kitchen table math, the sequel: help desk: project based learning

Saturday, September 5, 2009

help desk: project based learning

I'm posting this email without the writer's name:
My local school district is talking about reinventing the high school around a project-based learning model. I don't know much about this stuff, but I'm concerned about some of the things I'm hearing. Are you aware of any scholarly research that's been done on PBL? There will be some public forums coming up soon, and I'd like to have some hard evidence (one way or the other) to rely on. I just recently found your blog, so perhaps you've written something on PBL that you could recommend as well?

That reminds me: I never got around to writing a post about what happened in Holland when the public schools there moved wholesale to integrated, interdisciplinary, project-based learning.

People hated it. Hated it. People hated it so much they pulled their kids out of the schools and put them in the Gymnasium. I don't know what the Gymnasium are, but I do know that they are in some way associated with Erasmus and that students attending Gymnasium learn Latin and Greek

We heard this story from a professor friend of Ed's, who said her sister had attended Gymnasium and had read Homer in the original Greek by the time she was in 8th grade. As I recall.

Ed's friend said so many people pulled their kids out of the project schools that they finally had to drop the project method and go back to teaching subjects.

I cherish that story.


Anonymous said...

"But, today, this is actually what a large number of American parents want for their children. A "content-full" curriculum leads to kids who are "nerds," and many parents would rather have their children grow up to be illiterates than nerds."

I copied this from "The Homeschooling Physicist". He says it better than I can.

This is definitely the experience I have had in school and this is the attitude of my sister. She doesn't want her daughter to be a nerd even though she tested as gifted and she is in the IB program.

Anonymous said...

Oh BTW. The middle school just switched over to fuzzy project based math this year. So everyone will be happy.

Catherine Johnson said...

yeah.....that's what they THINK they want 'til they get a gander at 24/7 PROJECTS in HIGH SCHOOL....

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll have to find that post. I've never read Homeschooling Physicist.

I probably know what you mean, although fear-of-nerdiness isn't a big factor in my town.

Americans like 'well-rounded' kids - I tend to feel that way myself.

Not that I'm proud of it.

Freeven said...

Thanks for posting my question, Catherine. I'm hoping your readers can help me out by pointing me to some useful info. I need some info on this stuff so I know what I'm talking about before I attend the meetings they've planned.

SteveH said...

"...pointing me to some useful info..."

PBL is vague enough that it can't be evaluated without more specifics. You say your town is "reinventing the high school around a project-based learning model." I imagine that they are going to buy (?) into an existing model rather than develop their own from scratch. Do you know what that model is, or do they offer web links to that information?

PBL, like many pedagogical teaching models, can be done well or not. Given everything I know about the world of K-12 education, I would expect the answer is not. Key things to look for are the details of the content covered and skill levels expected. You can always trade lower expectations for more fun in class and better retention of less material. You don't want to kill the top level students just to help the low end and keep more kids in school. PBL could be designed for top level students, but I seriously doubt that's what they are looking to do.

Does your high school offer AP classes or an IB program? What will happen to them? Will they keep these things (in name only?) but transform them with PBL, or will they go away?

I'm not sure that anyone can give you hard research one way or the other. I would have to see the details. If you have a link to something, that would be great. Your school should be able to give you that information before the first meeting.

In general, K-12 schools love to pretend that less is more. Education is transformed from the hard work of learning detailed content knowledge and mastery of skills to fun, integrated, hands-on survey courses. At some point, motivation and overview have to give way to hard work on the details. Like I've always said, schools love to dance (kinesthetic learning) all around and never get down to real work.

Barry Garelick said...

A fellow in my math teaching methods class in ed school last year did a presentation on an article that talked about Holland's approach. The article was very positive about it, and so was he. So was the teacher of our class who was big on project based learning. There was a sample question from Holland's math Olympiad, that involved rank ordering some plant species based on statistics that no one had. We fooled around with that problem in the usual small groups. We dithered around not knowing what we were doing. One student in the class was a statistician and he elucidated how one solved such a problem. There was a fixed method and procedure. Without such knowledge we were just floundering as most students would. Grading supposedly was based on "creativity" and "process" of course.

There was no mention about Holland having abandoned this program.

Freeven said...

"PBL is vague enough that it can't be evaluated without more specifics."

The vagueness is part of the problem. I'm trying to piece things together as I learn more. Here's what I know.

John Shea, our high school principle wrote a series of articles for the local paper calling for the abandonment of the traditional school model and the adoption of a "deeper, less broad" curriculum centered around "questions and problems." The kids would work with members of the community on "real life" issues. (Global warming was the example he used.) There would be other changes as well, including a new, more meaningful means of assessing student progress.

