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When John Mergendoller joined the Buck Institute for Education as research director in 1989, the nonprofit organization had not yet zeroed in on Project Based Learning as an instructional method with the potential to change the game for thousands of students. In those early days, the organization’s focus shifted from one research project to the next. “We looked at vocational education, kindergarten readiness, alternative schools for high school dropouts. Our mission didn’t creep,” he says. “It seesawed.”

When Mergendoller took over as executive director in 2000, one of his first moves was to lead a strategic planning effort. Project Based Learning, which BIE had already begun investigating, emerged as the best strategy for preparing students for the future. “There’s been no looking back,” Mergendoller says, “only forward, trying to invite more teachers into the work.”

Mergendoller retired this summer, handing the reins to longtime PBL advocate Bob Lenz, founder of Envision Learning and a former BIE board chair. During the PBL World conference in June, Mergendoller took time to reflect on his journey—and on the remarkable growth of Project Based Learning during the past two decades. Here are highlights of that conversation.

Early on, why were you convinced that PBL was the right focus for the Buck Institute, and the right approach for students and teachers?

Mergendoller: There wasn’t a great deal of empirical research about PBL (in 2000), but there were a lot of good arguments. We saw PBL as an instantiation of John Dewey’s ideas. The work coming from John Bransford [University of Washington learning sciences professor and lead author of How People Learn] and other cognitive psychologists added a strong theoretical argument.

Were those arguments consistent with your own experiences as an educator?

Mergendoller: Early in my career, I was a high school English and French teacher. I wasn’t particularly project-based as a teacher, but I was concerned that students learn to think. I tried to structure lessons so that kids would have to apply original thinking, make arguments, back them up, and have civil discussion in which they disagreed meaningfully. That interest in trying to help kids develop their powers of thought led me naturally to an interest in PBL.

What’s been the biggest change since you and BIE started down the PBL path?

Mergendoller: Our workshops used to be filled with outliers. These were teachers who had learned about PBL by themselves. They were the innovators, on the cutting edge, playing around with Apple IIes! We still see these people, but more and more we see the middle of the curve. This shift has made us focus on creating materials for what we once termed “the competent but not exceptional teacher.” That’s important for the growth of the movement. We need to respect the teacher’s background and experience as we design materials and training, and not assume that everybody is either already committed or terribly motivated.

In hindsight, can you identify inflection points where PBL has taken off?

Mergendoller: District adoptions of PBL have been one inflection point (and I’m not talking about wall-to-wall PBL like New Tech Network or High Tech High). We’re now seeing districtwide expectations that, for example, all teachers will do at least two projects per year, or whatever is appropriate for their context. By creating expectations among teachers, this legitimizes PBL as a mainstream instructional approach.

How have the pioneers, such as school systems in the Deeper Learning Network, contributed to the expansion of PBL?

Mergendoller: Those networks provide intellectual leadership for the movement. BIE doesn’t espouse one network over another. It’s a big tent, and BIE is the Switzerland of PBL. 

You’ve used the term “movement” to describe the growth of PBL across diverse contexts. Where is this movement headed? What’s the call to action?

Mergendoller: I think there is a movement. It goes by different names. People talk about personalized learning, 21st century schools, inquiry-based learning. It’s all part of a constructivist, progressivist movement that’s alive and well and powerful. I think it went away for a while, but then No Child Left Behind helped it rise again. The incessant, dogmatic emphasis on testing caused people to say, there’s got to be more to schooling than this.

What makes you most hopeful about where we’re headed?

Mergendoller: It’s the teachers I see here [gestures to PBL World attendees]. I see them reinvigorated, excited at having had time to work on a project. They make me very hopeful.

PBL 101, BIE’s signature professional development experience, lasts for three days. What can you say about that investment in time for teachers to work together?

Mergendoller: It’s difficult for PBL to flourish without teachers having time to collaborate, and without students having time to work on extended projects. That has a lot of implications—on bus and bell schedules, for example. Schools that have succeeded [with PBL] have dealt with the structural issues. Our experience shows that, yes, you have to prepare teachers, but then you have to provide an environment in which they can take what they’ve learned and apply it. That means giving them time to collaborate [on project planning], but teachers also need time when they get back after those three days. The truth is, PBL is more difficult that standing up in front of a classroom and shooting your mouth off! You need time to try it, improve it, renovate it. You need a community to do that work with. Your community might only be two or three teachers at your school, but you need someone to give you feedback and with whom you can exchange ideas.

What have been your own memorable professional learning moments about PBL?

Mergendoller: I remember being blown away the first time I saw “Austin’s Butterfly” [a video in which Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning demonstrates the power of peer critique to improve student work]. It’s the realization that there really is something to helping students critique their own work and think about themselves in a growth mindset way—to say, “OK, here’s where I am now. I can see problems to address, I but know how to address them and move forward. I’m not stuck.” That’s really important.

Any other PBL forecasts or parting words to share?

I’m most proud of the incredible quality of BIE staff and National Faculty. We would not be where we are without their tremendous talent and contributions. I may have been the coach—but what a team!

More and more, PBL is seen as a legitimate instructional approach. It’s not fringy. That doesn’t mean everyone’s doing it. There’s definitely more advocacy work needed. But that legitimacy is terribly important.

Finally, I take hope from the Common Core. If people take Common Core implementation seriously and strive for the goals in those documents—the emphasis on student performance, on collaboration to create new things, on mathematical reasoning and problem solving—those things just invite high-quality PBL.

John Mergendoller is co-author of Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction