Thinking About Excellent Project-Based Learning with the Buck Institute

Today, Rody Boonchouy @rodyboo from the Buck Institute discusses effective project-based learning. With a powerful metaphor explaining the difference between projects and project-based learning, Rody sets the stage to discuss PBL trends and tips. Let's dive deeper into PBL.

(If this topic interests you, you might also want to check out 5 Ways to Find Project-Based Learning Ideas, 3 Ways to Lead Amazing Project-Based Learning, or Get Motivated to Do Project-Based Learning the Right Way.)

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Below is a transcript modified for your reading pleasure. For information on the guests and items mentioned in this show, scroll down to the bottom of this post.


Transcript for Episode 139

Project-Based Learning at the Buck Institute

Download the Transcript: Rody Boonchouy in Episode 139
Thursday, August 31, 2017

Vicki: Happy Thought Leader Thursday. Today we’re thinking about Project Based Learning. This is something we talk about a lot on “The Ten Minute Teacher.” We have Dr. Rody Boonchouy @rodyboo with us from the Buck Institute of Education.

What are the trends in project-based learning?

Rody, you work with Project Based Learning all over the country and the world. What kind of trends are you seeing right now in Project Based Learning?

Rody: Thanks for having me, Vicki. I work for the Buck Institute for Education, and we provide professional development across the country, supporting educators, teachers, leaders, instructional coaches in using Project Based Learning or what we call PBL.

Over the past ten years or so, we’ve seen an enormous spike in demand and interest in PBL, particularly with the emergence of some of the new policies like Common Core, this shift toward 21st Century Skills. Many teachers have been asking, “Well, we understand and believe that this is important, but how do we bring that type of learning to the classroom?”

PBL has been a fantastic vehicle to enable students to cultivate those skills and to practice their problem solving, collaboration communication, and the increase just continues to grow. We’re very excited about this trend and what it’s able to do for students and teachers.

How is project-based learning misunderstood?

Vicki: Rody, do you think that some people misunderstand what Project Based Learning is? And how?

Rody: That’s a great question. We distinguish Project Based Learning between the “dessert” project and the “main course.” It’s a perfect metaphor. Many teachers use projects. I used projects when I was in the classroom as well. Often the way they manifested was a teacher would go through a typical unit using traditional instructional methodologies, and then at the completion of that unit once the test had been taken, then we would engage in a project – something fun. Great example, something in California for 4th graders where the focus is on state history, they have the California Mission Project. This is something you can build with sugar cubes or with clay. It’s typically something fun, hands on, and a great way to kind of wrap up the unit. We believe that Project Based Learning should be the main course – that the entire unit is contextualized by a project, that by building, constructing, researching, engaging in authentic tasks, real world issues – students can learn the skills and develop content knowledge along the way. So, it’s important to know that PBL is highly rigorous, is highly standards based and drives the unit at hand.

Important TIP! Just because you do “a project” doesn't mean you're using project based learning. To me, the question is if students are learning via the project – as part of the project, they are learning. (“main course”) Or, are they just showing evidence that they learned something via a project they did to show learning. (“dessert project”)

For example, in my own classroom, we do the MAD about Mattering Project. When we start the project, students will say, “I can't build an app, I don't know how.” I'll tell them “that's because you learn as we do the project.” Then, they'll learn about app development, collaborative design, graphic design, writing for the web, licensing, and so much more. The project is the canvas upon which we paint the learning. To me, that is the best example I can give you of project based learning in my own classroom.

Please consider project based learning not just doing projects. There's a big difference both in engagement, excitement, and the learning that happens.

Can we keep up with standards while using project-based learning to teach?

Vicki: So Rody, some teachers might say, “Well you’re going to slow me down. I can’t cover the content fast enough.” Or “Prove to me that they’re actually going to learn it better than me just lecturing.” What do you say?

Rody: That’s an ongoing challenge. Teachers have a list of standards a mile long – per subject. Often, we educators feel compelled to “cover” as much as possible. However, we do know from cognitive science and learning science that superficial review or the teaching and learning of content isn’t retained, doesn’t stick. Project Based Learning comes from the school of thought – the philosophy – that by going into depth, by really unpacking those key content standards, that by applying that new knowledge to new circumstances, students actually retain and better understand the depth of those concepts. So we advocate for “less is more” and thoughtful identification of those standards that we really want students to know and understand well. That’s typically where we’ve seen the most success.

Do you have an example of project-based learning breakthroughs?

Vicki: Rody, think about a breakthrough that you’ve witnessed in schools or with a teacher where PBL truly made a difference. Can you give me an example?

Rody: I think it’s the stories that really compel a lot of educators to move forward with PBL. The bulk of my teaching career I taught at a PBL school – wall to wall PBL – meaning that the entire curriculum was taught through projects. Interestingly, a lot of students that weren’t successful in the traditional model for a variety of reasons – because they didn’t feel engaged, they didn’t fit into that model or paradigm of textbooks and lectures – came looking for something new, almost a “last chance.” This was in the early years in my career.

