I think project-process-product approach is a great way to making learning authentic. However, I think teachers must be clear about the content and ensure that the project enables students to learn the content at high levels. I have seen some instances (not many), in which students are doing a project, but it is not anchored in the content (busy work or having fun, but not really learning anything significant). I do think that project learning can really make learning come alive for students and this is more consistent with how we function in the real world.
In our Spanish II classes, Nick Lemonds (teacher) designed an activity in which students researched real estate websites in Spain, selected an actual apartment to rent under a specified amount of Euros, and created a slide show with actual pictures of the apartment, which included a written description (in Spanish) of each room.
In our engineering academy, our students and teacher Chris Bond are working with NASA engineers through Skype to design a rack for the International Space Station. They receive feedback on their work and redesign as needed. This rack will help isolate vibrations and thus increase the likelihood of successful experiments.
Students in our architecture class with teacher Jason Dooley, were given the assignment to design a lake house for a teacher of their choosing. Each student interviewed their teacher and then designed a lake house using Revit software. As part of the process, they had to comply with building codes. Each student presented his/her final project to their client (original teacher of their choosing). These students are now designing a restaurant. Bon appetite!
I share these examples because I think they show how a project-process-product approach can make learning come alive for students and enable students to learn at high levels (profound learning versus superficial learning). If we teach the right content through project based learning, I think students, for the most part, will score high on most tests (this may be dependent on what content is being measured). Phillip Schlechty uses the analogy of losing weight. He says that learning is like eating right and exercising; he goes on to say that weighing ourselves is the measurement (stepping on the scales). He reminds us that repeatedly stepping on and off the scales (over emphasis on testing), is not enough exercise to lower our weight. However, if we focus on eating right and exercising, our weight will go down. In other words, if we focus on designing high quality work and learning experiences that are anchored in the content, test scores should go up. Let me take this analogy a few steps further. If we are on a crash diet (like test preparation or drill and skill narrowly focused on superficial learning) and constantly weighing ourselves, we might lose weight (test scores go up), but we might be unhealthy (anorexia, bulimia, damage our heart or other vital organs, etc.) and we might not keep the weight off (retain what we have learned). Also keep in mind that if we are building muscle, our weight might go up (muscle weighs more than fat). So measuring our weight (standardized test scores) may not show the whole picture. This is why we need multiple forms of assessments. This is why when we are trying to get healthy, we might measure body fat, measure our waist, arms, and legs, measure our blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. This is why we must use a variety of assessments (formative to inform us as about learning along the way and not after the fact, portfolios showing actual samples of student work or products, real live demonstrations of learning or knowledge, etc.) to evaluate student learning.
I am concerned that our emphasis in school is increasingly becoming driven by standardized testing. This has always been a pressure that teachers and administrators have felt and has become even more so after NCLB and now Race to the Top. However, wonder if we are measuring the wrong things? Wonder if we are just measuring low-level learning? Wonder if students can do algorithms to multiply and divide, but don’t think mathematically? My concern is that filling in bubbles on a test does not always translate to students who can think at high levels, apply their learning, analyze a situation, synthesize key points from an abundance of information, distinguish fact from fiction, seek answers to difficult questions, reflect and learn from their mistakes, stretch themselves to solve complex problems, use the internet to find information and publish content, work with others from different cultures, and so much more. Project based learning (if done correctly) enables students to develop these skills, while learning the desired content. It prepares them for real life, because it is real life.