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Project-based learning: the pros and cons

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By Psyche Pascual

What to look at when considering a project-based school

Project-based learning is offered at all kinds of schools, including public and private elementary, middle, and high schools. Public charter and magnet schools often feature project-based learning in their curricula.

Mergendoller, the executive director at the Buck Institute for Education, believes schools, not individual classrooms, should offer project-based learning at different grade levels in order for students to build on their skills. In lower grades, beginners train with short activities that lead up to longer projects that can last several weeks or months.

How to determine commitment to project-based learning

  • How many projects do students do in each grade? Classes should have at least one project a year in each grade. Be suspicious if it’s less than that, or if they skip grades.
  • Can I see samples of student work on projects from previous years? Schools that support project-based learning host “galleries” of previous projects in classrooms and hallways.
  • In what subjects do you find difficult to do projects? Most of the time, the answer is math, but the way that it is answered should show the principal or instructor’s depth of knowledge in project-based learning. Sometimes schools have trouble doing projects because of bell schedules or district pacing guides.
  • How do you teach your students to work together productively so they can succeed in projects? Ask what happens if a child fails to do his or her work, how to make up work, and what the teacher will do to help a child finish.
  • Is there a standard curriculum? Ask if your child’s project-based learning classroom is part of a network that provides standard curriculum. Project Lead the Way, for example, works with national businesses to develop science and engineering curriculum.
  • What are the curriculum and grading requirements? Ask the teacher to explain what skills will be taught, his or her grading requirements, and the specific project your child will have to complete.
  • Does it appeal to both genders? Many teachers encourage girls to become involved in math and science projects — fields that are often male-dominated — by avoiding projects that might appeal primarily to boys. To spark girls’ interest levels, for instance, Lubak encourages his students to come up with engineering projects that appeal to both sexes — such as potable water projects, green technology, and biomedical devices.
  • What's the level of parental involvement? Parent involvement is integral to project-based learning. If you’re a parent, you may be asked to help out. Schools often partner with members of the community to participate in project-based classrooms as mentors. If you have the right skills, you may also be asked to speak to or assist in the class.
  • How's group learning supported? In group projects, resolving conflict is part of the learning process. If there’s a difference of opinion on how to proceed, teachers will often ask students to explore the methods as a group. If time allows, students may be asked to test both methods to see which is successful. “Engineering teams frequently have disagreements and must resolve issues,” Lubak said. “I tell the students this is what they will be experiencing in the real world when they get a job someday.”
  • How do teachers keep students motivated? First, ask how teachers get kids excited about a new project. Then, ask what happens if kids lose steam. Teachers may ask students to sign a contract that spells out their responsibilities in the project and consequences for not completing their fair share.

    Typically, students' work is reviewed along the way, so a teacher can step in, guide them, or ask a teammate to help out. The teacher may also schedule a meeting to find out what’s going on. As in the real world, students may get “fired” from a project for failing to contribute, though this would only happen in middle or high school and wouldn’t come as a surprise: the contract may even have a firing clause.

A final word of advice

To evaluate how project-based learning works at your child’s school, visit a classroom. Ask principals not only if their schools offer project-based learning, but how many teachers are trained to teach it and at what grade levels. Finally, even if the program gets rave reviews from other parents, ask yourself if project-based learning is the right fit for your child.