David 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: project-based learning. He teaches sixth graders at Technology Middle School in Sonoma, California.

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.

Related content: Using PBL to develop 21st-century skills

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.

Reflections on project-based learning

Considering the current pandemic, can PBL be delivered online?

The biggest challenge is getting devices in the hands of all students, getting WIFI 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.

About the Author:

Tom Farmer is a former journalist who now works as Communications Manager for Pitsco Education, where he serves as editor of publications including The Pitsco Network magazine and SySTEM Alert!, a free STEM newsletter for students. Learn more about Pitsco’s STEM PBL resources and STEM Anywhere.


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