Back To School: Will It Be Test Prep or Project Based Learning?

In the coming weeks, schools across the country will reopen. I feel badly for the many teachers and students who will return to the grueling routine of test-prep. Perhaps they have convinced themselves that the foundation of teaching is to tell students something they did not previously know. As Donald Finkel has described it – teaching as telling. Do they see students as computers waiting for instructions? Teachers of high performing students forced to "install" the SAT / AP files while teachers of low performing students "upload" minimum competency on state exams. Different students and goals, but equal in the outcome that nobody will be having much fun.

Last week I attended Project Foundry's "2nd Annual unConference" in Milwaukee and was reminded that there is a growing core of schools and teachers who have rejected the mind-numbing routine of test-prep. I was uplifted knowing that these teachers and their students were getting ready for the rewards of a school year of project-based learning.  

Project Foundry is a leading provider of online learning management systems with a focus on the needs of PBL classroom. Their conference assembled 60+ educators from across the country. These PBL teachers share a belief that students can't be programmed for the tests. Instead, they strive to provide a supportive learning environment that will foster the skills, motivation and responsibility for the students to become genuine life-long learners. (Not just the empty promise of typical district mission statement.)

The PBL teachers came from a wide variety of schools  (urban / rural, experiential / career, charter / public school, high / low-needs students). They embodied many approaches, but they all shared the goal of helping students take increasing responsibility for their learning.  It was no surprise that my keynote talk – "Supporting Reflective Learners" was warmly received by the attendees. See my post for more on my Taxonomy of Reflection.

Reflection  As I walked into the unConference's host school – the Milwaukee's Professional Leadership Institute, I couldn't help but notice the powerful display of student work on the wall. (At left). It embodied a reflective, project-based approach in action and reminded me that across the country a small, but increasing number of students would embrace a new school year laced with the promise of self-discovery and personal growth.

Note: "In My Shoes", was a school studio project in the arts enrichment program offered by Artists Working in Education (AWE) and proposed and hosted by Milwaukee's Professional Leadership Institute. For a full description of the project see the excellent blog post by unConference attendee, Angie Tenebrini.

9 Replies to “Back To School: Will It Be Test Prep or Project Based Learning?”

  1. Do you think project-based learning is growing or shrinking? I wonder about that. I like thinking that it’s growing – but is that just because I know more about schools doing it? Was it more prevalent in the 60’s or 70s?

  2. Peter,

    Thank you for your talk at the unconference, and for continuing to raise PBL awareness via your writing. I found the survival exercise especially enlightening, and have brought back the insights from that lesson to my school.

    Those of us PBL die-hards greatly appreciate your insights and inspiration, and the publicity you bring with it. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, and I look forward to seeing you again (hopefully!) at next years unconference.

    Nick Ryan

  3. Hi Nick,
    Working with the Project Foundry gang and all the PBL teachers that they attract is a breath of fresh air for me. I see too many other teachers feeling stuck in the routine prep stuff. I wish they could see you folks in action.

    Glad you liked the workshop activities. Have a great school year and I look forward to seeing you again.

  4. I have to thank Suzie Boss for directing me to your blog, it’s great! I intended to go to the PF unconference but life interfered. I understand you’ve moved to PDX, which is terrific as I’m just down the road in Eugene. I hope we can meet one day.

  5. Sylvia I think it’s growing too and had to make a case that it is for a book prospectus recently. All signals point to an improved climate for PBL– Common Core State Standards, lumping rather than splitting by NCTM and others standards groups, P21 is making headway, CES rocks hard, SLA serves as a shining example, teachers I meet are eager and forming plcs… it’s all good but for our addiction to old-style testing.

  6. Hi Peter,

    This is a great article and it’s great what Project Foundry is doing. I would like to introduce as well. I am contacting you regarding Symbaloo but in with no intention of spam. I think it’s wonderful the message you are sending out about giving students the responsibility of learning. Symbaloo is a free alternative for schools, teachers and students. A 7th grader at PK Younge in Florida is seen here in this video explaining how she takes learning into her own hands by using Symbaloo as a PLE in her class:

    We have been working with educators to develop an educational version of our system and I was wondering if you would like to participate?

    Look forward to your response!

    Kind regards,


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