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A study of project-based learning found that social studies scores were higher for second-grade students who learned this way, compared to students who were taught traditionally. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

When a classroom of second graders in Waterford, Mich., studied civics in the fall of 2016, they began by exploring a nearby park in Pontiac. Arriving with their notebooks, the seven-year-olds jotted down safety problems. Back in the classroom, they discussed their ideas for improvement.  They created multicolored posters to explain what different departments of local government do, from sanitation to human resources. The kids drafted proposals to clean up messy areas and put soft woodchips under the swings.

The 20-lesson unit culminated in a presentation before a Pontiac City Council member named Randy Carter, who listened to the kids make their case at a podium with a microphone and PowerPoint slides. Carter promised to act upon their proposals immediately.

It was an effective demonstration of project-based learning, a trend whose roots date back to John Dewey’s educational philosophies and that has been spreading through schools across the country over the past five years. The curriculum was recently the subject of an experiment involving 684 students to see if this approach actually teaches kids the reading and writing skills and the content they need to succeed in school.

A group of researchers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University followed students using the same social studies curriculum as the one used in Waterford in 20 high-poverty schools in Michigan. After a year, the researchers found that the kids whose teachers were randomly assigned to instruct through projects posted higher scores on a social studies test created by the researchers than schoolmates who were instructed as usual. (The researchers controlled for academic differences among the kids at the start of the school year.) The project-based kids also had slightly higher reading scores but their writing scores were no different.

“Project-based learning can be great and it can be pretty awful,” said Nell Duke, one of the lead authors of the study and a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “This study shows that a well-designed project-based curriculum might be more effective than traditional instruction.”

Related: Project-based learning and standardized tests don’t mix

The results haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. But because schools are moving ahead quickly to adopt project-based learning, I wanted to highlight some of the important takeaways.

There’s considerable disagreement even among experts over exactly what project-based learning is. It often involves things that good teachers have long been asking of students, such as problem-solving and learning by doing. Units of study are sometimes launched by a question that students need to answer and the work product that the students produce is often intended for a real audience, not just the teacher’s eyes and red pencil. It’s a lot more involved than tacking on a project to a traditional unit of study by assigning students, for example, to make shoebox dioramas about a book they’ve read.

For this experiment, the researchers spent years developing four separate project-based units on history, geography, economics and civics. They devised detailed lesson plans for teachers to follow, specifying when kids work individually, in small groups or together as a class. (The curriculum development was the subject of a 2012 paper.) The curriculum embeds proven strategies for teaching reading and writing, such as those listed on the What Works Clearinghouse, a Department of Education website that highlights valid research. The lessons were designed to meet the state’s standards —  the goalposts for what kids are supposed to learn. There are times when the project-based curriculum calls for the teacher to explain things to the whole class, using direct, explicit instruction.

Related: The next generation of science education means more doing

Among proponents of project-based learning, there is disagreement on how much autonomy to give students in choosing their topics and projects. “My own stance is that kids picking out their own projects is not the best way,” said Duke. “The projects we do have more constraints.” She said the control allows her to weave in the things she wants to teach, such as vocabulary.

Only 24 teachers taught the project-based curriculum in this experiment, and it’s an open question whether large numbers of teachers will enjoy teaching detailed lesson plans created by curriculum designers. Part of the appeal of project-based learning is the perception that there’s more freedom, a welcome antidote to the pressures of test prep and meeting Common Core standards. This version could feel too restrictive for some educators.

To be sure, Duke and her fellow curriculum designers have left some flexibility for teachers to customize lessons to their communities. In a history unit, teachers and students can choose which historical sites to write about in their postcards.

Currently, Duke is working on creating a project-based curriculum for kindergarten through second grade that teaches not only social studies, but also reading, writing, science and a good chunk of the math. If she succeeds, it might provide a roadmap for educators on how to re-introduce more science and social studies in elementary school classrooms without sacrificing the basic skills kids need to know.

This story about project-based learning was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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