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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Debunking Five Myths About Project-Based Learning

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Many teachers and administrators -- not to mention the general public -- might have the wrong impression of PBL. Maybe they have stereotypical views of what a "project" is, or they've seen poor examples of it in the past. Or they can't imagine how it could fit in today's landscape of standards and testing ("Oh yeah, we did that in the 90's, but things were different then.")

Here are some common misconceptions and how you could respond with a "fact check" if you're trying to explain or defend PBL.

Misconception #1

PBL is the same as "making something," "hands-on learning" or "doing an activity."

Fact Check: PBL is often focused on creating physical artifacts, but the artifacts are not as important as the intellectually challenging tasks that led to them. For example, it's not truly PBL if students are simply making a collage about a story, constructing a model of the Egyptian pyramids, or analyzing water samples from a lake. These artifacts and activities could be part of a rigorous project if they help students meet a complex challenge and address a Driving Question. And not all "projects" involve creating a physical product. A broad definition of PBL includes projects in which students solve a complex problem and defend their solution in an oral presentation or in writing.

Misconception # 2

PBL isn't standards-based. It focuses on "soft skills" like critical thinking and collaboration, but doesn't teach enough content knowledge and academic skills.

Fact Check: Some projects in the past may have been guilty of being "content-lite" but PBL models today are different. In well-designed projects students gain content knowledge and academic skills as well as learn how to solve problems, work in teams, think creatively, and communicate their ideas. When planning a project, teachers should align the Driving Question, student products and tasks with important standards, and use rigorous assessment practices to document evidence of achievement. PBL marries the teaching of critical thinking skills with rich content, because students need something to think critically about -- it cannot be taught independent of content.

There is research to back up the claims for PBL's effectiveness, which you can find on Edutopia's Project-Based Learning page as well as the Buck Institute for Education's research page.

Misconception # 3

PBL takes too much time.

Fact Check: It is true that projects take time, but it is time well spent. A project is not meant to "cover" a long list of standards, but to teach selected important standards in greater depth. The key is to design a project well, so it aligns with standards, and manage it well, so time is used efficiently. Not all projects need to take months to complete -- some can be only two weeks long. And a teacher does not have to go all-PBL, all the time -- even one or two projects a year is better than none. Some teachers are concerned that planning a project takes too much time. PBL does require significant advance preparation, but planning projects gets easier the more you do it. You can also save planning time by collaborating with other teachers, sharing projects, adapting projects from other sources, and running the same project again in later years.

Misconception # 4

PBL is only for older students . . . or fluent English speakers . . . or those who don't have learning disabilities.

Fact Check: Elementary-age students benefit from engaging, authentic projects just as much as high school students. Teachers might have to manage a project differently with young children, but PBL can and is being done successfully in many K-5 schools today. To those who think young children are not ready for rich content, point out that knowledge plays an important role in early literacy. Content-rich projects, often based in science or social studies, build background knowledge that influences comprehension. Literacy skills can be taught in the context of the project. Projects can increase student motivation to read, write, and learn mathematics because they are engaged by the topic and have an immediate, meaningful reason to apply these skills.

Projects are effective for students learning English because reading and writing is purposeful and connected to personally meaningful experiences. ELL students also benefit from the peer interaction that a project involves. For students with disabilities, teachers can use the same support strategies during a project as they would use in other situations, such as differentiation, modeling, and providing more time and scaffolding. Since a project involves working in small groups, it gives teachers more time and opportunities to meet individual student needs. And projects can provide students who may sometimes feel "left out" with the chance to show their strengths and feel included in the classroom.

Misconception # 5

PBL is too hard to manage and/or it would not fit with my teaching style.

Fact Check: Although some teachers do find project work to be "messy" -- they aren't in total control of their students' every step -- they can use project management practices to make the work time productive. It is important to teach students how to work well in teams, manage time and tasks, conduct inquiry, and use formative assessment to improve their products. For teachers only used to direct instruction, it may be challenging at first to manage students working in teams and handle the open-endedness of PBL, but with more experience it gets easier. And teaching in a PBL environment does not mean giving up all traditional practices; there's still room for teacher-directed lessons, mini-lectures, textbooks, and even worksheets. PBL may not be for everybody, but most teachers who stick with it say they would never go back

So, next time you're faced with a PBL skeptic, see if a fact check helps clear up any misconceptions first. If they're still doubtful, encourage them to take a leap of faith and wait for the evidence -- which they'll see when they watch a well-designed, well-managed project in action.

