Volcanoes and dinosaurs are pretty cool. I remember learning about them in elementary school. My dad helped me make a really cool diorama in an old apple box that had both. The plastic dinosaurs grazed happily amidst the trees, but dangerously near the paper mache volcano looming in the background. We had a piece of tubing that ran inside the volcano and out the back to a turkey baster filled with a gooey cornstarch and water mix dyed with red and orange food coloring to make it look like hot lava. On one hand, my teacher certainly succeeded in capturing my attention and stimulating my creative side. On the other hand, I’m not sure what I actually learned regarding either volcanoes or dinosaurs over the course of the project. Likewise, I had a grand time building a sugar cube model of a California mission in 4th grade, but am not sure what I was supposed to take away from the experience.
The best project-based learning results in a product with purpose. Project-based learning presses students beyond knowledge acquisition and requires critical thinking and application of learning in order to solve a problem that matters or to create something with real value outside the classroom. In the process of solving the problem, students also meet required academic standards, but this work is integrated into the project, not separate from it. The more we can connect academic content to activities or contexts students will actually use in life, the better. Ioannis Mioulis, president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston, and former dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts University writes, “Students can spend weeks learning how a volcano works, and no time understanding how a car works. How often will they find themselves in a volcano?”
At the same time, it is important that we do not ignore or neglect academic learning goals. When I was a young teacher I can remember spending considerable time in our Social Studies department meetings trying to come up with a body of knowledge or “Intellectual Capital” we felt was truly important for our students to know in order to effectively think about and analyze the world. Principal Richard Coote, of Birkdale Intermediate School in Auckland New Zealand, points out, “You can’t underestimate the content. Knowledge is what we use to think with. The thinking process is what students will take into the world. So you have to do both at once – content and process.”
In a brief authored for The Southern Regional Education Board titled, Using Real-World Projects to Help Students Meet High Standards in Education and the Workplace, Jobs for the Future writes: “Project-based learning complements and connects two important trends in education:
- the use of external standards to guide changes in curriculum, instruction and organization; and
- the creation of community- and school-based opportunities for students to immerse themselves in the adult world of work and learning.
Adria Steinberg of Jobs for the Future suggests the following “Six A’s” criteria for quality project-based learning:
Authenticity — Projects use the context of the workplace and the community to teach academic and technical skills.
Academic rigor — Projects require higher-order thinking skills and research methods from academic and technical ﬁelds.
Applied learning — Projects require students to use academic and technical knowledge in acquiring the problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills they will need in the workplace.
Active exploration — Projects extend beyond the classroom to involve work-based learning, community-based activities and technical labs.
Adult relationships — Projects involve adult mentors from the school and the community.
Assessment — Projects include exhibitions and assessments of students’ work according to personal standards and performance standards set by the school and the community.
Steinberg writes: “The six A’s apply to all projects, regardless of whether they originate inside or outside the classroom. Projects that originate from academic content can extend into the workplace, the community and technical labs. Projects that originate from real-life problems can connect back to academic and technical studies and let students practice using these vital skills.”
My dinosaur diorama was still a nice art project with some cross-curricular connections. I’m not suggesting we throw out such things completely. I had fun making it, and probably enjoyed people ooing and ahhing over it on parent-teacher night, but if we never move beyond this sort of thing, we aren’t really implementing project-based learning – we just include some projects in our learning. The emphasis in every subject has to be a blend of knowing and doing, learning and demonstrating. It is through this application of knowledge that we best prepare our students for success, inside or outside of school.