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Project-Based Learning: Debunking the Myths and Fallacies

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

More than 20 years of teaching and leading schools that rely on project-based learning (PBL), I have heard many untruths stated as "PBL gospel." These fallacies survive as myths that get in the way of opportunities for students to learn and prepare for the world outside of school. To counter these logical fallacies, I have created a list of the most common fallacies and provided arguments for debunking each.

The Coverage Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • If I cover/teach "it," students learn "it"
  • Students need to master all the content in a subject area in order to be prepared for middle school...high school... and college
  • "How do I know that they learned the content if I do not teach it to them?"
  • "I have too much to cover to spend the time on projects"

This fallacy is based on the myth that students will not learn something unless the teacher tells them what to learn. It also holds that all students must be "taught" everything in a subject area so they will be successful at the next level.

In fact, research and other reasonable responses show the inadequacy of this illogical way of thinking, noting that interactive learning triples the learning outcomes for students. In a nutshell, it's through inquiry, application, demonstration, communication, and metacognition that students learn new materials and skills.

University of Oregon Professor David Conley notes that most first year college professors assume that students do not know the content of their courses and that they must build their courses to teach the same content students already received in high school. In fact, they would prefer that students come more prepared for college-level work by acquiring "key cognitive strategies" "like problem-solving skills, conducting research, interpreting results, and constructing quality work products."

The Other Fallacies

A corollary to the Coverage Myth, the Rigor Fallacy assumes once again that telling kids challenging content to remember and regurgitate (and a lot of it) is rigor. However, there is very little alignment with this type of so-called rigor and the challenging skills and dispositions students need to master for success in college and career.

The Rigor Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • If students do well on a test of knowledge that means they know the material and can recall it and apply it in new situations
  • The more homework you assign, the more rigorous your curriculum: time on task = rigor
  • "Project-based learning is great at engaging students, but I am worried that it is not academically rigorous"

As Harvard Professor Tony Wagner explains, "I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration."

The Demographic Fallacy looks and sounds like this:

  • PBL works well for middle class white students, but not for ours
  • PBL works well for high school students, but not for ours
  • PBL works well for early primary students, but not for ours

At Envision Schools we believe all students should have the opportunity to Know, Do and Reflect through projects and performance assessment. Over 65 percent of our students are low income, over 85 percent are students of color and over 70 percent will be the first in their family to go to college. They are producing amazing student work and finding success in college and careers.

The Truth about PBL

With the myths debunked, let's now look at what is true about PBL. Are projects engaging and fun? Yes. Do students like to do projects in school? Yes. Is this one reason why we use PBL as a key strategy for success? Yes.

We employ PBL at Envision because PBL is the best way for students to simultaneously:

  • Learn and master key content knowledge and skills (KNOW)
  • Demonstrate and apply the knowledge and skills (DO)
  • Learn how to learn, and build the capacity to transfer learning to new and different opportunities (REFLECT)

Project-based learning, when well implemented, facilitates the acquisition of new knowledge that is retained, while also building competencies like inquiry, analysis, research and creativity and developing deeper learning skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking and project management.

At Envision schools, we know that the data debunks the myths. Ninety-three percent of our 2013 graduates are going to either two- or four-year colleges, with over 70 percent accepted to four-year institutions. Most importantly, we track our graduates and we know that 90 percent of those who enroll in college re-enroll in their second year. This beats the national rate of first year persistence by 30 percent.

It is time to let go of the myths and fallacies about project-based learning and get to work building the capacity of teachers and leaders to redesign classrooms, schools and districts so that our young people can be ready for a bright future with the skills that matter most.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
Blogger 2014

Lesia, the PBL community on Edmodo would be a good place to ask if anyone's used that book in a project.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Education researcher at Edutopia

Hi Dani,

Are you familiar with STEAM? It sounds perfect for you! It's STEM + art, and it's a great way to combine art with PBL. Here are a few resources I hope you find useful:

The Buck Institute of Education
- BIE focuses on PBL, and you can search for PBL projects that involve art. I set up the search for you, but there's lots more on the site that may interest you.

STEAM blogs on Edutopia (if you do a search for STEAM, you'll find lots of good discussions and articles)

Edutopia coverage of Bates Middle School:
- arts integrated middle school, great example of school-wide arts. There's a section with lesson plans and resources for arts integration which may be very helpful.

Arts Education for the Development of the Whole Child
- This paper gives really good arguments and evidence for supporting the arts in education. Great overview of arts research, including the academic, social, and emotional benefits of arts integration with examples of effective partnerships.

