Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience

Project-based learning helps students apply what they learn to real-life experiences and provides an all-around enriching education.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
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VIDEO: Project-Based Learning: An Overview

Project learning, also known as project-based learning, is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills while working in small collaborative groups.

Because project-based learning is filled with active and engaged learning, it inspires students to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying. Research also indicates that students are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional textbook-centered learning. In addition, students develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work.

In the process of completing their projects, students also hone their organizational and research skills, develop better communication with their peers and adults, and often work within their community while seeing the positive effect of their work.

Because students are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparatively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports, assessment of project-based work is often more meaningful to them. They quickly see how academic work can connect to real-life issues -- and may even be inspired to pursue a career or engage in activism that relates to the project they developed.

Students also thrive on the greater flexibility of project learning. In addition to participating in traditional assessment, they might be evaluated on presentations to a community audience they have assiduously prepared for, informative tours of a local historical site based on their recently acquired expertise, or screening of a scripted film they have painstakingly produced.

Project learning is also an effective way to integrate technology into the curriculum. A typical project can easily accommodate computers and the Internet, as well as interactive whiteboards, global-positioning-system (GPS) devices, digital still cameras, video cameras, and associated editing equipment.

Adopting a project-learning approach in your classroom or school can invigorate your learning environment, energizing the curriculum with a real-world relevance and sparking students' desire to explore, investigate, and understand their world. Return to our Project Learning page to learn more.

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Ms. Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the things that I try to do in my classroom when I'm teaching a lesson or chapter is to put my students into groups and then let them come up with some creative way to present what there learning or have learned to the class. I usually try to offer different ways (poem, song, rap, chart, skit, and etc.) for them to present their work, but I don't boud them to my suggestions. I think that at the elementary level, my students learn and achieve more by being actively involved in the learning process, just as many students to in Project Based Learning. My approach, is certainly not on the same level as with the students in the article, but I hope what I'm doing is more meaningful and relative to students. I would love to learn more about this topic as an elementary classroom teacher.

Ms. T. Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that students learn better by hands on activities. I think this is especially true for middle school students. It seems like though that as students progress to the next grade level, teachers tend to lecture more. How many middle school math teachers do you know that take out manipulatives or games to help students solve problems?

John Q. Public's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a victim of too much project learning in the 1970s and 1980s, I have to say that the amount of uncritical head-nodding here is sickening.

The project approach has been in currency at least since the early 20th century, when it was advocated as the next big thing, as cutting edge and "progressive." It is no longer cutting edge, and is stale and worn. Ed schools cling to it when it has been shown time and time again not to impart any important knowledge.

But then, for ed schools and their professors, imparting knowledge is not the goal. "Socializing" and "working in groups" is.

The notion that project-based learning helps with "critical thinking" is laughable. Sorry, the way to teach critical thinking is to have kids read and analyze difficult texts, write argumentative essays, and even explicitly teaching logic helps a little. By contrast, project-based learning teaches kids how to make papier mache dolls and volcanos.

If you want to prepare over the long-term for the SAT and GRE, you absolutely do not use project-based learning. You study math and do many repetitive math problems, read difficult literature and history and write difficult essays about them, study vocabulary, and things like that.

Wake up, educators.

Drew Wendt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In reading John Q's statement, I wanted to pose the readers a question. What is the last thing you really remember? What was the last thing you learned?

Most likely, it was something you taught someone else. Studies have shown we recall about 90% of what we teach another, but only around 10% of what we practice by mindless repetition. But his experience shows us where we as educators have and are failing our students. We need to realize as a learning community the difference between 'project' based learning and 'problem' based learning. Adding cute activities, a little group work here and there, or a presentation does not in any way increase the retention of knowledge. Often, these projects inhibit learning.

HOWEVER, with problem based learning the students are challenged with a real-world scenario to accomplish where they must learn the content standards and apply them in a meaningful way. Massive amount of teacher preparation goes into problem based and when underway it incorporates massive amounts of student work analyzing and action upon theoretical learning to create a solution. Problem based learning can work in any grade level, and is the driving force behind the move to 21st century instruction. We now have come to the realization that we must prepare our students not for learning that begins and ends in the classroom, but for a life of living and learning.

So I challenge every educator to read his statement and own our failures. Then do something about it; as JFK once told our nation, a mistake is not an error until we refuse to correct it.

