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Many teachers and administrators laud project-based learning as not only effective for academic achievement, but also improving student attitudes toward learning and even potentially helpful in closing achievement gaps — but is that really the case?

The project-based learning model in education picked up some momentum recently as Decatur City Schools in Alabama were selected to launch a new program that administrators expect will lead to permanent statewide changes in how students learn, the Decatur Daily reported.

A group of project-based curriculum professionals have been visiting schools to prep them for next year's implementation of the program. Middle-school student teams in Decatur were given the ingredients for making soap, a budget for spending and access to a computer, and then were told to create a company, according to the Daily. Teachers watched as students collaborated on the project and sought to tackle the sort of challenges that come from starting a business.

Another school in the area, Winterboro High in Talladega County, started a project-based learning model in 2009 and saw student interest and test scores go up while discipline referrals went down almost immediately, according to the report.

But what is project-based learning exactly?

According to the Buck Institute for Education, project-based learning is an "extended learning experience" that involves cooperation with other students.

For example, students in Meredith Licht's class in North Carolina were given the task of writing poetry about the book "Night" by Elie Wiesel, Licht wrote in a column for the Transylvania Times. Afterward, she told the students to create a website or eBook to promote their work.

"I organized teams based on students’ talents and interests, and the work began. Some are writing and editing content, others are creating art content using Photoshop, some are responsible for recording audio and video performances of the poems," she wrote. "The group with their cell phones is documenting the process as the initial stages of their publicity campaign. This is project-based learning, and it is all the buzz in education."

Many teachers and administrators laud project-based learning as not only effective for academic achievement, but also improving student attitudes toward learning and potentially helping to close achievement gaps, according to research conducted by the Buck Institute for Education.

However, others remain skeptical of project-based learning.

For Alice Mercer, a computer lab teacher at an elementary school in Sacramento, Calif., project-based learning is great for teachers — in theory. "Many teachers will try (project-based learning), but give up shortly after starting. The class may get out of control, or kids may slack off, or something just 'bad' happens," she said in an online forum at edutopia.org.

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Others warn that some teachers have applied the project-based learning model in an ineffective way. For example, teachers may teach a principle, then assign a big project to illustrate that lesson, thinking they are teaching students to apply the principle via a project.

But as Katrina Schwartz reported on the KQED blog MindShift, Azul Terronez, who teaches at High Tech Middle, said that students aren't fooled by an end-of-unit project. “They don’t see it as learning; they see it as something else to do,” said Terronez. “They don’t see the value.”

Email: nsorensen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: sorensenate