A Big Bet by George Lucas to Improve How Schools Teach and Kids Learn

We've been saying for a while now that Star Wars creator George Lucas is a key funder to watch in the K-12 education space. Why? Because he's sitting on a $5 billion fortune, and has said that he will focus much of his philanthropic work on education. Lucas has been an ed philanthropist for many years; what's different now he that he's no longer making Stars Wars movies, and has more bandwidth and money for his philanthropy. 

Lucas is also a person to watch because, in contrast to other billionaire funders, he's not out to create more charter schools and bust teachers unions. He's rooted in a progressive education tradition, and as more of his vast fortune comes on line, Lucas could emerge as an important counterweight to funders like Walton and Broad who've dominated K-12 philanthropy. 

Related - In This Corner of the Education Fight: Heavyweight George Lucas

To be sure, Lucas has long expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education in most elementary and secondary schools. But he's less interested in blowing up the public system than in championing more effective methods of learning. In particular, he and his foundation are keen on project-based learning, or PBL, and have become leading supporters of this approach, writing some big checks. 

Recently, Lucas Education Research, a division of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, awarded a five-year, $5 million grant to Michigan State University to support efforts to bring project-based learning (PBL) to elementary classrooms across the country. With the help of these funds, MSU’s Create For STEM Institute will develop science materials for students in grades three and four that will not only make science more relevant to their lives, but also improve their reading, writing, and math skills. 

Project-based learning is a teaching method that immerses students in a complex problem, question, or challenge that they study for an extended period of time. The projects undertaken in PBL involve problems and issues with relevance beyond the classroom. The work culminates in some kind of deliverablesuch as a display, exhibit, or presentationto demonstrate mastery of the material and student application of learning to solve the problem at hand. PBL also makes room for students to apply choice and creativity in how they accomplish tasks, while simultaneously expecting them to master specific academic content. Here, teachers act more as facilitators. This contrasts PBL from traditional classroom instruction, in which teachers lead students through a set of lessons and activities.

Research indicates that PBL, when implemented well, increases students’ long-term retention of content and boosts performance on high-stakes tests. Researchers also found that PBL is more popular with students and teachers than traditional instructional methods, and is an effective means for teaching such complex skills as planning, collaborating, problem solving, and decision making.

The Lucas Foundation is mobilizing more resources behind this approach to K-12 instruction. Last fall, it hired three new program officers—all with PBL backgrounds—to help build a base of support for PBL and other K-12 practices the foundation considers to have transformative potential.

The grant to MSU is only the latest in a series of activities focused on PBL. The foundation also supports the Knowledge In Action project, a partnership with the University of Washington College of Education to design PBL courses for high school advanced placement courses. Another Lucas-supported program is the Learning Through Performance Project, a Stanford-based effort to develop sixth grade PBL curricula. A third project conducts randomized trials to determine whether PBL helps narrow achievement gaps between students from low- and high-income backgrounds.

As I said earlier, the Lucas Foundation is really staking out a leadership position on PBL—and, clearly, is willing to pile a lot of chips on this number and make the kind of big bet that foundations need to place to really have impact. 

The new project at MSU, it should be noted, is intended to help bridge two sets of education standards: the Common Core standards in reading and math, and the Next Generation Science Standards. The latter standards were developed by a consortium of states and national science and science teachers organizations. Like the Common Core, the Next Generation Science Standards have attracted controversy.

Related - IP profile of George Lucas