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41

Learning by doing.

San Rafael, California
Project based learning is an experience that changes going to school.

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What are the challenges that kids and teens face in our changing and complex world?

How can schools transform contents and ways of teaching to prepare students for the challenges of the future?

We interviewed Bob Lenz, director of Bulk Institute of Education located in California, USA and expert in Project Based Learning- PBL-, who talked to us about why his way of working prepares kids and teens for today´s world.

Bob Lenz has a Masters in Learning from the San Francisco State University and promotes this work methodology in different places of the world.

How can we define project based learning? Is this a new methodology or are there previous experiences?

We define project based learning as a process or methodology in which students get involved in the content of academic classes to explore and then create products that have an audience beyond the classroom, where they demonstrate both academic knowledge and skills, like critical thinking and creative group work, and where they have the sense of feeling activated to take on the challenges of their lives.

A methodology in which students get involved in the content of academic classes to explore and then create products that have an audience beyond the classroom…

This way of working has been around for a very long time. There is evidence of project based learning in Florence in the 16th century and more recently, in the last century, different learning experiences show the start of project based learning.

Personally, I´ve been doing projects with my teacher, Mr. Cooper, since the 10th grade, and as a teacher since the 1990s. In 2003 a created a system to redesign public schools and we are getting great results.

While project based learning feels new to some people, we actually have lots of resources, training and examples so that people who are just now turning to it don´t have to start from scratch like us in the 1990s. People have been learning this way for centuries through mentorship and doing rather than reading and memorizing.

Bob Lenz

Who is involved in the planning of the projects? Where do the contents come from?

The planning of the design of a project has different steps that involve the teacher and the students. Every project starts with the contents of traditional curriculums that the students have to learn.

High quality project design requires that the students work on the topics of most significance to them, the teacher asks a question around those topics and the students answer it or search for the answers. After this comes the process of investigation. They know that they have to come up with a project that is not only for the professor, but that will be public, having the possibility of correcting and criticizing their works and the works of their classmates. They all learn to receive constant feedback about what is working in their projects and what is not. These are key elements for comprehension and reflection, because through this process, students can use the knowledge and skills in new situations

Could you give us some examples of different projects?

I can give you some examples. One is in a high school in Brooklyn, New York, where the teacher asks a question about the water contamination in Michigan, so the students had to learn and investigate all kinds of sciences to understand why there is so much dirt in the Michigan Lake. They had to actually propose solutions to the problem and write a scientific journal article that was published. Another project was with immigrant families from Mexico in San José, California. Third grade students did a project called “Little House Project”, about how to design a tiny house.  

It really rekindles the joy of learning, for teachers and students. PBL is a great ways to engage them both.

  They had to learn math contents, the measurements and geometry required to do so, and a lot of reading. They investigated about the homes, tiny houses, construction, and applied that knowledge on their designs and presentation. The final exhibition was actually to present their designs to their clients. So students were learning all the core skills they needed by doing a group project that felt relevant and authentic, and it also made people outside the classroom interested in the project.

Do students participate in the planning of the projects?

Sometimes students participate in the design of the projects, usually older students, but sometimes the younger students as well. Students have the opportunity to make choices that are not determined by the teachers. For example, with the tiny houses, all projects looked different because they all had to design what their clients wanted. What they had to do was make sure it was to scale. In the water quality project too, all groups came up with different solutions.

What benefits does working this way bring to students?

It really rekindles the joy of learning, for teachers and students. PBL is a great ways to engage them both. There is promising research that shows that when students are doing projects, they´re actually learning more content. It promotes a love for learning. We are discovering that the students, during the development of their projects while also having intellectual and academic challenges, develop the ability of problem solving with the use of critical thinking and collaboration. Some studies suggest that our students are graduating at much higher rates form college.

 

So, how does PBL help this generation live in today´s world?

Way more connected, using technology, collaborating over Skype so people are working on teams all over the world. They don´t have assignments, they do projects. If you look at surveys in the 1970s of what employers were looking for in new hires and a lot of the skills were highly technical. Now, almost every business study I see sais that they need people who know how to work in teams, solve problems, who are creative, etc.

PBL is a great way of learning these skills because at the same time they are learning academic content in a way that feels real. So, PBL is good now, but it is also the best option for the future.


How do you evaluate this way of learning, both in the learning of academic contents and of non-cognitive abilities?

Student´s academic abilities can be valued during the projects by evaluating their comprehension of the contents. Often we use a tool called a rubric that describes the application of the knowledge. Another part of the evaluation is critic, proposes reflection, we ask the students to reflect about their learning, about the knowledge and skills they gained, but also the application. If they were to do the project again, what would they do different and what would they do the same?

What we call evaluation is really different to tradition. In traditional learning, you learn it, take an exam and move on. In PBL, you learn something now, apply it and reflect about how you´re going to use that in the future.

What we call evaluation is really different to tradition. In traditional learning, you learn it, take an exam and move on. In PBL, you learn something now, apply it and reflect about how you´re going to use that in the future. It is this kind of comprehensive assessment that we believe prepares students for the future.

What is the rubric?

A rubric is a description of the criteria that the students can use to determine whether their work is quality or not. A rubric may describe the different components of a scientific research journal, the article that the students wrote. The use of scientific terms appropriately. In PBL, the teacher tells you what is expected right at the beginning.

Do teachers need a special training to implement this methodology?

So many teachers are doing PBL without training. That is how we started. Tons of people use out website and buy our books.

The training is better because you can learn from the people who´ve already been doing it and learn in a group.

We do professional development workshops for teachers in the United States and around the world. We recommend doing follow-up workshops. We just launched our new brand, PBL works and we are really exited. We also launched our online learning platform where teachers will be able to get some training online, for now it is in English, but within the next two or three years it will be in Spanish too.

What recommendation would you give to teachers who think this methodology is not for their students?

I would say do it, get started. PBL helps make a difference in all the kids. Propose at least two projects a year, make it more fun for students and teachers. It is not easy, that is why we´ve created so many resources- in our website and in the broad bibliography on the topic- , so teachers have a long way to go about it.

It will be an experience that brings joy to students and teachers. PBL has really reminded many of them of the reasons why they became teachers, because they wanted to make a difference for kids.

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