George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Young boy determined to make something fit using a vice

Regularly, teachers tell me that they don't feel as though they have time for project-based learning (PBL). While they like the idea in theory, they can't see a way to realistically "fit it in" with their curriculum given constraints of time, testing, standards, etc. A regular response to the concept of PBL is: "It sounds great, but. . . " Too often, they see it as a manufactured experience that results in the construction of a massive project and requires enormous amounts of class time. However, I believe that this is often because the emphasis is on the final product rather than the instructional strategy.

The true focus of PBL is encouraging students to engage in inquiry, explore real-world contexts, and share their learning with others. In the examples below, every teacher achieves these goals while still meeting curriculum requirements and without sacrificing an abundance of class time. While PBL may seem daunting, these teachers prove that it is more attainable and manageable than initially perceived.

Coming Out of Hibernation

With spring approaching, Meghan Zigmond's first grade class began to explore the concept of hibernation. She wanted her students to engage in the inquiry process, make a personal connection to the content, and then showcase their learning. To kick off this event, they read Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and then started asking questions like, "How do animals sleep so long?"

To support their learning, and to get them to conduct some independent research, Meghan combined a series of books at an appropriate reading level with a ThingLink of multimedia resources.

Students wrote and drew to capture their thinking and then ultimately shared their learning by creating short videos that Meghan could post to her blog. While the reading and note taking occurred over several days, the focus in Meghan's class was on the process of asking questions and then constructing understanding -- not on a massive project. In fact, most of their final videos were under 20 seconds.

Inquiry in the Middle School Math Class

"Why do we have to know this?" is a common question in math classes. Unfortunately, students often don't have an opportunity to see math "in the wild." Instead, they repeatedly work through textbook problems and then progress to the next disparate set of skills.

In Kyle Pearce's classroom, however, students engage in 4-Part Math:

  1. Minds On: Warm-up activity to review previous knowledge
  2. Inquiry: Discovery challenge for the day rooted in real-world context
  3. Connections: Share solutions and ideas
  4. Consolidate: Apply context to "textbook"-type problems

Each class period progresses through this four-part process with a heavy focus on inquiry. Rather than force students to work through a problem absent from a real-world situation, Kyle engages them in discovery challenges that require them to apply prior knowledge and construct new understanding so that "they will ultimately 'bump into' the learning goal along the way."

Each day builds on the discoveries of the previous one, allowing Kyle's students to consistently tackle increasingly complex problems.

As Heather Wolpert-Gawron writes, "PBL doesn't ask you to replace your content. It asks that you create a vehicle in which to communicate your content." In Kyle's classes, students not only gain the requisite mathematical knowledge, but also valuable experience in applying their understanding to the world around them.

Teaching the World

For Jodie Deinhammer, it all started with a simple question: "How can we help improve our world?" Her anatomy students recognized that children have an innate desire to learn, but not always the opportunity. With that in mind, they began creating iTunes U courses and iBooks to teach other kids. This year, her students are collaborating with classes in New Zealand, Kentucky, and Minnesota to tackle this challenge.

Jodie uses PBL as a framework to guide the overall planning of her course. On the first day of school, she has no actual lesson plans -- only goals, objectives, and hopes. She uses her students' interests and questions to guide and modify the topics that she needs to address in accordance with the TEKs. They engage in inquiry, discussion, collaboration, and sharing. Throughout the year, students create components of these larger endeavors in manageable pieces and share them through a class portfolio as well as their iTunes U courses -- all while meeting the prescribed Texas state standards.

"Fitting In" PBL

Chris Lehmann, founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, has often said, "If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that's not a project, that's a recipe." With 20+ cookie-cutter rocket ships staring her in the face, Christine Boyer realized that she needed a new approach to her Rocket Project. Rather than have every student use the same template to create the same rocket with the same materials, she challenged her students to build a better rocket.

Over eight weeks, her students researched Isaac Newton and rocket design, iterated and tested, documented and reflected. They learned physics, data analysis, nonfiction narrative writing, design thinking, and collaboration. As Christine says at the start of the documentary of her project, "We assign kids things because we want them to get through the curriculum, but what we really want is for them to become innovative thinkers."