The articles are short and can be found at by searching for "john shea series." I find myself embarrassed for my community by the number of gross grammatical errors as well as the shallowness and vagueness of the content.

Though the articles don't mention it, Shea has proposed to our school board that we create a satellite for the high school based upon the ideas presented in the articles. The new school would have a population of 4-500 and the stated goal is to “reach the kids that we're not reaching.” I assume that's a reference to our high drop-out rate, though I'm not certain.

The articles don't specifically mention project-based learning, but Shea was involved in the creation of “High Tech High” in San Diego and has said that the new school would be similarly structured. According to Wikipedia ( HTH is run on a PBL model. PBL is new to me, but from what I've read so far it sounds like what Shea describes in his articles, and the bit about designing a curriculum around “questions and problems” (he likes that phrase) has come up a fair amount in my reading. The existing high school would retain its current traditional structure, with the new school (to be funded by the Bill Gates foundation presumably) siphoning off about a third of the population.

That's really about all the details that have been given. I've spoken with an assistant principle at the school and I get the feeling he's not quite sure what this is all going to look like either. Nevertheless, people are getting on board. Community groups are supporting Shea, and the school board has reassigned his principle duties for a year while Shea researches and seeks funding for the project. I understand he's received a $25,000 budget for this.

Some public forums have been held on this, but not a lot of details have emerged. More public forums are scheduled, but I'm not hopeful that the picture is going to get a great deal clearer. That's part of the reason I've gotten interested in this is, because the idea seems to be gaining inertia even though no one seems to be able to explain exactly what the idea is.

”Does your high school offer AP classes or an IB program? What will happen to them? Will they keep these things (in name only?) but transform them with PBL, or will they go away?”

We have AP classes. I presume they will stay at the existing high school. I have no idea what will be done at the new school.

So that's the story.

High Tech High boasts success with their program, and it looks like they get good ratings(though mixed parental reviews) at, so maybe my concerns are unwarranted. But I'm skeptical of new ideas that are going to shake up kids' lives, and I'd like to see some evidence that they work before we commit to them.

Thanks for reading this far, and for the feedback.

Crimson Wife said...

My DH was an Army officer and one of his sergeants went to live in San Diego after retirement. His sergeant's son graduated from High Tech High and went on to attend CalTech. My DH was very impressed with what his sergeant had to say about HTH.

SteveH said...

The devil is in the details and all you have to go on is HTH. There might be many things of value offered by PBL, but HTH is too dogmatic about it's approach. It's all or nothing. Nothing stops a traditional high school from offering a few PBL-based classes.

This is from the FAQ at HTH:

"Do HTH schools offer AP courses?
The problem with AP courses is that in order to pass the AP test, students must be rushed through a prescribed, exhaustive, fact-based curriculum that does not lead to an insightful understanding of the big ideas in the discipline. Additionally, many schools tailor their program to prepare students for the AP course, meaning that the entire 9-12 curriculum is set up to prepare students for a poorly designed course during the senior year. For these reasons, AP courses will never be the centerpiece of the HTH curriculum. We choose to emphasize deep project-based work over superficial 'content coverage.'"

"superficial content coverage"? There is a wee bit of bias here. Is HTH better, different, or just for motivation?

"How do HTH schools handle honors courses?
At High Tech High, we aim to personalize our offerings to individual students. For two students in the same physics class, one might be building a hovercraft while another is building a sailboat. Our teachers work to challenge and support each student to aim for their personal best. We believe this is a better way to acknowledge differences between students rather than offering “honors” vs. “regular courses.” Nonetheless, we recognize that one reason that students take honors courses is the weighted GPA that comes with this course, which helps during college admissions. Therefore, we allow students to take courses for honors credit for which UC will grant weighted GPA’s, namely junior and senior core classes."

Ahh, reality sets in.

My view is that if you don't get rigorous training in individual subject areas, then it will be more difficult to fix that later on. Imagine going from a PBL-based environment in high school to a traditional college enironment?

PBL is a motivational approach to learning, not a rigorous one. Motivation can work wonders for many kids, but it's no substitute for direct rigorous training in individual subject areas.

It might be exciting to work on a human-powered submarine project in high school, but what do you really learn about hydrodynamics or power systems? Ivory tower types can easily learn the dirty details (I had friends at the university who went to the community college to learn welding.), but the technicians will never make it to the ivory tower.

The position that the HTH approach is better than the AP or IB approach is unfounded.

Freeven said...

I greatly appreciate all the feedback, and I'm learning a lot from it, so please keep it coming. In the meantime, I'm still hoping to find some solid research that adds some scientific support to the claims and criticisms of PBL.