Learning Through the Arts
- Great school-wide arts program to look at for ideas on implementation. Research-based and widely used in Canada.

Artful Thinking @ Project Zero/Harvard
- Research-based program that connects art with critical thinking.

Hope this helps! Let us know how things turn out!

tasha's picture

Thank you Bob. I am working to implement a K-8th grade charter school based on the foundations of PBL. I appreciate you giving the perspective up through incoming college students. That's a testament even to the fact that PBL supports and increase the tools necessary to thrive not only in the academic world but in life!

Kristina's picture
First Grade Teacher from Akron, OH

My principal has also started to push for pbl this year with all the shifts in education. I appreciate learning of some of the myths that are out there, since I am trying to implement it. I know pbl is not a new idea, so I guess it's just a reemerging trend. I just completed my first pbl lesson last week in my first grade classroom. It was really out of my comfort zone, but I felt it went pretty well for my first time. The most exciting thing was that my students stayed very engaged in it. The lesson was very basic, since my learners are still very young. I am looking for more ideas of pbl lessons for this age group if anyone has any ideas. Also I am looking for suggestions to promote pbl to parents. I feel that we may meet with some resistance from them.

Amy Guidry's picture

I think project based learning is an excellent way for students to take control of their own learning, tap into their creativity, learn to collaborate and solve problems. As we shift to this type of learning,it is important to remember that there is a learning curve for all involved. Teachers need to be patient with themselves and with students, and administrators need to be supportive.

Lesia's picture
Middle School & SPED Teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan

Thank you, John. I'll check it out.

Christina13's picture
1st Grade teacher in Southern California

I was just in a Professional Development Class today and we were discussing Common Core and Project Based Learning. It amazes me how complicated teachers want to make these two things. It seems simple enough to understand. I think that myths and misunderstandings stem from a fear of change. But, the world around us is changing, the students that we serve are different than the ones we served 15 years ago. Doesn't it stand to reason that the methods we use ought to change to reflect our students needs? We spoke today about the 21st century learner and the skills they need to posess when they graduate. There was a fact mentioned that the top jobs of 2013 did not exist in 2004. I agree with Bob, what our students need are the skills necessary to survive this rapidly changing environment. Skills that are timeless like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. Project based learning allows them to apply those critical skills to content they are learning today, helping them to deepen their knowledge of current concepts and strengthen these abilities that will last them a lifetime.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

While the P in PBL stands for Problem here at Antioch, the same fundamental ideas apply. We've also found that the schools who were already implementing Critical Skills (our PBL/ SEL instructional model- http://antiochne.edu/acsr/criticalskills) were well poised and ready to implement the Common Core.

Thanks for sharing a great piece!

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Dani! You said:
[quote]With the switch to Common Core, the principal at my school is pushing for more PBL. As an elementary art teacher, I am not sure how I fit into this. (I don't want to be the supervisor while they are drawing posters for their projects. - I wouldn't be meeting the Art Standards that way.) Any suggestions as to how I can support the regular ed. teachers with PBL and still meet the art standards?[/quote]

There are some really great resources available including these:- A Map for common core and the Arts

And a lot of links here as well:


I think if you think of arts instruction as not only being about helping kids find expression and voice, but also for them to see how the use of everything from color to typography to proportion to design changes and effects everything- not only posters, but product design, logos, utility, websites, user interfaces- there is so much art and design that's critical in every day life and objects, it actually puts the arts front and center in terms of PBL.
Think about things like Infographics and video which can often bring (or hide) deeper meaning.
I think one of the best documentaries I ever saw was Objectified (available on iTunes) that talks about the design of products and the emphasis on use and beauty as well. By thinking about art PBL as being more about integration, such as "You are reading about colonists in social studies and reading The Scarlett Letter" in language arts, while learning geometry in math- can we bring all of those skills together in designing a house/classroom/object that would change the lives and maybe even the outcome of the story itself? What would happen if Hester Pryne had a Facebook page? Would this be cyber bullying? What art would she have on her walls if she went to our school?
This is perhaps a silly example off the top of my head, but I think we often forget that everything from color to dimension to hierarchical presentation of information even in a simple "poster"
affects its meaning and impact, and often kids aren't taught those fundamental skills in any class. We need art, for self-expression, but also because its the way we communicate feeling, mood, and importance, and helping kids realize that and tease out the layers in everything from the score in a movie, to commercial logos, to advertising, to design of their textbooks and cell phones- art and design are involved, and emotions invoked. We need that as central to common core, and PBL is a great way to integrate that and make it live.

Sorry- I care about this so much, I tend to get a bit carried away.

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