What Do Empowering PBL Experiences Have in Common?

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Library land is an educational paradigm immersed in Inquiry. Librarians are in a constant state of research and development, caused by a forever changing and growing sea of information and technology and a characteristically innate curiosity, to get Inquiry right. David Loetcher is a library land guru, and know for, amongst other things, a quest to “Ban Those Bird Units”. Bird units are teacher prescribed, cut and paste, low level learning projects “recipes”. (Lehman as cited by McLeod, 2015). PBL experiences look nothing like bird units, and everything like dynamic and meaningful Inquiry.

Although PBL processes, requirements and emphases differ slightly depending on educational organization or proponent (see references); PBL experiences share foundational understandings for empowering student learning. Quality PBL experiences are: student driven, real-world connected, inquiry inspired, technology integrated, interdisciplinary, collaborative and reflective; they allow for student voice and choice, require problem solving and higher order thinking, call for project presentations or solution action taking and accord ongoing and multiple means for assessment. Most often PBL experiences utilize a general process model to guide implementation, embrace expert connections and experiential learning opportunities and students a  means for creating change.  In PBL, teachers allow for student learning by: creating curiosity, ensuring opportunities for skill acquisition, modeling best practice scenarios, defining learning goals, providing ongoing feedback and documenting student learning. Students take on the role of professionals, such as: scientists, historians, designers or community organizers.

Newsome Park Elementary is a science magnet and project based elementary school in Newport News, Virginia. In 2001 they were fifty-eight percent low income and had three years of rising test scores. Each classroom participates in a semester long student initiated collaborative project. Out of concern for one of their classmates, one class chose to study Cystic Fibrosis, while another class chose to study Asthma friendly pets. Another class chose to study the stock market and after buying and selling stocks became stale, they took a different direction and decided to start a company and sell shares. Students learn financial literacy skills through lunch time fund raising in support of their project goals. (Curtis, 2001)

At Mountlake Terrace High School Eeva Reeder’s geometry students participated in an Architectural Challenge to design a high school for students in the year 2050. Students worked in small groups and participated in various facets of the architecture process. A local architecture firm provided guidance and assessment, when students presented their final designs at their offices. (Armstrong, 2002)

Fran Kootz’s students at Rockledge Elementary School participate in Journey North, an Internet project funded by the Annenberg/CPB Project. Students become student scientists, studying, observing and reporting the migration of the Monarchs. They connect with students in Mexico and learn about the states included in the Monarch’s path. (Curtis, 2002)

All three PBL opportunities are interdisciplinary, providing students with a variety of paths for connecting learning. ”Here they can see the concepts or broad themes across the curriculum for deeper learning–for lifelong learning” (Curtis, 2001). All three are real-world learning opportunities; whether students are “being” architects, student scientists,  stock market investors or community helpers, the experience is purposeful, meaningful and intrinsically motivating. All three require collaboration, whether in large or small groups, which not only provides social skills but also gives students an opportunity to identify their strengths. In addition, “If students learn to take responsibility for their own learning, they will form the basis for the way they will work with others in their adult lives.” (Edutopia, 2007).“Children learn how to count on each other for advice and feedback” (Curtis,2001). All three embrace experiential learning experiences; engaging curiosity and multisensory associations and creating disciplinary connections.  All three integrate technology for investigation, participation or collaboration.

Project presentation is more defined at Newsome, which holds a “project night” and by students in the Architecture Challenge, however, the Monarch project and Newsome projects are more participatory in nature, which provides meaning and purpose. Inquiry, specifically with regard to student questioning leading learning, which provides curiosity and student ownership, is also more emphasized at Newsome and through the Architecture Challenge. A PBL process model, which encourages independence, and learning transfer, was only identified as used at Newsome, where students also utilize thinking maps for synthesis. Eeva Reeder’s Architecture Project includes clear guidelines and multiple forms of assessment, in addition to an emphasis on reflection. “We learn by doing and by thinking about what we’ve done. It’s like learning twice when you reflect. It unquestionably deepens understanding, which is always the goal. I want them to keep their learning, after all!” (Armstrong, 2002). Newsome provides a structured means for relationship building, through morning meetings and looping, which encourages respect, trust and care which provides the foundations for PBL. Students participating in the Architecture create a “Team Operating Agreement” for owning their collaboration.,

Newsome Park Elementary offers the greatest opportunity for student choice, voice and authenticity; allowing students the ultimate opportunity for learning ownership, intrinsic motivation and interest finding. Teachers at Newsome work diligently to make sure that their students are learning what they need to learn, butalso are willing to let go of control. “(Students) know that they don’t have all the answers, and it’s okay. They also know that Miss V doesn’t have all the answers, and it doesn’t bother her a bit. And so we sit back and we go, “Okay, well who can we call, who can we ask?”” ( Curtis, 2001).  Because PBL is embraced by the entire learning community, students participate in a never ending cycle of rich and connected life-long learning.



Apple Incorporated (2009). Challenge vased Learning: Take action and make a difference. Retrieved from http://ali.apple.com/cbl/global/files/CBL_Paper.pdf

Armstrong, S. (2002, February 11). Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/geometry-real-world-students-architects

Bie.org. (2015). Project Based Learning Retrieved from http://bie.org/

Curtis, D. (2001, October 1). More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?! Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/more-fun-barrel-worms

Curtis, D. (2002, June 6). March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/march-monarchs

Edutopia,. (2007, October 19). Why Is Project-Based Learning Important?. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning-guide-importance

McLeod, S. (2015, January 7). Project-based learning: We can do better than sugar cube pyramids. Dangerously Irrelevant. Retrieved from http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2015/01/ project-based-learning-we-can-do-better-than-sugar-cube-pyramids.html

Project Foundry.  (2015). Project-based learning. Simplified. Retrieved from http://www.projectfoundry.com/