Additional project-based learning articles:
TPN: The Pitsco Network
DR: Dave Ross, teacher, Technology Middle School, Sonoma, CA
Introduction: Dave Ross is a global
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
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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
TPN: Explain why PBL requires
patience from educators and administrators.
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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.