Promising Practices in Equity and Project-Based Learning

One-third of American workers are now engaged in some kind of freelancing, or project-based, work.
Our lives are increasingly being organized around gigs, short term or longer term projects. Even if young people decide against joining the gig economy and land long term jobs with stable employment, they are likely to do most of their work in projects.
What implications does this shift in our economy have on young people? And what questions should schools be asking to prepare students for a project-based world?

  • Are students collaborating with others on projects?
  • Are students mastering core academic content that is relevant to the problems and challenges of their futures?
  • Are students fostering academic mindsets, cultivating executive functioning and social and emotional skills needed in a rapidly changing economy?
  • Are students learning how to utilize their own interests and passions to grow their skills?

This was the theme of a speech given by Bob Lenz, executive director of Buck Institute of Education (BIE), at this year’s PBL World.
Bob Lenz said, “It’s a project-based world…At BIE, we have a vision that all students will have access to high quality project-based learning. Project-based learning (PBL) teaches academics and success skills that will prepare students for their future. Our mission is to build the capacity for teachers to facilitate and design for high quality PBL and for school leaders and administrators to set the conditions for successful project-based learning.”(To see the keynote in full, press play in the video below). 

Much has been written on this blog and many others about what it takes to help genuinely and adequately prepare students for college, career and citizenship. Consider:

  • Over 50% of America’s public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • We have not closed the achievement gap, and although there are a few bright spots, largely all the money spent from both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have not reduced gaps between white students and students of color.

The fact still remains that for many Americans to move out of poverty and into the “middle class,” one must earn a college degree. This is discussed in Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations, a Pew Charitable Trusts Report, which found that nine out of 10 children “who grow up at the bottom of the income ladder but then graduate from college move up to a higher economic bracket as adults.”
The same is not true for those without a college degree. Fewer than half move out of poverty.
The Washington Post recently covered the inherent challenge: “Being poor is an impediment to getting the education that lifts you out of poverty.”

Preparing for PBL

Preparing students for a project-based world is both an approach to organizing learning and an antidote to pervasive boredom seen in schools. Preparing students for a project-based world also represents the path forward to freedom in a new and ever changing economy.
PBL has thrived in affluent schools where students have the basic skills and self-management to engage in complex multi-step projects. However, schools serving low income students are often overwhelmed with the challenge of students entering well below grade level. Over the last 20 years many districts implemented systems of managed instruction which spoonfed students with test-prep drills. This scripted approach occasionally raised test scores, but it reduced student agency and teacher motivation.
Simultaneously research by Dweck and Duckworth made clear the importance of developing an academic mindset by challenging students in ways that promoted persistence. Project-based learning is the best way to promote agency, mastery of academic content, persistence, collaboration and the importance of quality work products.
School networks such as Big Picture Learning, EL Education, Internationals Network of Schools, Envision Education and New Tech Network, along with organizations such as BIE are part of the deeper learning network. As Paul Tough noted in his new book Helping Children Succeed, “deeper-learning methods, when employed well, do actually produce measurable benefits for students in poverty….Expeditionary Learning [now EL Education] schools have shown significant academic success with low-income students. Graduates of Envision schools are persisting in college at high rates (though the schools are new enough that that data is still preliminary).
And a 2014 study of student performance at schools in California and New York, conducted by the American Institutes for Research, found that attending deeper-learning schools had a significant positive impact, on average, on students’ content knowledge and standardized-test scores. (Three-fifths of the students in the study were low-income, and their scores improved just as much as the scores of the students who were above the low-income cutoff.)”
Schools are combining the strengths of PBL (i.e. engagement and integration) and personalized learning (i.e. individualized skill building). School districts engage students in complex team based projects while providing individualized writing and math support. This approach to personalized project-based learning is likely to gain traction and, in doing so, promote equitable access to deeper learning.
As Lenz said in his keynote, the project-based learning approach can create a generation of students, teachers and leaders who are ignited by meaningful, authentic and often real world learning, activating interests that guide them toward success in college and career and helping to ensure deeper learning outcomes.
It’s a project-based world. He ended his keynote by saying that PBL is for all students, is transformational for students and teachers and requires deep coherence and commitment.
Lenz chose this poem for the conclusion.
This blog was created at this year’s PBL World conference. Follow along at #PBLWorld and contribute your ideas by submitting short answers to our PBL World form. You can join us by watching keynotes live–and later archived–here.
This blog is also part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.
For more, see:

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Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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Martin Sumichrast

Hey @belathram, This post is really very inspiring. I am truly amazed to read this post, learnt a lot from your stuff today. Thanks!

Bonnie Lathram

Thanks so much Martin! Appreciate the nice words. If you are interested in writing yourself, feel free to message me on twitter @BeLathram. We are always looking for amazing educators and people in the ed sector who want to share their ideas and best practices w/ others. Very best wishes, Bonnie

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