The 74 Interview: Do Standards and Project-Based Learning Go Hand in Hand? Prof. Nell Duke Says Yes, & Looks at the Best & Worst of PBL

Nell Duke (Fordham University)

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In 1919, the question had an easy answer: Which is more engaging, going to school or doing chores at home?

In 2019, the question also has an easy, but very different, answer: Which is more engaging, going to school or playing video games?

Schools have to compete for students’ attention in ways they’ve never had to before, said University of Michigan professor Nell K. Duke, which she said may be one reason classrooms around the country are increasingly implementing project-based learning.

“Project-based learning has the potential to make students feel like they’re making a difference,” Duke said.

Project-based learning is a hands-on approach that often involves months-long projects that students can help shape, from recommending designs for a baseball park to teaching their community about civics. This type of learning dates to the turn of the 20th century with philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, who believed that children learn best when what they are learning is relevant to their environment. The learning model has gained popularity recently for the voice and flexibility it lends to students and teachers, as well as for development of 21st century skills like collaboration and problem-solving.

That isn’t to say all classrooms that implement project-based learning are doing it well. Duke has seen the good and the bad, and she spoke with The 74 about advice for schools interested in the model — and her research that shows how project-based learning can lead to academic gains for young children in high-poverty schools.

This story has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you define project-based learning?

There are many different definitions. I think there’s fairly wide consensus that to be a project, it has to happen over an extended period of time, so it can’t be project-based learning if you just do it on a Friday morning. The project has to really drive the unit, so it can’t be that you do a unit on something and at the very end there’s a culminating activity. A third [criterion] is that the project has to fulfill some purpose beyond just satisfying a school requirement — there has to be something that’s being built or a problem that’s being addressed or an opportunity in the community that they’re taking advantage of. There has to be something that happens that matters beyond just the traditional context of teaching and learning.

Do you think all the schools that are implementing what they call project-based learning are aligned with that definition?

I think many schools, and individual teachers within schools, are enacting this version of project-based learning. I think some aren’t as well, but are calling it [project-based learning]. Where we get a lot of variance is the quality of that implementation. You can have a unit meet those three criteria I just laid out that doesn’t address standards at all. Or you can have an enactment that addresses those three criteria and is tightly aligned to addressing specific standards. I think probably the variation is higher in the implementation of project-based learning than it is in just meeting the base definition.

You’ve written about how project-based learning can go “terribly wrong” or “powerfully right.” Can you give an example of what good versus bad implementation looks like?

A bad-case example would be each child picks his or her own topic and the culmination of that project is to write a letter to someone involved in the issue they’ve selected and then they’re sent home to work on the project primarily at home over a number of weeks. Arguably, that meets the base definition of project-based learning, but it lacks a lot of important features. First, it’s relying on the home to be the primary place where the project is taking place, whereas we’d like to see that happen largely in school, where teachers can be scaffolding or supporting the experience to help children move forward in their learning. We would want to see collaboration among children, which they can’t do if they’re working on a project individually and only at home, and we want to see the teacher supporting that collaboration so we’re also seeing children moving forward in their development of social-emotional learning. We would want to have more context around the project than just writing a letter to somebody. The letter could be fine as the culmination of a project, but with lots of information about what students gather on who they’re writing to, why they’re writing to that person, and choice about whether that’s the right way to address the problem.

In project-based learning going pretty right, one … is a project we’ve written for second grade. The project involves children visiting a local park or other public space, identifying strengths but also shortcomings of that park or public space, and then researching how local government could help to support the improvement of that park or space. So, learning about local city government, learning about who has authority or influence over how parks or other public spaces are kept, and then carrying out some research in the form of surveys of people who use the space to learn more about their experiences and what they see as needing to be improved, then actually developing a proposal for how the space should be improved, writing up that proposal in individual letters or proposals that would be shared with key people in city government, and then also preparing a multimedia presentation to deliver to one or more representatives of local government.

What makes that a good instance of project-based learning is there is a real purpose that children have beyond just the assigned school requirement: They’re trying to create improvement in an important public space in their community. Children have choice along the way and some autonomy in terms of things like determining what aspects of the park they think need to be improved [and] thinking about how they’re going to present their case to local government. There’s some inquiry involved in thinking about who in local government would interface with an issue like the keeping of a park or public place. Children have the opportunity to collaborate with one another around the development of that multimedia presentation [and] designing the survey. In the end, there’s a public product, there are these letters and a presentation, and then we also see that children are addressing specific standards.

You recently examined that public-space project using a randomized controlled trial. What did your research find?

This study was conducted in high-poverty, low-achieving school districts, and so we were doing this work in settings that were facing a number of challenges. The project involved teachers who had not previously implemented project-based learning, so this was a new approach for the teachers involved [and] it was their very first year of implementation. This was a tough test of project-based learning, a challenging context in which to test this set of units. We randomly assigned teachers within schools to either implement our units or to teach social studies using the existing materials they had. We did ask that all the teachers randomly assigned to the comparison or the controlled group to promise to actually teach social studies. Social studies unfortunately gets taught so rarely in our primary grade classrooms in the U.S., especially in high-poverty settings, that we had to be careful we weren’t just comparing our social studies units to nothing, but rather comparing them to more traditional ways of teaching social studies.

What we found was that the teachers who were randomly assigned to teach our units showed greater growth and achievement in social studies and also in informational reading. We did have another measure of informational writing, and we did not see effects on that measure that were statistically significant. We dug into the data a little bit further — looking at ratings we had made of the fidelity of implementation or how close to our lesson plans in the project-based units teachers stayed — and what we found was that there was a strong relationship between writing growth and teachers’ fidelity to the unit, so if they taught the units as intended, they were actually likely to see more growth in their students’ writing.

