Update from the 2e Center for Professional Development

Project-based Learning for 2e Students

By Susan Baum, Ph.D.
Director  of the 2e Center for Professional Development Studio City, California;
and Michael Dennis, Lisa Reid, and Michael Beer,
all of Bridges Academy

May, 2015

About this Column

The 2e Center, located on the campus of Bridges Academy in Studio City, California, was developed to create and sustain an innovative, multi-disciplinary hub where professionals, scholars, and practitioners combine efforts. In this column, we’ll share what’s happening at our center and report research findings, teaching ideas, and parenting suggestions we have found to be successful in helping 2e kids thrive. We hope you’ll find the information useful and relevant.
— SB

The 2e Center supports the professional development of the faculty at Bridges Academy, where we are located. In an effort to ensure that strategies they use are meeting the needs of their twice-exceptional students, Bridges teachers work with the Center to develop action research studies. In this column we’ll be sharing the most interesting of these studies. In this issue we feature an action research study conducted by the team of teachers in the Phoenix Program at Bridges Academy. [To find out what an action research study is, see the sidebar at the end of this article.]

The Phoenix Program

The Phoenix Program, specially designed for students completing fifth and sixth grade, has two primary goals:

  • To engage students through intellectually stimulating curriculum
  • To promote social and emotional growth and student self-regulation.

To meet these goals, students participate in both project-based learning (PBL) and a predetermined curriculum for content-area instruction in math, science, and humanities. The table below shows the difference between the two.

Type of Instruction

Source of Direction

Degree of Differentiation

How the Instruction
Is Offered


More student-driven and organic


Through two types of opportunities:

  • Enrichment clusters each Friday
  • Project weeks, which occur several times a year

Predetermined curriculum

Relatively more teacher-directed and inclusive of routine and structure


Ongoing, using teacher-prepared units of study.

All forms of instruction within the Phoenix Program are designed to meet student interests and strengths while scaffolding areas in need of support. Within enrichment clusters, Phoenix Program students participate in a 10-week offering based upon their interests. They collaborate to set goals and define what they would like to contribute to the cluster, using their strengths and talents. Examples of clusters include:

  • Newspaper
  • Japanese culture
  • Game theory
  • Cooking
  • Inventions
  • Podcasts
  • Music design
  • Film criticism
  • Integrated science.

Cluster activities, which include field trips, projects with deadlines, and group work, all require the students to become aware of and practice socially acceptable behaviors, facets of time management, and skills of collaboration and cooperation. Integrated into the cluster’s activities and products are academic skills across content areas.

Project Weeks take place three times a year and consist of these events:

  • The assignment. Teachers give students a theme, or challenge them to create a project or experience, based upon an area in which they have developed some foundational knowledge in the predetermined curriculum.
  • Brainstorming. Working in groups, students brainstorm regarding what they already know, and they develop questions regarding what they would like to learn more about. The questions they suggest drive the planning process for what will occur during Project Week(s).
  • Planning. Group members decide what they will do and how they will accomplish it.
  • Execution. The groups conduct research, carry out their plans, and present the results.

One Project Week (which actually took place over two weeks) was entitled “Ancient Egypt on Display.” During the course of this session, fifth and sixth graders immersed themselves in designing an Egyptian museum. They organized into five groups — builders, mathematicians, artists, archaeologists, and scientists -- and set goals, developed action plans, and prepared for authentic work.

The builders focused intently on building a room-sized, walk-in pyramid made out of cardboard sand-coated bricks. The scientists and artists spent their days completing artifacts such as mummified fish and a gold painted sphinx as they became experts on ancient Egypt. The mathematicians kept track of costs and allocated materials to the different groups, provided some drawings to scale, and studied the ancient Egyptian money system. The archaeologists prepared hieroglyphic renderings and exhibits about Egyptology. The session culminated in offering tours of the museum to the greater community. Some of the students conducted tours, while others provided short presentations. Still others designed and distributed flyers about facts of ancient Egypt.

Conducting a Study on PBL

Three teachers within the Phoenix Program, Michael Dennis, Lisa Ried, and Michael Beer, wanted to explore the impact of PBL on the behavior and performance of fifth- and sixth-grade 2e students. They designed an action research study entitled “The Effect of Problem-Based Learning on Student Behavior and Production.” The study included three classes of fifth- and sixth-graders, totaling 23 boys and 4 girls. The students chose the enrichment cluster that interested them most. For Project Weeks, they were either assigned to a talent group — such as artists, engineers, storytellers, or historians — or they chose their working group based on their interests. Their teachers facilitated the clusters and PBL working groups using the same classroom management system implemented when teaching the predetermined curriculum. Over the course of the year, the students spent approximately half of their time in PBL classes (281 hours) and half of their time in predetermined curriculum classes (312 hours).

To track student behaviors, student discipline notices or “reflections” were collected and analyzed during predetermined curriculum and PBL classes. When students experienced difficulty in paying attention, meeting class rules, or finishing work, they were given reflection time to think about ways they could get themselves ready to learn. Using portfolio-based assessment and records of interactions with the students, teachers did qualitative analysis of student engagement, confidence, and performance.

