Friday, 10 October 2014

Projects that Change the World


I remember the day I made the switch from having my students do projects for me to having my students do projects for humanity.  When I had explained this new kind of assignment, there was an incredulous look on many of my grade sevens’ faces: “You mean we can do something, really do something?”  It was like they were just waiting for permission.  And they took that permission and ran with it to places I had not fathomed. 

(This post was originally published in the Fall 2014 Edition of Living Education eMagazine)


Intuitively it makes sense.  While we spend the 200 days together, we might as well make a difference.  We might as well move beyond what if two trains leave their stations at such and such a time and into how could we improve the transit use in our community.  We might as well shift from finding out what a wetland is to how we can save the wetlands behind the school.  This is one of the tenets of project-based learning (PBL): learning through interacting with real life, through completing real-life challenges.  But do these kinds of projects actually lead to learning?  For educators, many initiatives that seem well and good, may not be based in research.  Does educational research support PBL?

John W. Thomas, Ph.D. (2000) formerly of the Buck Institute for Education reviewed research on project-based learning using specific criteria when considering whether something was project-based learning or not.  Along with criteria such as centrality, a driving question, constructive investigations, and autonomy, he used as his plum line a level of authenticity.  His fifth criterion was as follows:

Projects are realistic, not school-like. Projects embody characteristics that give them a feeling of authenticity to students. These characteristics can include the topic, the tasks, the roles that students play, the context within which the work of the project is carried out, the collaborators who work with students on the project, the products that are produced, the audience for the project's products, or the criteria by which the products or performances are judged. Gordon (1998) makes the distinction between academic challenges, scenario challenges, and real-life challenges. PBL incorporates real-life challenges where the focus is on authentic (not simulated) problems or questions and where solutions have the potential to be implemented. (Thomas, 2000).

Here we find what I see as the crux to project-based learning: authentic problems or challenges.  While Thomas reviewed evaluative research, implementation research, and intervention research of project-based learning in his article, he also reviewed research on PBL effectiveness.  Of note was his look at Boaler’s (1997) longitudinal study of two British High Schools.  One school taught Math in a traditional way while the other school employed project-based learning.  During the periodic interviews, the “students at the project-based school regarded mathematics as a ‘dynamic, flexible subject that involved exploration and thought.’ (Boaler, 1997, p. 63)” while students at the control school reported that they found Math boring and tedious.

Although the effect on students’ perceptions of Math speak volumes to the impact of project-based learning, the students’ results on assessments seemed to follow suit.  “Students at the project-based school performed as well as or better than students at the traditional school on items that required rote knowledge of mathematical concepts, and three times as many students at the project-based school as those in the traditional school attained the highest possible grade on the national examination. Overall, significantly more students at the project-based school passed the national examination administered in year three of the study than traditional school students.” (Thomas, 2000).

More recently, Boss et al (2011), as reported in The Foundation Review, desired to create an engaging and effective AP (Advanced Placement) course for students centered on experience-based project cycles.  The researchers set up an experiment that would compare their US Government and Politics AP course containing authentic projects with a statistically matched control group.  The PBL AP students completed projects all the while keeping this fundamental question in mind: what is the proper role of government in a democracy? The researchers found that students in the PBL courses performed “as well or better than students in the traditional courses on the AP test, and better than (or in one case, the same as) students in the traditional courses on the KIA test.”  The KIA test was their Knowledge in Action test.  Essentially, the PBL students did better at applying their knowledge when given a new scenario: to create a plan for action on a controversial political issue.

The above studies support that project-based learning leads to better test results.  Moreover, Thomas (2000) cited many studies that have found other significant gains from PBL.  Shepherd (1998) found gains in critical thinking and confidence.  The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) found gains in “problem-solving skills, metacognitive strategies, and attitudes towards learning.”  Tretten and Zachariou (1995) found improvement in “work habits, problem-solving capabilities, and self-esteem.”

But more telling is what the students have to say about their experience.  “Project-based learning actually helps you to apply it to life because when you read things out of a book, you kind of wonder, ‘When am I ever going to use this?’ That’s a question that students ask almost every day.” (Boss et al, 2011).  One of my own students whose project led her to collect used books to send to Uganda to build portable libraries wrote: “instead of just doing one small assignment and being over with it, it seems like we get to do a project for a while and really get involved with it. We also like that with this project we got to take some action towards what we wanted to help fix, and actually get the students in the school and the people in our community involved.” (Robinson, 2014).
The possibilities are infinite.  Portland students consulted professional microbiologists to create soil bacteria information pamphlets to be distributed at local garden centers.  San Diego eleventh graders developed forensic techniques that help protect African wildlife; they shared their findings with wildlife-protection officials and even traveled to Tanzania to present bush-meat identification workshops. (Curtis, 2001).  The types of projects are limited only by the opportunities the teacher avails and the imagination the students bring.

For my own personal experience, once the paradigm shifted, the atmosphere in my classroom became more like a campaign headquarters than a classroom.  The next thing I know, we are tweeting the mayor, writing proposals, finding email addresses, advertising for a bake sale, and abiding by a group’s request to stop all screen-time for two days.” (Robinson, 2013).  Money was raised for orphanages in Ethiopia and food distributing organizations; used books were sent to Uganda; trees were planted in schools and parks nearby.

Though there are many aspects to project-based learning, I believe it is the authenticity of the projects that really set this kind of teaching apart.  Students learn the material often to a greater degree and with depth.  Work habits and attitudes toward learning improve.  Local and global needs are addressed.  Self-esteem is increased.  The learning is enjoyed.  The students win. The community wins.  Humanity wins.


Boss, S., Johanson, C., Arnold, S., Parker, W. Nguyen, D. (2011). The Quest for Deeper Learning and Engagement in Advanced High School Courses. The Foundation Review: Vol. 3: Iss. 3, Article 3

Curtis, D. (2001). Project-Based Learning: Real-World Issues Motivate Students. Retrieved August 8, 2014 from EDUTOPIA on the World Wide Web:

Robinson, S. (2013). “The Problem with Project-based Learning.” Retrieved August 8, 2014 from ON THE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY on the World Wide Web:
Robinson, S. (2014). “Diary of some not-so-wimpy Project-based Learners.” Retrieved August 10, 2014 from MRRCLASS on the World Wide Web:

Thomas, J. (2000). A Review of Research on Project-based Learning. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from NEWTECHNETWORK.ORG on the World Wide Web: