Attend nearly any D.C.-based education event, and you’re bound to hear an endorsement for XXXX program or approach. You can practically see the Hill staffers pinging someone back at the office to be sure to include XXXX in legislative language. These endorsements drive me nuts. Because within every XXXX lives an enormous diversity in quality — and quality is what makes the difference for kids.

I saw what a difference quality makes during recent visits to two schools, each implementing project-based learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) has an intuitive draw for educators: It’s a teaching method that, in theory, develops critical thinking and content knowledge simultaneously by engaging students in a process of inquiry. As students work through projects, they are also building important skills, such as collaboration and communication. The problem is that, in practice, PBL is difficult to implement well, since the multiple emphases (content delivery, inquiry, and skill-building) create a tough balancing act for educators.

Take my first visit to a high school that was in the first few years of implementing a project-based approach. The educators wanted to ensure that students were building collaboration skills, so students worked in groups in nearly every classroom. Unfortunately, students were doing little more than summarizing textbook material in groups; teachers disguised this task as a “project” by charging the students with presenting their summaries in various formats.

In one education psychology class, students were learning about sleep, a topic that could have been paired with any number of driving questions (such as: How should our school district set high school start times?). But instead, the teacher had students working in groups to summarize short portions of the textbook, each student taking on a specified role (e.g., draw a picture of the passage, define key words, etc.). To make matters worse, the teacher gave students the entire class period to work on this small task, pushing the share-out into the next day and wasting a great deal of students’ time.

Contrast this picture with the project-based approach in my second school visit. In this school, projects were clearly tied to standards (what students should learn), engaging questions (inquiry), and classroom processes that would help students build collaboration and problem-solving skills. For example, in an engineering class, students had to figure out how to help a handicapped community member mow his lawn. (Their solution: a remote-control lawnmower that they actually built.) Along the way, they utilized engineering, math, and science concepts (aligned to standards), worked as a team, and built connections with their community.

To encourage and support different instructional approaches, the principal at this school created co-teaching assignments that combined different subjects (social studies and art, for example). And during a collaborative planning session, teachers assessed themselves on the degree to which their current projects met the principles of the project-based approach, and they brainstormed ways they could adjust mid-project to improve their students’ experience.

These two schools, admittedly extremes of PBL implementation, raise some important lessons for any educational initiative. Instructional approaches must be grounded in sound research and theory (PBL passes muster), but even more important, implementation must expose educators to, and support them in providing, a quality experience for students, broadly conceptualized as:

  1. Engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities,
  2. Expecting students to grapple with complex material, and
  3. Ensuring that students gain important content knowledge along the way.

There are, of course, other components to good instruction, but these set a foundation.

If you’re interested more in the “how” than the “what,” you might consider attending The Education Trust’s 2014 National Conference on Nov. 13-14 in Baltimore. The second school profiled in this post will be presenting on how it tackles the PBL challenge.