Study Results

The results of the study showed that student behavior improved dramatically during project-based learning when compared to traditional differentiated classes. Teacher-directed breaks for students to reflect on behavior were reduced by 95 percent, as shown in this graph.

Student productivity was equally impressive, especially among students who rarely finish their work and those reluctant to put anything in writing. For example, Josh, a student traditionally known to be resistant to writing assignments, surprised everyone with the work he produced in his PBL class. The difference in Josh’s productivity is shown here.

The worksheet on the left, from his science class, shows reluctance to finish the work and engage in more extensive writing, even with adult prompting. The composition on the right is from a project-based experience. When provided an opportunity to develop a creative story around a particular scientific topic, Josh became immersed in his work. He ultimately included an advanced researched understanding of bridge design and the beginnings of quantum physics in a three-page, beautifully crafted story that would meet high school standards. More importantly, he became excited about his process, and he took pride in the product. This increased engagement and improved confidence remained present in much of his work throughout the remainder of the school year.

During PBL, students were allowed to engage in learning in ways that were natural to them, but not always obvious to the casual observer. For example, one student decided to create a cartoon of the topic he chose to investigate. While this student selected advanced readings for his project, it seemed to observers that he only scanned the materials. While he took a long time to draw pictures about what he learned, it appeared to others as though he was simply coloring and not taking the project seriously. Once he presented his cartoon to the class, however, it became apparent that what looked like a lackadaisical approach to the project actually exceeded expectations. The student pointed to each detail of his picture, explaining what it represented; and he very articulately expressed his new knowledge in a way that was not only informative but also engaging. In the end, teachers realized that they needed to step back from dictating and evaluating processes or risk holding back some students.

When asked about their experience working with the students during PBL, teachers and administrators all agreed that the students did the following:

  • Demonstrated increased engagement and more independent productivity
  • Developed respectful teacher/student exchanges
  • Forged positive relationships with the adults and their peers
  • Improved their executive functioning skills when engaged in authentic learning
  • Showed perseverance and grit by staying in the struggle
  • Exhibited pride in the outcome/product.


The qualitative observations support the quantitative data gathered during this study. What accounted for this dramatic difference between student performance with predetermined curriculum and with PBL? With both types of instruction, teachers differentiated for student strengths and learning differences. The same teachers led both types of classes with the same students. However, there were some major differences.

  • As students were encouraged to select their own groups and work toward solutions to a problem, teachers shifted to roles as coaches or facilitators.
  • Students were empowered and showed increased enthusiasm, even toward tasks that involved non-preferred subjects or methods.
  • The extended period of time given over to project-based learning allowed for longer, more casual interactions between students and individual teachers.
  • Flexible grouping encouraged both students and teachers to draw on personal experience and interests, fostering personal rapport.

An additional difference during PBL was that students developed their own strategies and techniques for working toward desired outcomes. Compared to teacher-supplied or teacher-suggested strategies, this meant more false starts and learning from mistakes. However, it also enabled students to discover unexpected strengths and talents. Throughout the course of a project, students were tasked with planning and following up on the steps needed to reach an outcome. They also budgeted time and money, adapting their initial ideas to arrive at creative, practical solutions.

Furthermore, teachers discovered the following ways of making PBL more effective.

  • Working ahead of time to structure the experience for all types of learners. Each day of project-based work started by creating an agenda, with students involved in the planning process as much as possible. Likewise, each day concluded with a time of reflection and planning, allowing students to create checklists for homework or gather materials after school. In this way, students still found that school offered a comfortable structure despite the student-directed nature of the unit.tion, or who finished other tasks early.
  • Finding ways to deal with cognitive “burn out” and procrastination. Teachers offered students breaks at regular intervals. In addition, they initiated daily visits among small collaborative groups of students who visited with one another to see what others were working on, and to explain their own ambitions and progress. This interaction provided opportunities for students to step back from their work and solicit outside input. It also created urgency, placing short-term deadlines on tasks that would need to be completed in time to share with other groups. Long-term deadlines for project completion were managed separately, often by the teacher.tion, or who finished other tasks early.
  • Ensuring that some tasks could be performed independently. Early brainstorming sessions outlining what each group could contribute to the final product produced a number of tasks that students could perform independently. These tasks were offered to students who needed breaks from collaboration, or who finished other tasks early.

We plan to continue to use PBL as a substantial component of our program at Bridges. Having gained a deeper understanding of the benefits of PBL, we would like to take some of its best elements — such as taking time to develop teacher/pupil relationships, offering time and freedom for student input, and valuing intrinsic curiosities and unconventional approaches — and integrate them into our predetermined curricula.   

What is Action Research?

Richard Sagor, in Guiding School Improvement with Action Research, describes action research as “…a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action” — in other words by and for teachers. He explains that the “primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the ‘actor’ in improving and/or refining his or her actions.”

The result of engaging in action research, according to Sagor, is helping “educators be more effective at what they care most about — their teaching and the development of their students…. When teachers have convincing evidence that their work has made a real difference in their students’ lives, the countless hours and endless efforts of teaching seem worthwhile.”

(From the website of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, www.ascd.org/publications/books/100047/chapters/What-Is-Action-Research%C2%A2.aspx)


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