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

Let's get past talking about whether we need to use projects. Back in the 50s and 60s chemistry labs *were* projects. They worked, and we have been yelling and screaming to get them back to no avail. BUT - When compared with high performing countries, project-based learning in US middle schools was found to be missing essential components in a high percentage of classrooms (prereading, discussion, and reflection). Why? Because projects were (mis)used for classroom management rather than authentic learning by teachers that had less-than-optimal training in the subject they were teaching.

What it comes down to is authentic professional development as Puerto Rico proved, and we continue to ignore. Whether project learning is a secret sauce is still under discussion though form work that uses controls and my own experience, it appears to work well. How many elementary school teachers can answer a child that asks "Why is the sky blue?" and how many middle school teachers can offer the proper explanation with a simple experimental proof and historic background?

Fred McKenna's picture

Implementing PBL is a challenging task, requiring focus, creativity and innovation. Recognizing the need to learn content and incorporate problem solving, communication, creativity and innovation in the process requires thought and planning. The results are worth the effort. The classroom becomes a place that engages students in the learning process.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

PBL at any level does work. To be most effective, the teacher needs to do the proper planning as noted to insure alignment with standards and the associated learning objectives. Anticipated resource needs (certainly doesn't have to end with a prototype - again as noted). Two points noted in the piece warrant repeating: (1) teacher control must be limited to staying on task and NOT providing a roadmap of efforts to be made; and (2) effective inquiry or problem-solving procedures must be used - including the often ignored reflection and documentation / communication activities.

Related to the comment added, "Why is the sky blue?" could be a good PBL effort (no prototype either by the way), even in the lower grades. Aside: Particularly elementary teachers believe they have to know the "right" answer before beginning a PBL activity; (1) there could be more than one "right answer" and (2) they don't have to know the answer(s) as students are motivated when they perceive the teacher is a learner as well.

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

To what has already been said, I would add PBL thinking which includes the competencies needed to learn, competencies that are deliberately practiced in PBL situations. By PBL thinking, I am referring to a state of mind in the classroom, an approach from a project point of view that permeates the atmosphere of the classroom. When students have adjusted to a non-traditional classroom situation (flexible)and start to function as natural collaborators and problem solvers. Indeed, each new day can have elements of project mentality whether or not a major project has been defined. Competencies that have to be fostered IMHO are for example technical skills, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and global awareness. Practice the competencies in PBL situations (engagement is increased) and desired content knowledge can be part of the context. The competencies,should be monitored with as much attention as teachers monitor grades on tests of understanding for a more complete picture of student achievement. Why is the sky blue? Apply competency practice in a PBL atmosphere and many solutions will emerge.

Erika Burton's picture
Erika Burton
Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur
Blogger

Project based learning is not only motivational and a way to engage students to transfer learning to long term memory but the way we learn best. We learn 80% of what we do and only 50% or less of what we hear. Which way would you rather have your child learn?

Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder
Empowering parental involvement in early literacy skills
http://www.steppingstonestogether.com
eburton@steppingstonestogether.com

Bill McDonald's picture
Bill McDonald
Curriculum Developer K-12

As a teacher and director of district curriculum development I've struggled with the balancing the need for PBL authentic learning opportunities with the need to ensure that students are provided all the skills and knowledge required of them by the state. Ensuring that all of the required knowledge and skills are incorporated into a PBL curriculum is next to impossible given the reality of the scope of a school year. I used PBL for many years and there is no question about project-based learning being engaging and the results long term. But an entire curriculum of PBL simply cannot address all that students are required to learn. There is a place for balance - with PBL projects carefully woven into the fabric of the school year. It just can't be the only approach.

John Clarke's picture

I am glad John Larner pointed out five myths about project based learning. I do have concerns about the first one, however. PBL may have to generate "products" in order to show that students have met standards. At Mount Abraham High School in Vermont, students define complex problems in the community and then set a pathways toward solutions by showing they have mastered essential skill. Our students can earn their diploma by doing personalized projects and explaining how their products (essays, films, machines, photos, plays, etc)reflect school standards and qualify them to graduate -- without going to classes. Advisors help them link their products to graduation standards. The products go into a portfolio. The projects then generate grades and credits in English, science, social studies or electives. I don't think we could explain how projects become a pathway to graduation without students exhibiting the products. Any Mount Abe student can enroll in Pathways to earn graduation credits, but in the age of "standards" and "accountability" we are using student products to avoid "seat time" in classes as the determining factor in accumulating graduation credit.

Thanks for focusing on myths. I hope we can debunk a few more as the accountability movement decays further. When students can show their competence by completing projects in any area of personal concerns, the current reliance on test scores will look invalid by comparison to real problem-solving in the real world.

