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Home > About Us > Dave Ross: Reflections on shaping – and now teaching – project-based learning

Dave Ross: Reflections on shaping – and now teaching – project-based learning

Published December 23, 2020

Additional project-based learning articles:

Leadership Perspective

TPN: The Pitsco Network
DR: Dave Ross, teacher, Technology Middle School, Sonoma, CA

Introduction: Dave Ross is a global education consultant and former CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21). After holding national and international education leadership roles for 15 years, in August of 2019, Ross returned to the classroom to practice what he had been preaching. He teaches sixth graders at Technology Middle School in Sonoma, California.

TPN: Why did you return to classroom teaching?
I had drifted farther and farther away from life in the trenches. And as schools changed and kids changed – I call it the practice gap – I think people like me who get national prominence in a field, especially education, drift farther and farther away from the daily experience of the classroom teacher. . . . I think being back in the classroom has made me rethink and reexamine all the things that I firmly believed. And some of them need to be reformed. They weren’t very accurate. I think we – I and others – significantly underplayed the importance of scaffolding. We significantly underplayed the difficulty of doing project-based learning in impoverished neighborhoods, so I’m glad I came back.

TPN: Where did PBL begin?
Most of the work originally started in high schools and then migrated back down into middles and elementaries. But, if you look at the models like Expeditionary Learning, the New Tech model, Big Picture, and all of them, they’re top-heavy with high schools. I think part of it’s developmental in the sense that kids are more effective as communicators and collaborators when they get older and they also have more knowledge. But, on the flip side, in elementary school, it tends to be more inquiry-based approached. So, there’s no sweet spot.

TPN: Considering the current pandemic, can PBL be delivered online?
The biggest challenge is getting devices in the hands of all students, getting Wi-Fi to all students, getting curriculum online, training students how to use the devices and software, and training the teachers how to provide instruction and assessment online. Once that is accomplished, we have to train teachers how to use technology to set up collaborative work environments and train students how to collaborate effectively online. Once all of that is done, we can do PBL online. Business has been doing this for a long time. It is a brave new world for the vast majority of students and teachers. There is a long, bumpy road ahead of us.

TPN: Are most teachers prepared to deliver PBL?
The challenge of this is where teacher education comes into play. Universities, for the most part, still use a traditional instructional model. . . . So, you’ve got university teacher education programs that very much teach in a traditional model. One of the challenges for 25 years in the project-based learning world is to work with teacher-accreditation programs so that they actually embody project-based learning so that the teachers are prepped; otherwise, you’ve got teachers trained in traditional instruction thrown into PBL schools, and they’re not ready, or thrown into traditional school until, “Oh yeah, we’re pivoting to PBL,” so you’ve got to retrain your workforce, and that’s time-consuming and expensive. So, we really need to pivot the teacher education models.

TPN: Explain why PBL requires patience from educators and administrators.
You have to be patient. People don’t want to hear that because we live in an instant-gratification world. You buy something on Amazon and get the delivery the next day. And so, if they have somebody like me come in and say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll train you today but it’s going to be five years before you get good at it,” people don’t want to hear that.

TPN: How is PBL a significant deviation from traditional education?
Some people are very successful at traditional instruction, but traditional instruction meets the needs of fewer and fewer students anymore, and it’s less and less aligned to what the real world looks like. So, even if you are really good at traditional instruction, I would argue, and test scores might agree with me, that you’re not as successful anymore. So, you have to change.

TPN: Is buy-in essential across the board to ensure success with PBL?
You’ve got to commit to it over time, and you’ve got to have buy-in. So, I’ve been to lots of schools where there’s one teacher who is a PBL aficionado, and they’re all in and can’t convince anybody else around them. I was hired at this school because the school wants to do project-based learning and there was resistance among the teachers. And I would say that’s not a rarity. That’s pretty dang normal.

TPN: Does PBL require teacher professional development and pacing?
You can find somebody who’s going to disagree with me and says, “Oh, yeah, just give me a book and they’re fine.” But I have worked in 15 countries with hundreds of thousands of teachers. And I cannot give you a whole lot of examples of people who just could wing it and get it right.

TPN: What do business and industry think of PBL?
If you look at how Google hires, Google says, “We don’t even want college graduates anymore, we want skill-based hires.” So, industry has been telling us that these are the people who will be successful in the modern workplace, and schools aren’t producing them. To me, PBL does a better job producing the skills that industry wants. The business sector is in love with this, and I’ll give you an example. New Technology High School – there’s 400 of them now – was started in Napa because the wine industry park on the south side of town said we have great schools here, but they’re not producing kids with the skills needed to be successful in our industrial sector. And they said, “Create a school where kids are going to learn to collaborate, communicate, be critical thinkers and creative, and work on real work stuff.” And that’s how New Tech was born. Industry demanded that school. And, if you look at what IBM is doing with the P-TECH schools, it’s exactly that.

“One student was carrying his structures project home when he met his mom. He explained what he did and what we would be doing all week. Then, he said, ‘Mom, this was so fun. I can’t wait to come back to school tomorrow.’ In all my 15 years of teaching summer school, I’ve never heard that.”

– Mario Dicarlo, Taylor Elementary, Santa Maria, California

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