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a quadry our high schools will be in when prestigious universities decide not to use the ACT/SAT/GRE for admittance. Did you know that they are already talking about that? I do believe, however, that any project-based learning should be addressing specific essental skills (perhaps standards) and should be evaluated with a rubric or in another form.
Did you also know that many college students are struggling due to the lack of ability to think outside the box and do projects, which are assigned to them by their professors? They do great at drills and rote knowledge, but can't take it to comprehension, analysis and synthesis...perhaps not enough project learning??

Pomai's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is John Q. Public trying to say that he doesn't have critical thinking skills because he was taught with too much project learning?

As with everything in life, too much of one thing will kill you (or your critical thinking skills, in this case). Project learning is just one strategy of many that teachers like me are learning to use in the classroom everyday to promote holistic classrooms with productive students.

I'm up, and I'm ready to go.

John Q. Public's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Renee, I am a college teacher.

Too many kids are coming to college unprepared. Some are excellent both at taking tests of facts and at written and oral analysis of various kinds. But too many are very poor in all categories. What has bothered me most is the fact that so many college kids seem to be almost completely untrained at writing and critical reading. At the lower end of the curve, I would estimate their abilities to be about where a sixth or eighth grader's should be. Everything is poor--not just punctuation, capitalization, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, which are too often just shockingly bad, but also the ability to put sentences together to construct a coherent argument. In the university I've spent the most time teaching at, I would say that only the top 20-30% of students have adequately mastered these basic skills, for college work. And I don't think my standards are too high.

The reason for this seems obvious. It is that in middle and high school, teachers rarely gave their kids writing assignments, and were probably more concerned with their precious self-esteem and self-actualization than marking up their papers and insisting on excellent work. There are, of course, many exceptions.

If you want your graduates to know how to write well, they must practice writing a lot. If you want them to be able to read accurately and carefully, they must practice that a lot. If you want them to know math, they must do many math problems. If you want them to understand history, they must read (and write about) a lot of history. This is common sense, and such difficult, yet rewarding work has nothing whatsoever to do with the "project learning." But then, again, the education professors do not particularly care, they do not care first and foremost, about teaching kids good writing, critical reading, math, and history.

John Q. Public's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Studies have shown"--three of the most misleading words in the English language. ;-) Studies rarely show anything, because most research is confused. You didn't know that? I once read a study that said so.

Drew says, "Studies have shown we recall about 90% of what we teach another, but only around 10% of what we practice by mindless repetition." But could that be because, when we teach other people, we already know that which we teach, while when we are at the stage of "practicing by mindless repetition," whatever that means, we are assimilating new facts for the very first time? I don't suppose that has anything to do with it.

Anyway, obviously, the debate here is not between those who advocate "mindless repetition" versus those who want all students to be teachers. Those who advocate, say, doing many math problems, or foreign language exercises, will not admit that doing such exercises is "mindless." It's very hard and uses lots of brain power. But making papier-mache volcanos...that, by comparison, is quite mindless. But perhaps we agree about that. Still, I would be most curious to learn which parts of traditional education is "mindless."

Also, surely it is not feasible to ask children to learn exclusively through teaching, so even if that were an excellent way to learn, it couldn't be implemented. Besides, preparing a lesson usually involves quite a bit of writing, organizing, and analysis of subject matter. This is far closer to traditional methods of study than project or problem-solving methods. Anyone who wants to teach a subject well must carefully read about it, outline what is known, organize it logically, and so forth. Sounds a lot like the much-hated more old-fashioned academic approaches to learning, doesn't it? Yes, it sounds like a whole bunch of difficult work of the sort one does when one does...homework. That's not problem-solving, by the way. That's mastering the basics of a subject frontally.

I would suggest that the problem with the problem-solving method is that it is ultimately inefficient. If your aim is for children to learn the fundamentals of a subject, teach the fundamentals of the subject. Do not ask them to solve "big" problems or take on a project, a problem or project that illustrates only narrow aspects of a big topic to be learned, or that pads some very modest academic lesson with a lot of trivia that is supposed to be interesting to students, but which is in most cases just as boring to them as what they would read in a traditional textbook. In doing this, you are taking valuable time away from much-needed direct instruction of more essential concepts, and essential practice.