What was interesting was that regardless of the reasons why students may have not have felt successful prior, [they] all of a sudden came alive. The reason is because they were able to see the connection between what they were learning and its application to the world outside, the “adult world” if you will. Often students would raise their hands and ask, “Why are we learning this?” That’s a wonderful question, because they’re looking for meaning. That connection between the adult world is really powerful, too.

The other piece is that PBL relies on students’ strengths, interests, assets in terms of how they learn and how they demonstrate that learning. Some students may have a technological strength or artistic or written — the whole spectrum of modalities. PBL provides an opportunity for voice and choice in not only how you learn the content and skills, but also how you demonstrate that learning. I saw that with my students throughout my career.

Interestingly, I ran into a student just the other day or last week who is successful, working as a manager in a car dealership. He was able to articulate that, “You know what? Through PBL I was able to learn how to deal with people, collaborate, lead, manage myself, manage my time…” I think that’s the power of PBL.

Tip: Project based learning gives you an opportunity to give student choice. It also lets you make real world connections. Sometimes, the problem with project-based learning is that the projects are artificial “dessert” projects that are little more than busy work for kids.

Everything we do in the classroom should be intentional, especially projects. Use them as a way to teach. It is ok if they know nothing about the project when they start, that means there's lots of learning to happen!

What is the biggest mistake in PBL implementation?

Vicki: So Rody, you’ve worked with lots of schools. What’s the biggest mistake you see in PBL implementation?

Rody: Well, here’s the challenge of PBL… PBL is difficult to do. It takes a long time to learn, to develop a rhythm, and to feel successful all of the time. The reason is because you’re managing different teams of students, and not only navigating the content and providing a scaffolding for that, but also navigating the interpersonal dynamics of teams that are coming up with innovative solutions.

I think the mistakes in districts that are very interested in PBL  is they try to move too fast. They send their teachers to one workshop where teachers are often very inspired, but there needs to be ongoing support, ongoing reflection on what worked and what didn’t – so that teachers can create powerful learning experiences and also feel able to take risks, try new things. Even to fail forward, to model a student “Look. It’s a messy world out there. How are we going to learn about the way we learn, in order to be successful?”

In the episode, “Get Rid of Cemetery-Style Seating” Bill Selak talks about his school's process of Innovation that they call the “Hillbrook Way.” I'm starting to notice a pattern that the most innovative schools have an ongoing process to implement change and continue to discuss and spur it on. Change is not a one time thing – change is a process. Great schools have a process of ongoing innovation and improvement.

We'll have more on this type of school and process in the future because I'm curious. ;-) If you know of schools and districts who are great models of ongoing improvement, be sure to tweet me or contact me!

The other challenge is this notion of control and power. In the traditional paradigm, the teacher is the arbiter of knowledge, and students essentially “receive” that knowledge. In a PBL classroom, it’s important to give significant elements of control to students, to wrestle with new concepts and new tasks. That’s a pretty big hurdle and challenge for new teachers of PBL.

Vicki: Well, I know in my own classroom, I think I’m probably – I’m sitting here trying to think of how many tests I actually give. I mean, maybe three a year… and they’re not really tests, they’re kind of just quizzes. But I’m pretty much totally PBL. There’s tools you can use. You can use Trello, you can use Google Docs, there’s all kinds of things that you can use to help track and keep up with this. And you’re right, Rody, you do get better with time, but it does take a little time to learn how to do this. But I would never go back to my test-centered classroom from where I am now. The kids are just too excited, and I’m too excited.

Rody: (laughs)

Vicki: First of all, the Buck Institute for Education has fantastic resources. So many of us look at their research and what they’re doing to get to hone our craft and reinvent how we do projects in our classroom. I think it’s part of being a remarkable teacher for the 21st Century to master how we do Project Based Learning. So, take a look and think about it today.

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Full Bio As Submitted

Rody Boonchouy

A former PBL principal, teacher, and school development coach, Rody has comprehensive expertise and practitioner experience in instruction and leadership for Project Based Learning. He began his career teaching overseas, and in 2003 founded a New Tech Network school in Davis, CA. He taught for seven years as a high school PBL English teacher and served as a principal of a PBL high school before joining the staff at the Buck Institute for Education. Rody completed his dissertation on leadership for Project Based Learning.

As Senior Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at BIE, Rody oversees BIE’s high profile grants and program development, national institutes, and partnerships. During his tenure at BIE, Rody led the development of BIE’s National Faculty community, a consultant group of 100 members made up of PBL practitioners, leaders, and experts. He joined BIE as a National Faculty member in 2007 and has served on staff since 2013.

Rody has a BA in English from U.C. Berkeley, M.Ed. from U.C. Riverside, M.Ed. from University of La Verne, and an Ed.D. from U.C. Davis. He also holds single-subject and administrative credentials.

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.)

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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1 comment

Alice September 2, 2017 - 2:18 am

Very interesting. Thank you very much.


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