Debunking 5 Myths About Project-Based Learning

John Lerner from the Buck Institute of Education says PBL is more rigorous and more organized than rumored to be.

October 21, 2015 Updated July 1, 2011

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.

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