For decades, our schools have been stuck in a model of learning that no longer serves the needs of our students as they encounter the uncertainty of a rapidly changing world. This inertia has been caused by a combination of contrarian forces: the political left and right, groups with special interests, government, legislation, finger-pointing, large social and economic inequities, and those who just fear change. Two years ago, frustrated as many of us are by this lack of progress toward transforming education past a model built for the Industrial Age, I asked a simple question:

Might there be some really big “levers” that could significantly transform education that don’t require permission from, or empowerment by, the forces that have created the inertia in the first place?

After two years of research and talking with dozens of teachers, administrators, students, and thought leaders, I wrote Moving the Rock: Seven Levers WE Can Press to Transform Education (Wiley, 2017) to share what was a resounding YES to that question. I specifically capitalized WE in the title, as all of these levers are well within the power of school community stakeholders to firmly act upon.

Moving the RockMost educators, students, and parents value a model of deeper learning over the traditional model that has characterized our schools for the past 150 years. Deeper learning promotes student engagement, inquiry, student choice, collaboration, authentic assessment, individualized learning pathways, and interdisciplinary courses. At most schools, educators recognize that one of our best tools to implement a deeper learning experience is project-based work. Using the metaphor of my book, project-based learning is one of the most powerful and ubiquitous “oils” that lubricates the big levers of potential transformation. By their very nature, when formed correctly, project-based learning strategies weave together multiple strands of deeper learning: collaboration, relevance, inquiry, choice, creativity, new partnerships, and authentic assessment.

Avoiding a PBL Pitfall

Having said that, my experience in visiting with teachers at many schools is that some fall into the trap of “doing” PBL as if it were another piece of curriculum pulled from the guide at the back of a text book. How can we avoid such a pitfall? Here are three elements that I find distinguish powerful project-based learning experiences from those that just tweak a more traditional pedagogy:

  1. Real Student Choice:  Deep learning rests on student engagement, which requires that students are intrinsically motivated by the relevance of their work.  Nothing elevates this more than empowering, and indeed expecting, students to make choices in their learning.  It is disheartening when I visit schools where teachers proudly share their project-based curriculum, only to tell me, “I came up with this great project for the students to do”. This cuts the heart out of project-based work. An authentic approach to project- based learning allows students to help design the projects, pick themes, and choose from a buffet of options that they help to co-create.
  2. Real Immersion:  While not every project can or should engage the world in the same way, projects are an opportunity for learning in and with a community that starts immediately beyond the classroom door and now extends around the world.  Some guiding questions to ask when co-designing a project with your students might be: What elements of this project will be undertaken BEYOND our classroom?  How will you engage others—in the local community or around the world—in your work?  What partnerships might you form that can grow for other students who come behind you?
  3. Creation: One of the most powerful elements of the deeper learning model is that students and teachers become creators, not just consumers, of knowledge.  Research, an important skill, might be viewed as finding and reporting on knowledge created by others. In my view, the best “project” work includes, and perhaps even requires, us to design, create, and share something original.

Organizations like the Buck Institute, Edutopia, and the Deeper Learning Network are packed with ideas, resources, and concrete examples of how to best design and implement a curriculum that is built around highly relevant, engaging projects. When we design around projects, we smear the boundaries of subject, and can even see a day, hopefully soon, when subject-based departments in high schools are no longer part of an upgraded school structure. Projects can re-orient the entire paradigm of our classrooms. They become the focus, not a tangent, of learning. They do not replace an emphasis on learning critical content; in fact, the opposite appears to be true. Students learn critical content better because they are intrinsically motivated, through their participation in the design and construction of the projects, to learn what they need in order to produce and share interesting and valuable outcomes.

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Grant Lichtman, Author and Educator