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PBL - Recent Reminders of Long Established Proof

Recently, some exciting research came out that proved something that project-based learning advocates have known all along; it works and can work for everyone. Research released by the Lucas Research Foundation shows that PBL produce better results on standardized tests than a traditional approach. Not only that, but the research was conducted at both the elementary and secondary level in large school districts with 50% or more of the students being classified as Title I. The study focused on using project-based learning in both AP government and environmental science courses, and showed near double-digit differences between AP performance by students in the PBL classes over those in using a more traditional approach.

This research is exciting and has been heralded as "the proof that PBL has been waiting for" but I was surprised to read this as the body of research supporting PBL has existed for over 100 years. Ever since John Dewey moved to Chicago and opened his lab school we have seen how experiential and authentically-rooted education has helped students succeed. And although the Lucas Research Foundation findings are something to celebrate, there is even more compelling evidence buried in long-forgotten volumes.

In his book Analyzing The Curriculum, George Posner profiles the Foxfire program led by and developed by teacher Eliot Wigginton. The project-based curriculum began as a literacy project, but quickly developed into a multidisciplinary, student-driven endeavor that most famously produced numerous novels written by students. Equally remarkable is that this project was composed of students from a high poverty, mountainous region of Georgia. Wigginton’s adoption of PBL structures helped these students, long look down on as rednecks and hillbillies, feel a greater sense of pride in their communities and its culture.

Something that needs to be made clear is that despite his success and numerous accolades, Wigginton is not someone you want to hold up as a paragon of educational virtue. In 1992 he pled guilty to sexually abusing a ten-year old student. He left the state, and the program he started tried to divorce itself of his influence, continuing to grow without him.

But the Foxfire approach continued to garner success, especially in rural Georgia and the more than 30+ public schools that adopted the methodology, and it's no great secret why. A 1986 article outlining a study conducted by Gary Wehlage shows that PBL curriculum, like the Foxfire program, is especially effective with populations of students who are at a greater risk of dropping out when compared to white or suburban students. Specifically, it directly addresses two of the most persistent factors challenging these students; lack of motivation and lack of opportunities for practical application of skills in contact. While traditional curriculum continually falls short in addressing these issues, PBL leads to students feeling more connected and supported at school while as the same time it contextualize what they are learning in a way that helps them understand why it matters.

We know it works. We know it works for the students that rarely see anything work for them in education. Let us remember this and recommit ourselves to the work for our students.


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