George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

Over the past 5 years I have greatly increased the presence of project-based learning models in my science curriculum. I have employed these new methodologies that utilize an inquiry-based approach to doing science. These educational initiatives have increase my students' intrinsic motivation to lean and I have witnessed rising levels of engagement in the research going on in the classroom along with increased quality with respect to student performance. Please check out my blog to read about some of these avenues of exploration that I have used in the science classroom:

Sarah's picture

This is a clear and simple explanation of the benefits of PBL in supporting students academic growth (to know, do and reflect). Not only is PBL engaging, it gives the students responsibility for their learning and allows students to explore content information through creative methods. It also stimulates higher levels of thinking which ultimately leads to deeper, long-lasting understanding.

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

Hi Laura!

I think your comment about whether P sin PBL stands for project or problem is an interesting one. This dovetails nicely with a discussion we were having on another thread, about how cross curricular PBL might work, and how do we separate the different sorts of PBL from one another. For example, there's projects that are meant as capstones and are meant to demonstrate a student's mastery or integration and contextualizing of learning, and then there's the inquiry, essential and authentic question PBL where there is no singular right answer, but the learning comes as the problem is worked on and explored, rather than as "just" a synthesis of what's been learned in class. How do we clarify these differences when the language we use is the same? I haven't figured that one out yet, or how to make this difference clear to folks who are newly exploring PBL.

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

Whitney, the two "PBLs" and other "X-BLs" is the topic of a blog I've been writing this week and hope to post here soon, so your question is well-timed! A partial answer to the question of whether a capstone- or synthesis-type of "project" is the same as PBL - which thread is this discussion on btw? - is discussed in an article I wrote here:

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

Hi John!
I look forward to reading your post. I read the PDF, and I guess I stil think there's a) the typical "Show and tell" poster/diarama/powerpoint which is rubric driven and largely doesn't require any particularly deep thought or insight, it's just time consuming.
b) Capstone sorts of projects, like Sally Smith, which use the project or group and activities as a way to contextualize learning from academic classrooms and reinforce that learning, but may not require a central authentic deep question or problem to solve;
c) Problem based learning that resembles "Project Runway" where everyone starts with the same challenge and materials and needs to find a creative solution that meets the heart of the challenge and
d)Project/Problem based learning that is essential question driven, where kids research and ask more and more questions along the way, hopefully teaching and exploring solutions to real world problems and seeking to impact their community, such as when the kids at Science Leadership Academy found a method to create a flow vs. batch process for biodiesel, that is now being used in a few villages in central america to help meet energy needs.
However, when we call all of these things "PBL" (and BIE uses the terms interchangably...) there's a big problem- how do we make the language more clear and less "secret jargon" like, so more teachers will up the ante on what they consider PBL?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think that it might be a matter of a continuum of experiences- for teachers and for students. In the CSP we talk about using an over time/ with experience x/y axis, with messiness of problem on the x and scarcity of resources on the y. (You can see a picture of that here: The project/ problem/ task/ whatever doesn't matter as much as whether it's meaningful and challenging based on the learning outcomes and the students' and teacher's experience and needs. To me, projects are inherently less messy because it's clear what students need to make (my bias, I'm sure), problems get messier as they get more real-world. Resources can be limited to the material in a book, a packet or a curated set of links, or the teacher can make it harder to find what you need by providing less scaffolding. "Everything you need is in this packet, this set of materials on this table, in our classroom not including the web, in this classroom including the web links here, in the the classroom and the library and the web, or 'gee, I don't know. Where could you find what you need to get this done?'"

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Laura, steadily building towards messiness is useful as it stretches mental muscles that would otherwise lay dormant. But then that's one of PBL's strengths, isn't it?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think so- no matter which P you put in your PBL. :-)

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