I know the canned party-line reply to this. It is that that sort of work produces kids who are uncreative, not good "critical thinkers." I'm sorry but this is not persuasive at all. Can you show me a carefully controlled, well designed longitudinal study that the project method or the problem-solving method produce students who are better "critical thinkers" than students who are taught core knowledge and basic skills directly? I mean, for instance, that students who solve many math problems using critical thinking (what else?), who write many essays in which critical thinking is required, who even memorize some vocabulary words, etc. Of course not. Such studies do not exist. Ultimately, the superiority of the project method is just a hoary old article of faith of the education establishment.

Also, don't tell me that learning frontally and teaching directly "doesn't work," that you forget most of what you learn, and so forth. You retain and can build on more than what you can express or what shows up in a test, but no matter. Let's consider the outcomes. Facts are facts: over and over again, the schools that emphasize moderate discipline and direct instruction of core knowledge are shown to produce students who know more and do better later in life than ordinary schools, which love the project method and would do it all the time, if they could.

Ultimately, this isn't about which method is more effective at producing graduates who have a lot of knowledge and critical thinking ability. (It's not an either-or deal--if you have more of one, you tend to have more of the other.) I submit that the leading thinkers at ed schools aren't especially interested in producing such graduates. What they are in all honesty interested in, I can't quite say, although progressive educational philosophy for a long time talked about producing kids who were good little citizens and socially well-adjusted people...conformist drones, perhaps.

Finally, you might wonder, if I'm a product of the project method myself, how come I'm so allegedly clever. Well, that's an easy one. First, I come from smart genes. Second, I did have some good teachers who taught me many facts and gave me needed, repetitive practice in many analytical skills, without which I would be incapable of critical thinking. My deep thanks go to those teachers. Third, most importantly, I simply didn't learn nearly as much as I could have. I deeply resent the public school education I received. I wuz robbed.

Please don't rob your own students of the vast knowledge and skill that, in a democracy, is their birthright.

John Q. Public's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Besides...until the 1940s or 1950s, schools in the U.S. were focused on direct instruction. Since then, we've had a mix of types of instruction, like the project method. And in those more recent years, the educational outcomes of graduates (of course, there were many fewer graduates in the earlier years of the Republic) have decidedly declined. We're teaching far less, and high school graduates know far less, than high school graduates knew back in our grandparents' day. I'm not saying we should teach kids the way grandpa was taught, but I am suggesting that grandpa's teachers had it more right than the project method's advocates.

Sairi Azmie (Malaysia)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i'm in my teaching training course to be a TESL teacher in Malaysia. i was on the verge of searching for information and data for my thesis proposal. i was intersted in having look deeply into Project Based Learning since i comfortably use this approach in my teaching of English during my practicum. i was attracted to write a reply after i've read all the long and elaborated hot discussion above.

John. Q, i was most attracted to your view where you stand for traditional method of teaching which was derived from the Behaviorist theory of Pavlov and Skinner where drills and repetition is the in-thing by that time. then came all the more modern way of teaching methodologies which focused more towards the holistic development of the students. i do believe that sometimes, we just cant toss away the traditional way of teaching nor focus too much on it. i do believe that a well ballance combination and integration between both traditional and modern methodologies will generate a well more complete teaching method and apporach.

however, my concern is that when John. Q is focussing too much on drills and repetitions. maybe in my opinion in his lot of years of teaching, he has forgotten about the most crutial part in lesson planning and students' need. it is the Multiple Intelligence. 9 intelligences have been categorised by Howard Gardner. each human has differnt strong intelligences.

hence, drills and repetitions alone will deprive the students from their own prefered intelligences and also learning styles. to focus only math-logic and socio-linguistic intelligence the whole time will turn your students into dull human beings. i personally propose the use of project based learning to promote the utmost use of various multiple intelligence to cater to each students' need. as we all know, in project based learning, there will be various tasks involved such as, data gathering (math-logic intelligence), materials manipulation (kineasthetic and visual-spatial intteligence),discussion, braistorming and making decision (Interpersonal and socio-linguistic intelligence), and many more.. this way, each student have role to play based on their tendency of the multiple intelligence. with right guidance and initial explanation by teacher, the students could learn so much more from their peers and also hands on experience.

however, this was just an amature opinion which yet to dive in the real world of teaching.

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