Eye on Education: Useful Research Supports Project-Based Learning – Fairfield Daily Republic | Team Cansler

In my previous column, I wrote about the challenges of bridging the gap between academic research and public school instruction.

All too often, rigorously designed research studies are simply too obtuse and/or narrowly focused to meet the day-to-day needs and interests of classroom teachers. Nonetheless, teachers (and parents) have several resources available that provide digestible summaries of scientific research that are grounded in theory and relevant to classroom practice.

An example is the George Lucas Educational Foundation and its subsidiary Edutopia. A quick search of the site provides an extensive menu of topics and resources related to teaching and learning. What I love about the George Lucas Educational Foundation is that it supports and collaborates with some of the world’s foremost educators and researchers; Nevertheless, their publications can be read and understood by practitioners, scientists and the general public.

A recent article in Edutopia touched on a topic close to my heart, project-based learning. For most of my career in higher education, I have designed my courses, teaching and research agendas around the principles and strategies associated with project-based learning. To be clear, project-based learning is not a new idea. Its origins are more than 100 years old. However, its emergence as an instructional strategy in public schools is relatively recent.

According to Stanford researchers, project-based learning is an interdisciplinary instructional approach that is student-centered, inquiry-based and aims to “inspire students’ curiosity about the natural world, engage their interest in problems relevant to their lives, and assist them in the… Solving real-world problems.” When done well, project-based learning can enhance intrinsic motivation, problem-solving skills, collaborative skills, metacognitive skills, and the ability to transfer new knowledge and attitudes to other contexts.

Project-based learning instruction can be used in multiple disciplines (e.g. math, science, social studies, English, fine arts, etc.). The fact is that “real world” problems and applications can be found in all academic disciplines.

In a typical project-based learning activity, students are organized into small groups of four to six people. While students may complete some learning assignments individually, they primarily work as a learning collaboration through sharing, discourse, and discovery. In contrast to traditional teaching, the teacher works more like “a guide at the side” and not like “a sage on the stage”. By nature, students’ outcomes are not predetermined. For most project-based learning activities, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem at hand. Instead, project-based learning is a process of informed discovery and critical reflection. Theses are presented to the class as a whole. The presentations are opportunities to get feedback from other students and to talk about what worked well, what didn’t and other possible problem-solving strategies.

Typically, the teacher guides the learning through:

• Help students identify a real-world need or problem (eg, the occurrence of a public health emergency or a way to count and organize complex numbers).
• Providing educational materials and resources that inform and increase their knowledge of the problem.
• Guide students through the process of developing a problem-solving strategy or designing a project.
• Guide students through the implementation of their strategy or design.
• Help students reflect on and evaluate the results of their efforts.

OK, back to the Edutopia article mentioned above. It is important because it described a recent large-scale and very rigorous research project involving 6,000 public school students who were exposed to project-based learning instruction. Researchers found that most students who were tutored through project-based learning performed better on a variety of academic performance indicators (including standardized tests) than students who were not tutored through project-based learning. This phenomenon transcended academic subjects, grade levels, and students’ socio-economic backgrounds.

While project-based learning requires a lot of preparation and effort, research is clear that when done well, it is a very effective teaching tool (I should note that project-based learning is one of many useful teaching strategies).

Stephen Davis is a career educator who writes a column that is published in the Daily Republic every other Wednesday. You can reach him by email at [email protected].

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