California institute takes lead in promoting project-based learning

July 5, 2015

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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