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The New Framework for High Quality PBL

Making Project Based Learning come alive for students

by Bob Lenz

The world has changed dramatically in recent decades, but our education system has not. With a few exceptions schools, classrooms, and instructional methods look the same today as they did a hundred years ago. Students sit rows of desks as the teacher stands in the front of the room, lecturing or handing out worksheets or directing students to a textbook. The emphasis is on memorizing information or practicing discrete skills such as calculation or writing. The main difference would be the presence of modern technology in the classroom, but the basic goals of education and the pedagogy remain the same.

In the past few years, however, educators, community/business leaders, and parents have become increasingly aware that schools need to better prepare students for future success. In the information age, academic knowledge and skills are still important, but not enough. Today’s workplace often requires employees to collaborate in teams, solve complex problems, communicate effectively–and organize their work as a series of projects. More and more people are part of the “gig economy,” doing one project after another. Moreover, students today are more bored by school than they ever were. Instead of sitting and listening to a lecture, they’re used to fast-paced information-gathering, online communication, and collaboration, and using tech tools to create. They’re hungry for a more meaningful and relevant education now, not the far-off promise, “you have to learn this because you’ll need it later.”

In response to this new reality, interest in Project Based Learning has grown tremendously.

In Project Based Learning or PBL, teachers make learning come alive for students. Students work on projects that engage them in solving real-world problems or answering complex questions that are authentic and meaningful. In collaboration with others, they develop deep content knowledge and critical thinking and communication skills while developing a public product or presentation for a real audience. When done well, PBL results in greater student engagement and powerful learning that lasts, and can even be transformative for young people—especially those furthest from educational opportunity.

Unfortunately, in education, new instructional practices sometimes become trendy fads that don’t live up to their promise. Teachers, school leaders, consultants, and curriculum developers may jump on the PBL bandwagon and, if the quality of the resulting projects is low, abandon the approach. To help mitigate this possibility, a steering committee of 25 PBL experts and organizations has created a framework called High Quality Project Based Learning, or HQPBL. They are now working to promote the framework for wide national and international adoption, and hundreds of educators and organizations are registering their commitment to implementing it. The year-long process to create the Framework was facilitated by the Buck Institute for Education and Getting Smart with support from the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Many organizations, experts, and consultants have developed their own models for PBL. These are typically written from the perspective of the teacher. The Framework for High-Quality Project Based Learning describes PBL in terms of the student experience and is intended to provide educators everywhere with a shared basis for designing and implementing good projects. The Framework describes six criteria:

Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment

Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.

To what extent do students:

• investigate challenging problems, questions, and issues over an extended period of time?

• focus on concepts, knowledge, and skills central to subject areas and intellectual disciplines?

• experience research-based instruction and support as needed for learning and project success?

• commit themselves to completing work of the highest quality?

Authenticity

Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives, and their future.

To what extent do students:

• engage in work that makes an impact on or otherwise connects to the world beyond school, and to their personal interests and concerns?

• use the tools, techniques, and/or digital technologies employed in the world beyond school?

• make choices regarding project topics, activities, and/or products?

Public Product

Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.

To what extent do students:

• share their work-in-progress with peers, teachers, and others for feedback?

• exhibit their work and describe their learning to peers and people beyond the classroom?

• receive feedback and/or engage in dialogue with their audiences?

Collaboration

Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.

To what extent do students:

• work in teams to complete complex tasks?

• learn to become effective team members and leaders?

• learn how to work with adult mentors, experts, community members, businesses, and organizations?

Project Management

Students use a project management process that enables them to proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.

To what extent do students:

• manage themselves and their teams efficiently and effectively throughout a multi-step project?

• learn to use project management processes, tools, and strategies?

• use the perspectives and processes of design thinking, as appropriate?

Reflection

Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

To what extent do students:

• learn to assess and suggest improvements in their own and other students’ work?

• reflect on, write about, and discuss the academic content, concepts, and success skills they are learning?

• use reflection as a tool to increase their own personal agency?

Further explanation of criteria, a list of partner organizations, stories of schools using PBL, and a paper, “Defining High Quality PBL: A Look at the Research” may be found at HQPBL.org.

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