A few days ago, MindShift, a site published by KQED, published an article about project-based learning (via What Project-Based Learning Is — and What It Isn’t | MindShift).  It focused on one teacher’s vision and goals of project-based learning.  Azul Terronez is an eighth grade teacher at High Tech Middle in San Diego, CA. You can see the description of Terronez’s project-based learning below in this excerpt from MindShift’s article:

When an educator teaches a unit of study, then assigns a project, that is not project-based learning because the discovery didn’t arise from the project itself. And kids can see through the idea of a so-called “fun project” for what it often is – busy work. “They don’t see it as learning; they see it as something else to do,” said Terronez. “They don’t see the value.”

For Terronez, the goal is to always connect classroom learning to its applications in the outside world. He’s found that when the project is based in the real world, addressing problems that people actually face, and not focused on a grade, students are naturally invested.

A Continuum, though

I can honestly say that I don’t disagree with Terronez’s description and goals at all for project-based learning.  In fact, it’s how I would prefer project-based learning to occur.  However, it does seem to discount the other possibilities for project-based learning, or “project-oriented learning” as it’s called in the article.  In my research, particularly with former student Dr. Suha Tamim, we found that there is for sure a continuum of which teachers implement project-based learning.

Some teachers do choose to do projects as Terronez’s describes, that is as the single method of instruction for students to learn new content.  However, we found that other teachers use projects as Terronez also mentions as reinforcement.  But we also found that:

  • some teachers use projects as a method to allow students to go deeper,
  • some teachers use projects as a method to allow students to represent their learning in multiple ways, and
  • some teachers use projects in all of these ways.

From our small research study that we hope to be published in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning soon, it seemed likely that teachers used project-based learning with an alignment to their own pedagogical beliefs about how teaching and learning should occur.  Moreover, teachers felt constrained by their school, district, assessments, or curriculum to not do things differently.

And Value?

And maybe that’s the significant point to note from this article. High Tech Middle is school-wide initiative committed to project-based learning as Terronez describes, a variation on High Tech High’s model.  If an entire schools adopts project-based learning to this level, then the supports and scafffolds for teachers and students to teach and learn in this method are there. (Frankly, I’m jealous of the work happening at High Tech Highs and now High Tech Middles across the country. A real model that should be considered more.)

However, if a teacher is doing project-based learning alone, then variations are inevitable, because the same supports are not available to the teachers or the students.  But that doesn’t make the variations ineffective at achieving learning goals. Nor should they be discounted as valuable.

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at Viral-Notebook.com. He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

One Thought on “The continuum of project-based learning

  1. Chuck Hodges on January 8, 2013 at 8:22 am said:

    “…teachers felt constrained by their school, district, assessments, or curriculum…” Indeed! My experience has been that teachers can find many excuses not to try it… county pacing guides, schedules for benchmark assessments, a lack of vision for how standards might be clumped into a project and realized by the end, rather than discretely day-by-standard-by-day, and a general fear that “the administration” won’t let them do anything “different”. I have seen teachers fall in love with the idea, only to decide that their system just won’t support it. Getting administrators to meaningfully engage in the PD for project-based learning appears essential, but the keyword is “meaningfully”. Sitting in the corner checking the Blackberry just doen’t cut it.

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