Laurie Kay's picture

I think the authenticity of PBL makes it well worth the time and effort. The snag comes with misconception #1. Many teachers think that as long as their students make something, that qualifies as PBL. With that said, I don't believe that we can always blame this on the teacher however. There could be many reasons for this erroneous approach to PBL: Lack of training in the proper execution of PBL, lack of support from administrators, school-wide emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing, or lack of time in the school day to properly engage in PBL. You have to have the time to do this correctly. I think that lack of quality in PBL artifacts and learning outcomes is especially notable at the lower grade levels. Make a macaroni necklace and voila- PBL! Teacher training and idea collaboration is probably the most important key. Many teachers would likely embrace this form of learning if they only knew where and how to begin.

ChrisM's picture
ChrisM
social studies teacher from MN

Project based learning has proven over and over that students can easily reacall information. I think it is evident that you recall only 15% of what you hear. To me, that does not seem like a good percentage. Studies show that you can recall up to 90% of what you see. I would take those odds.

Folwell Dunbar's picture
Folwell Dunbar
School Leader at Young Audiences Charter School

I was recently asked a number of questions from PBL skeptics. Here are the questions and my bulleted "yaysayer" responses:

Will discipline and classroom management be a problem with PBL?

* With good and appropriate preplanning, discipline shouldn't be an issue!
* If the project is truly engaging, behavioral issues shouldn't arise!
* PBL requires flexibility and tolerance on the part of the teacher - some chaos is actually a good thing!
* PBL provides opportunities for all students to shine! "Shining" students tend to be well behaved.
* With PBL, you address many things (social skills for example) that will improve discipline down the road!
* The classroom management demands for PBL are different - trial and error discovery takes time...
* Talk to colleagues with project-based teaching and learning experience and find out what strategies they use.

How can we cover basic skills while doing projects?

* Well-designed projects should address basic skills throughout! From reading and writing across the curriculum to research and editing skills, try to use the lesson standards to address individual and class needs.
* Try to incorporate peer, teacher and parent mentoring into project work!
* Projects give these basic skills a "real world" context! From editing a piece for the local paper to using math to save an endangered species, skill development should be enhanced through PBL.
* Basic skills should be built into the "backplanning" process!
* PBL is part of, not in place of, regular instruction!

What is the difference between a thematic unit and PBL?

* A thematic unit is one of many ways to organize content. PBL is a way to give this content a real-world application.
* PBL usually works extremely well within the framework of a thematic unit.
* Good projects revolve around a timeless concept - this concept may or may not lend itself to a particular thematic unit.
* PBL is a way to bring greater depth to thematic units.
* Some thematic unit activities can be transformed into a worthwhile project. They key is "backplanning!"

How will parents respond to PBL?

* If it's not what they did in school, chances are they will be skeptical at first.
* It is important to let parents know what PBL is and how it will benefit their children.
* Make sure that parents fully understand the goals and objectives of each project. Provide them with timelines, project descriptions and rubrics well in advance.
* Communicate learner expectations often.
* Encourage parents to take an interest in and support project work at home.

How can I do PBL and prepare for the test at the same time?

* "Backplan" toward predetermined, test specific standards.
* Adapt projects and instruction to meet specific test related criteria.
* Projects often motivate children to learn without the usual pressure associated with high-stakes testing.
* PBL allows children to apply knowledge in a meaningful way. Applied knowledge tends to stick better and longer than the "regurgitated" kind.
* A good, well-chosen project is often the best way to prepare for standardized tests.

How long should a project last?

* As long as it takes.
* As long as the children are interested.
* Remember, what interests us doesn't always interest them - make sure that the children are a part of the project panning process.
* Use the project rubrics, self-evaluations and reflections, interviews, and other evaluation methods to determine if the children have reached a depth of understanding that is acceptable.
* Projects can last a few days to several months depending on teacher and student needs and interest. As the instructional leader, you need to determine the appropriate length for each project.

Does a project have to be interdisciplinary?

* Yes and no - while a project may be designed around and focus on a particular discipline, the others usually can and should play a role.
* Most, if not all projects should involve original writing and reading for improved understanding.
* Interdisciplinary is "real world." PBL requires students to apply knowledge to a real-world context.
* PBL emphasizes depth over breadth of understanding (avoiding a mile wide and an inch deep type of learning). This depth of understanding often requires more than one discipline.
* Six different teachers doing six different projects at the same time is too much for any child (or adult) to manage. By combining disciplines, stress is avoided and quality is enhanced.

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