PBL Reflection is Valuable from all Stakeholders

Posted by Nathan Hatt on 12/19/2018 3:30:00 PM

After the dust settles and the projects go home, students celebrate another excellent exposition. Before teachers move on to new instruction, an essential component of project-based learning is reflection. Students will be asking themselves many of the same questions that they often ask at the end of a project. What was the most enjoyable part of this project? What do I wish I had done differently in this project? What was the most important thing that I learned in this project? These questions, taken from a resource provided from the Buck Institute for Education, are also excellent questions that families can ask their children at the end of a project.

The dark, contemplative season ahead is an appropriate time for us all to reflect. As teachers reflect on their own PBL instruction, we collectively reflect on our efforts as a whole. From a research perspective, there has been a great deal of argument over the effectiveness of project-based learning. As explained in an earlier blog post on CRT, “…project based-learning has been ill-defined and inconsistently administered. The research from Hattie reflects this. PBL in and of itself is not a high-leverage practice.” Tagged as “problem-based learning,” Hattie assigns the effect size as 0.26, well below the “hinge-point” of 0.4. The Buck Institute questions this methodology in its capacity to effectively critique PBL. They have compiled a review of literature that would suggest that PBL should be described as “promising but not proven.”

So where does this leave PBL teachers in a PBL school? Where does this leave families in this PBL experiment? A recent article from ASCD’s Educational Leadership has some specific perspectives that are encouraging for those who have made an institutional commitment to PBL. The article explains that “The core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students' interest and provoke serious thinking as the students acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem-solving context. The teacher plays the role of facilitator, working with students to frame worthwhile questions, structuring meaningful tasks, coaching both knowledge development and social skills, and carefully assessing what students have learned from the experience.” Not only does this describe A2 STEAM’s approach to PBL, it aligns to the idealized vision of the newest content standards for science and social studies in the state of Michigan, NGSS and C3 respectively. These standards define an instructional approach that favors inquiry, application, and collaboration. It also describes the role of the teacher as the facilitator.

The Educational Leadership article points out, again, that a consistent vision for PBL is a recent development. “Fully realized project-based teaching has never been widespread in mainstream public schooling. Teachers have little training or experience in the approach. Moreover, the time demands of projects, especially in today's context of standards, high-stakes tests, and pacing guides, understandably discourage many teachers from venturing into the kinds of collaborative student investigations that form the foundation of project-based learning.” It’s challenging to do this work well when there are so many barriers that get in the way. Pointing to evidence from research, “The broad and varied definitions of project-based learning make it difficult to identify a distinct body of research on its practice. In fact, only a few studies have measured the effects of project-based learning on student achievement.” This would indicate that a meta-analysis such as Hattie’s would tell us more about the vague shape of PBL as administered than its comparative effect, all things being equal. The few studies that have interesting comparisons show growth. Not only that, but also favorable outcomes in problem-solving and higher order thinking - an important emphasis in PBL.

What makes PBL ultimately successful is the support that sustains it. “Together these findings suggest caution in embracing this practice unless the conditions for success are in place, including strong school support, access to well-developed projects, and a collaborative culture for teachers and students.” As we continue to develop and support our collaborative culture of PBL at A2 STEAM, we ask that families engage in thoughtful reflection as well. What have you noticed about your child’s PBL work? How were you engaged throughout the process? How were you engaged during our expositions? In what ways has PBL shaped your child as a thinker, maker, and collaborator?

In the new year, we will be embarking on the task of collecting testimonials. These narratives will help to sustain our instructional model by supporting our teachers, praising our students, and telegraphing our uniqueness to the world. If you are interested in sharing, please fill out the following form:


Hoping you and yours have a relaxing and contemplative winter solstice season.