Tips for Transitioning to Project-Based Learning

Project-based instruction requires teachers to be facilitators, not lecturers, experts say

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President Barack Obama speaks with student Anh Ly about her robot project during a visit to Manor New Technology High School on May 9, 2013.
President Barack Obama speaks with student Anh Ly about her robot project during a visit to Manor New Technology High School on May 9, 2013.

President Barack Obama lauded Manor New Technology High School last month, holding it up as a model for others to emulate.

The Texas school doesn't use textbooks. It doesn't offer Advanced Placement classes, either. Instead, it relies 100 percent on project-based learning.

Rather than tacking a group project onto the end of a unit, this approach introduces a project at the beginning and uses it to drive the unit. Students at Manor New Tech complete 65 projects each year, capping each off with a public presentation.

The projects are aligned with state standards and tap into the local business community, said Steve Zipkes, the school's founding principal, at the 2013 U.S. News STEM Solutions conference last week.

Project-based learning improves student engagement and prepares them for college and the workforce by incorporating 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving, experts say. Transitioning to this teaching style requires training and support for teachers, as well as buy-in from students, parents and administrators.

Zipkes is not the only administrator pushing a project-based model. High Tech High in San Diego, Metro Early College High School in Ohio and City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco also subscribe to the teaching method.

These schools are in the minority nationwide, though, with roughly 1 percent of U.S. schools committed to project-based learning, according to a PBS NewsHour report.

[Read why STEM knowledge is only skin deep for most students.]

The approach requires more work from teachers and students, which often results in pushback, says Deb Sachs, director of the Woodrow Wilson Indiana Teaching Fellows program at the University of Indianapolis. The teacher training program includes a sequence on project-based learning.

"A common refrain we hear is 'Why aren't you teaching me?'" she says, adding that students are not used to this type of learning. "You are, but you aren't spoon feeding them."

Building a project-based lesson is a process that requires collaboration, flexibility and – most importantly – practice, Sachs says.

"Like anything new, you're going to get better at it the more you do it," she says. "The first project you do will probably need significant revision, and that's okay."

Teachers need to solicit feedback from colleagues on proposed projects and discover how and what to revise. This collaboration helps teachers identify potential holes in their lessons, she says.

Those holes may be a poorly constructed driving question – which sets up a project by identifying a problem and prodding students to come up with a solution – or vague assessment measures, Sachs says.

Professional development is crucial to helping teachers transition away from textbooks and lectures, Sue Ramlo, a physics and education professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, said via email.

[Learn how teachers put professional development to work.]

The training needs to be consistent and ongoing, "not just a webinar or a workshop that lasts for a few days," notes Ramlo, who helped develop National Inventors' Hall of Fame Middle and High Schools, also in Akron, which use primarily project-based learning.

Teachers at both schools do professional development through the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, she said. The Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit, and Edutopia, an educational resource site from the George Lucas Educational Foundation, also provide quality project-based-learning resources for teachers, says Sachs, from the University of Indianapolis.

Beyond training and collaboration, using project-based instruction also requires trust that students can come up with the answers on their own, Ramlo said.

"If that trust is not present, then the teachers will be tempted to give students answers, resort to teaching lectures that are textbook dependent," she notes, instead of "letting students explore the answers using the many resources available to them."

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