As an aside, while reading about PBL, I've come across info on Direct Instruction, as well. But all the material on DI has focused on early education -- mainly grades 1 through 3. Anyone know if DI programs are used with older kids, say high school aged?


ChemProf said...

You can find some information about using direct instruction methods in high school here:

I have only had a few students come out of project based high schools into college, but usually the problem is that they lack patience. If they can't immediately see the use of something, they think they should skip it, which makes them poorly suited to science/math/engineering majors where you have to build up lots of fundamental knowledge first, or you wind up with big holes.

Crimson Wife said...

Nothing prevents a student attending a PBL school from preparing for the AP exams on his/her own if desired. The high school I attended back in the day only offered a single AP course (biology) but I got college credit for passing 4 other AP exams. I simply purchased a bunch of review books and went through them on my own.

I don't think that PBL is right for every student or even for most. But I do think it *CAN* work very well for a certain type of student. Families ought to have the option to choose the type of school that's the right "fit" for their children- whether that's an IB or a quality PBL program.

Anonymous said...

Problem based learning can be used well by a teacher with excellent subject matter knowledge to provide depth to math or science. The teacher has to have the time and ability to correct the misconceptions that can occur when anyone is attempting to work with material they do not know or understand yet. That's generally not the vision involved with its advocates.

The real problem with PBL is that it is viewed and pushed by many as part of the attempt to reform public education away from disseminating knowledge and understanding of important and useful aspects of our culture to changing society itself.

Here's a quote from a book by Rahima C Wade on service learning:

"... goes along with school as community and authentic assessments and portfolios, constructivist teaching and learning, middle school philosophy, integrated curriculum, higher order thinking, multiple intelligences, problem based learning, and school to work transition".

All these buzz words and bad ed ideas are part of a common attempt according to supporters of these ideas.

It really is not just our imagination! These are all various tools to change the nature of public schooling in the US and quite intentional.

SteveH said...

"It really is not just our imagination!"

I agree 100%. They KNOW that things like PBL, critical thinking, authentic assessments, and the Socratic Method can't be dismissed out of hand. There is no research that can show that they are wrong. All it takes is a little research to show that it can work for some. As long as they can keep the discussion at a general level, there is nothing you can do about it.

At least in this particular town, the PBL high school will be optional. However, the cat is out of the bag and that allows people in town to introduce their own proposals on how to spend their money. It might be better to introduce PBL-like options for some in the regular high school. That way, everyone can share the sports, music, and art advantages of a larger school. Traditionally-taught students should not be barred from taking part in projects like the human-powered submarine. Also, PBL students will want access to honors and AP classes. Look at what's happening at HTH.

PBL could be quite useful, but in the hands of some educators, it becomes so much more. It becomes a vehicle for all of their pet ideas about education. PBL does not have to be a choice of all or nothing. I think it would be better to set up a PBL program within the same high school just like you would an IB program. The risk and cost would be low.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that problem based learning goes from the big picture - the human powered submarine - to the small parts. As the students find they need information, they ask the teacher or research it on the web. First of all, having had a few classes like this myself (computer lab comes to mind) I don't think this type of learning sticks well because once the information is used it's not needed anymore, and is forgotten since it never had a chance to make it into long term memory. Second, it can leave large gaps in a student's knowledge base.

My son's university claims to be hands on and student centered. In talking to one of his professors I was told that he (the professor) presents the day's content to his class, then has them break into groups to work on projects using that content. Voila! To me that is the epitome of teaching. Give students the background they need to be successful, then let them struggle a little, only a little, with how to apply it.

SteveH said...

I call it top-down learning as opposed to bottom up. The problem with top-down is that there is nothing supporting the bottom. You have to discover the bottom. The idea is to have the real life, hands-on projects provide the motivation to help students work their way to mastery of the basics. It never happens. There is not enough time and there is no process to ensure mastery. Schools love it for its ability to provide differentiated levels of learning. Unfortunately, the onus is completely on the student to differentiate themselves to a good education.

Top-down is not about being rigorous. It's about catering to the student for motivational purposes. It leaves gaps in knowledge and skills. Educators see it as a vehicle for all of their fuzzy ideas of education. All learning is organized top-down when it doesn't have to be that way. In college, a large part of my senior year was taken up with a team-based large engineering project, but this was after 3 years of bottom-up learning. It would be ridiculously stupid to use projects as the basis for all learning.

Even Carnegie Mellon's renowned program in their Entertainment Technology Center is a graduate degree program "for the left and right brains" - after 4 years of bottom up learning. It's optional because many still want to specialize. This, however, is still bottom-up learning. The projects are about integration and putting it all together, not as a vehicle to learn the basics.