One of the tricky issues in project-based learning is how to write curriculum materials so that they do provide scaffolding and support to teachers, especially teachers new to this way of teaching, while leaving room for teacher choice and voice and student choice and voice. We did design the unit so there’s room for teacher instructional decision-making. For example, even determining what park or public space the children are going to visit. There’s room in the lesson plan for some student voice and choice in terms of what aspects of the park they want to improve, how they design their survey, to whom in local government they present. The study is a pretty rigorous test of the impact of project-based learning, and it suggests that at least one way of doing project-based learning can be effective with children in a second-grade classroom.

From a research perspective, what do we know about project-based learning, and what do we still need to learn?

A few studies of project-based learning have used a causal design where we can really look at impact and have some confidence. But I think everybody in the field would say we could use more studies like that so we can have a strong level of confidence that this way of doing project-based learning in these domains at this grade level had a positive impact.

Another really important area of research is … implementation at scale. How do we move beyond what we currently have — which is typically a unique school here and there that does project-based learning — but it’s not a mainstay of teaching and learning that we see nationally. What would be required to do that?

There are also questions about how we can make sure to support all learners. We can imagine all sorts of reasons that this instructional environment might be easier for some kids to manage than others. So, thinking about what are the different approaches that might make this way of teaching and learning work better for as many children as possible.

You link project-based learning’s early history with John Dewey’s philosophy, but there’s been renewed excitement recently around this approach to learning. What do you think sparked this latest interest?

I think there’s a growing recognition of the mismatch between how we teach in K-12 and what employers and active citizenship require in this day and age. People find project-based learning appealing because of the potential to develop some of those 21st century skills, like the ability to collaborate, the ability to think flexibly, the ability to solve problems, the ability to think across disciplines.

I think another part of the appeal is around the eagerness in the field to find ways to be more motivating and engaging for students. A thought experiment I love to take people through is to think about what students were doing in the early 1900s when they weren’t in school — a lot of chores, working in the field, maybe listening to the radio, activities that were possibly not as engaging as today. Then I pose a second question: What are students doing today when they’re not in school? Video games, watching YouTube videos, television, engaging in structured sports, and playing with toys that couldn’t have been dreamed of in the early 1900s. When I take people through that thought experiment, we come to the conclusion that schools stacked up pretty well against what students were doing in the early 1900s. If your choice in the early 1900s was to do chores or be in school, you might well think school sounds pretty good. But today, when you compare playing games and school, a far smaller percentage of kids want to be in school. We probably have to be more motivating and engaging in school today than we had to be 120 years ago, particularly because our standards — what we expect kids to be able to know and do now — are vastly higher than they were in the early 1900s.

I think a third reason is the Common Core State Standards. Some of the standards explicitly call for shared research and writing projects. There’s a piece in the standards that talks about a need for students to learn to write for external, sometimes unfamiliar, audiences. You can imagine how a project in the project-based learning tradition would be a very opportune time to have youth writing for an external and unfamiliar audience.

Some educators I’ve spoken with work in schools that are starting project-based learning, and while they’re excited about the freedom and creativity involved, they’re worried about teaching students everything necessary for tests. Can standards and project-based learning live harmoniously?

We approach the design of projects with the standards in front of us from the beginning. For example, in our work in social studies, we start out knowing that this is a project that addresses our history standards and then this project is going to address our economic standards. Then we begin that more creative process, and that more place-based process, and we’re looking around at our community, at the problems and the needs, and thinking about what are the opportunities and ways to link those things. Today’s project-based learning has the best chance of meeting standards if those standards are part and parcel of the project design process.

What does project-based learning give to students that other types of instruction might not?

Project-based learning has the potential to make students feel like they’re making a difference — empowering them as change agents in their community. Project-based learning has that potential because kids are accomplishing something beyond just school. The things they’re accomplishing interact with people outside the school walls and address a real need or a real opportunity or solve a real problem.

Another potential of project-based learning is to develop more sophisticated social and emotional and general academic learning skills — learning to collaborate with others, learning to manage a large project step by step, learning to have the kind of self-regulation you need to make progress, learning to communicate with adults. Another potential is to develop the knowledge and skills in the standards. For example, in the [park] project, kids were learning how to address Common Core State Standards for writing [by] learning how to develop an opinion piece.

Anything else you think is important for schools that want to implement project-based learning to know?

I try to convey the message to schools that you are not making a choice between using research-supported instructional practices or using project-based learning. What you should be doing is using research-supported instructional practices inside project-based learning. So, for example, we’ve known for a long time that it’s effective to teach students comprehension strategies. It’s not that we should stop teaching comprehension strategies if we take on project-based learning. It’s that we should be teaching comprehension strategies in the context of that project. We still need to make sure we’re using research-supported practices and not practices that don’t work — we’re just doing that in the context of a project which is hopefully more motivating and engaging and educative for a kid.

One other thing I’d like the field to recognize is the things that we know from research about effective professional development absolutely apply in the context of project-based learning. For example, sending teachers to a one-day professional development session on project-based learning — what I call drive-by professional development — and then sending them off into their classrooms and thinking that’s going to work is really questionable from a research perspective. Yes, those initial contact hours to develop beginning knowledge around a particular way of teaching are important, but they have to be followed up with ongoing job embedded learning, opportunities to receive coaching and feedback, opportunities to collaborate with other teachers, looking at student work, looking at the design of the materials, and opportunities to experience coherence between the assessments or the standards or the district policies.

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