a member of this premier institute I.O.P.I. and the institute is concerned about the need for testing so that parents and children too can know nationwide and worldwide how their child is progressing in key areas, especially math.

      No, the need for some kind of high stakes testing is wanted by parents.

      Testing is healthy and necessary for without testing our children in California will slip even more from 42nd worst state in education.

      Stop expressing the propaganda that testing is now outdated. To do so paints you as a low quality teacher leader in this parent opinion.

  3. Concerned parent 1 year ago1 year ago

    as a parent I think this article is propaganda for the Buck institute philosophies of p.b.l. In that it ...the article...only presents one view, one way of thinking. California is ranked 42nd of the fifty states, and the low,income students are suffering in regression of learning, in my opinion, due to a lack of ...check for understanding ... Testing of INDIVIDUAL children. Each child Ned's testing and not combined group grades for the majority of … Read More

    as a parent I think this article is propaganda for the Buck institute philosophies of p.b.l. In that it …the article…only presents one view, one way of thinking.

    California is ranked 42nd of the fifty states, and the low,income students are suffering in regression of learning, in my opinion, due to a lack of …check for understanding … Testing of INDIVIDUAL children. Each child Ned’s testing and not combined group grades for the majority of a school year.

    T article states that the Buck institute does not wi sh to promote teaching CONTENT in subject but instead wants to teach an exploration of the group,based project….sort of a let’s all,work together approach to all things

    I say elementary school schooled have no more than 25% of project based learning because CONTENT must be taught.

    I am tired of propaganda articles, such as this one, and I request the Ed source editor mandate the presentation of both views of all subjects because we, as a state, are regressing in teaching, and especially for children in elementary schools , and we are using vast group grade I nflatqion with project based learning because there is no individual old fashion testing for individual CONTENT knowledge of subject matter, and the mandated common coremstandards in science, math, history are not covered to say fifty percent.

    Concerned Parent

  4. Jen Kelky 1 year ago1 year ago

    That article completely encompassed all the experiences I've had as a science teacher... I've been thinking about starting my own "school" for little kids. Similar to Ad Astra. Please tell Mr. Arellana that Id be honored to have him give me his thoughts and feedback if he found the time. I'd hire him in a microsecond! Always preferred a kid like him in class vs the "entitled" troublemakers. Hats off … Read More

    That article completely encompassed all the experiences I’ve had as a science teacher… I’ve been thinking about starting my own “school” for little kids. Similar to Ad Astra.

    Please tell Mr. Arellana that Id be honored to have him give me his thoughts and feedback if he found the time. I’d hire him in a microsecond!

    Always preferred a kid like him in class vs the “entitled” troublemakers. Hats off to his mom and kudos to you for doing this article.

    Jennifer Kelly

  5. Krono 1 year ago1 year ago

    Is adoption of Project Based Learning entirely at the discretion of local school districts, or does the state department of education have some role in requiring/encouraging/facilitating districts to adopt this practice? Which practice, by the way, sounds like the kind of experience that I hope--but doubt--my kids will have in their neighborhood public school, and also sounds a lot like the kind of learning that I've always imagined is a key difference between many … Read More

    Is adoption of Project Based Learning entirely at the discretion of local school districts, or does the state department of education have some role in requiring/encouraging/facilitating districts to adopt this practice? Which practice, by the way, sounds like the kind of experience that I hope–but doubt–my kids will have in their neighborhood public school, and also sounds a lot like the kind of learning that I’ve always imagined is a key difference between many private and public schools. How wonderful if public schools can embrace PBL!

    Replies

    • Don 1 year ago1 year ago

      Krono, like anything else, the practitioner is more important than the practice. My son was in a 7th grade math class largely directed using PBL. He’s know about one year behind.

    • Concerned parent 1 year ago1 year ago

      Gary Ravani will be silent regarding this parent's statement that his son lost a year of learning all thanks to NO TESTING! GROUP GRADES! AND PROJECT BASED LEARNING! If required weekly and monthly testing was mandated for project based learning, then us parents would see and know warning signs that our sons and or daughters were beginning to lack mastery of mandated, yes, mandated common core standards. enough is enough. why has not the CDE stepped in to … Read More

      Gary Ravani will be silent regarding this parent’s statement that his son lost a year of learning all thanks to NO TESTING! GROUP GRADES! AND PROJECT BASED LEARNING!

      If required weekly and monthly testing was mandated for project based learning, then us parents would see and know warning signs that our sons and or daughters were beginning to lack mastery of mandated, yes, mandated common core standards.

      enough is enough.

      why has not the CDE stepped in to mandate weekly and summaritative monthly tests to ensure learning has taken place by all members of the group in the PROJECT BASED Learning group?

      I am sorry that teachers are not looking out more for ensuring quality learning is taking place in pbl,schools that do it over say 50% or more each day, week and one month, like the one this article is talking about.

      PBL is bad if it does not use testing each week.

      PBL needs Ed code for elementary and middle schools to ensure learning takes place.

      why should parents trust teachers and school administrators with regard to use of working educational practices, if teachers will not speak out about the bad state of PBL in elementary and middle schools, where PBL is really an experiment.

      • Gary Ravani 1 year ago1 year ago

        Well no. Concerned. I will not be silent. I think it only makes sense that the anecdotal assertions of one parent should determine the curricular goals for CA’s six and a half million students. Why didn’t I think of that before?

  6. Paul Muench 1 year ago1 year ago

    Remembering is the essence of learning and remembering is the residue of thinking. Students have to think when confronted with novel situations. Confronting children with the novel situations that are manageable is one of the skills of great teachers. Socrates did that through discussion. I'm not sure that would fit in the box of PBL, but maybe it would. The term PBL is already seeping into the lingo of elementary … Read More

    Remembering is the essence of learning and remembering is the residue of thinking. Students have to think when confronted with novel situations. Confronting children with the novel situations that are manageable is one of the skills of great teachers. Socrates did that through discussion. I’m not sure that would fit in the box of PBL, but maybe it would. The term PBL is already seeping into the lingo of elementary school children in that they tell their parents they did PBL at school. Unfortunately the method and lingo have gained significance over what was learned in some classrooms. So as usual with lingo like this I’d love to see the term go extinct, but it’s probably already such a big part of the selling involved in the educational industrial complex that it will likely hang on for some time to come. I anticipate this hanging on will be to the detriment of children as it feeds the checkbox approach mentioned in the article.

    Replies

    • Concerned parent 1 year ago1 year ago

      Dear Mr. Paul, I believe your view of pedagogy is too esoteric. PBL allows for students to get through school with less knowledge for say 50% of all the children in say elementary schools that are immersed in the lingo of mind shift so to speak with regard to silo teacher philosophies of no hard cold checking for content mastery , especially with all things math, we are going a half inch wide in discoverymand one hundred … Read More

      Dear Mr. Paul,

      I believe your view of pedagogy is too esoteric.

      PBL allows for students to get through school with less knowledge for say 50% of all the children in say elementary schools that are immersed in the lingo of mind shift so to speak with regard to silo teacher philosophies of no hard cold checking for content mastery , especially with all things math, we are going a half inch wide in discoverymand one hundred miles,deep and to hell with picking up any history or science books, why , let us just talk and group learn.

      PBL is becoming a loser method if not done right, and no one knows how to quest for PBL, and subjective grading ism, I believe gaining footholds due to eduspeak and esoteric talk.

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