LIFTOFF TO LEARNING from Ralph King, Hawkview Pictures on Vimeo.


As each of these teachers have illustrated, at the heart of PBL lies the power to engage students in meaningful inquiry and immerse them in real-world context. When it becomes a lens through which to view curriculum, it can be a powerful strategy to help students make meaningful connections to their learning -- and it fits in with the curriculum.

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Meghan's picture

I've really enjoyed this article about Problem Based Learning especially the examples of how different teachers have used it in their classrooms. I specifically liked the examples from Kyle and Chris Lehmann's classrooms. I was really interested by your belief that the reason that teachers believe they don't have the time to engage their students in PBL is because they focus on the final product rather than the instructional strategy. Being a constructivist method of instruction, teachers aim to create an environment in which students can construct their own knowledge, rather than being fed it by adults. In this way, I agree with your claim that the focus should be placed on the students' learning and using instructional strategies to create an environment where students are able to engage with the curriculum, rather than on their final product.

One interesting finding I'd like to add, is that Pianta et al. (2007) found that 91% of classroom time is spent in whole class instruction or seatwork. In addition to teachers' concern with the amount of time planning and implementing PBL lessons takes, Ravitz et al. (1998) found that while most teachers think students can gain more skills from constructivist teaching methods, and favor the sense making aspect of constructivism over the curriculum coverage aspect of expository methods, they are more confortable with and think that students prefer expository methods.

Personally I really love the idea of and prefer constructivist methods, such as PBL, in the classroom. One caveat I'd like to add is the fact that neither expository nor constructivist methods have been shown to be more beneficial for student learning. Having said that, I completely agree with your assertion that it should be utilized more in schools, seeing as it's barely used now, especially in such engaging and powerful lessons as those you've shared!

Caroline C's picture

I also enjoyed reading this article because it's great to see teachers actually implementing constructivist methods into their classrooms. Like Meghan mentioned, it's interesting that many teachers seem to think constructivism is more beneficial for student learning even if research has not shown it to be more successful than expository methods. However, I thought that the "Liftoff to Learning" video made some notable points. At the end of the video, the teacher highlighted other outcomes of using PBL, such as how her students became so much more engaged in their learning, came to school earlier, and more of her students wanted to help teach younger children. None of these examples specifically reflect student achievement, but they illustrate how the students grew to love learning, which may be an even more important outcome.
This article highlights some great examples for implementing PBL in math and science contexts, but it would helpful to see how PBL could be used in the arts and humanities. There is also a growing literature for PBL and technologies, which could be another angle to examine. Many more teachers are incorporating technology and internet usage into their classrooms and curriculum, so this could be a way to facilitate "fitting in" more PBL methods. The internet can provide many helpful resources for teachers and aid them with using more PBL techniques and ideas. A recent study by Ravitz and Blazevski (2014) suggests that "overall online feature use is associated with decreased challenges, increased preparedness and time spent on [PBL]." However, there was only a direct relationship in reform network schools as opposed to non-network schools, so it is important to note that there may be limitations to technology and PBL.
As the research on PBL expands, it'll be interesting to see what new findings emerge and how teachers can successively integrate PBL strategies into their classrooms. I think that PBL and constructivist methods have a lot to offer, especially for children's motivation and eagerness to learn, but first we must find a way to aid teachers as they implement these strategies.

Triolo's picture

Great article as a fellow teacher I really like this style of teaching. The part about cookie cutter rockets hits right at home. Even though each "rocket" looks different they are basically the same thing. I like how she tied in research and reflected on work used collaboration and challenged the students to build it better. As she was sated saying "we want the children to become innovative thinkers" pretty cool stuff.

risa77's picture

This article is very helpful. I really enjoyed the project based learning process with the math middle school class. For each class there was a structure to solve the problem 1.MInds On,2.Inquiry,3.Connections, and4.Consolidation. Each day the students built on to what they learned the day before. It helped the students solve the complex math problem. Teachers say they don't have time but it can be intergrated into every subject. Especially if there is a step-by step process. I think as a motivation for PBL there should be a Brainstorm like asking questions or reading a book to a class.
However, in my school, we need actual lesson plans not just goal and hopes and ideas.

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