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What the Heck Is Project-Based Learning?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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photo of a young woman with a spirograph-like toy

You know the hardest thing about teaching with project-based learning? Explaining it to someone. It seems to me that whenever I asked someone the definition of PBL, the description was always so complicated that my eyes would begin to glaze over immediately. So to help you in your own musings, I've devised an elevator speech to help you clearly see what's it all about.

PBL: The Elevator Speech

An elevator speech is a brief, one- or two-sentence response you could give someone in the amount of time it takes to go from the first floor to the second floor in an apartment building. I like this visual, and I use it with my students because getting to the point and encapsulating the gist of something is vital in today's speaking- and writing-heavy world.

So the elevator opens up, a guy walks in and out of the blue asks you, "What the heck is project-based learning anyway?" I don't know why he would ask that, but for the purposes of this fantasy, it seems that any Joe-off-the-street is fascinated by your response.

You respond accordingly: "PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end."

"That's it?" the guy asks.

"Well, no," you reply. "There's more to it than that, but this is your floor, and we're out of time." He gives you a brief nod of thanks and departs, leaving you to think of all the richness that this definition does not, in fact, impart.

After all, if we just look at that definition, it doesn't state certain trends in PBL.

A More Elaborate Response

So now that it's just you (the reader) and me again, let's bump up that definition so that it more accurately captures the power of this learning strategy:

PBL is the ongoing act of learning about different subjects simultaneously. This is achieved by guiding students to identify, through research, a real-world problem (local to global) developing its solution using evidence to support the claim, and presenting the solution through a multimedia approach based in a set of 21st-century tools.

Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, interact with its lessons, collaborate with each other, and assess themselves and each other. They don't just take a test or produce a product at the end to show their learning.

You realize that this definition, while closer to accurate than the previous version, would have caused his eyes to glaze over (as yours may have just now), and you decide that the earlier definition is by far the more efficient version, even as it shortchanges the awesomeness of the strategy.

Because PBL is awesome when it is implemented by teachers who buy into its methods. It is exciting to teach using PBL, and your excitement, in turn, causes excitement in your clients, the students.

PBL Creates a Learning Story

Nevertheless, it took me awhile to tease myself away from the daily drudgery of teaching with disconnected lessons. You know what I mean. I'm talking about the daily lessons that might teach a skill, and perhaps that skill fits within a unit based on a topic or a theme, but each lesson works independently and can function without being embraced in a unit that connects them all in a learning story.

But I grew bored, and I was concerned that my students would, too.

Teaching with PBL is the difference between the atmosphere at Disneyland and the atmosphere at a Six Flags resort. No offense to Six Flags, I love a great roller coaster, but their décor needs some serious work. At Disneyland, you are submerged in the story of each ride from the time you enter the line. The walls, the ceiling, the ground on which you tread as you advance to the actual ride, all support the end result.

Teaching with PBL is much the same way. It couches lessons in a tale -- a tale about a problem that must be solved or an activity that must be developed. The learning happens along the way towards the presentation of the solution.

After all, using PBL isn't about writing a state report. It's about using what you know about the state you study and then creating your own state. It isn't about building a replica of the Washington Monument. It's about researching someone to honor, designing your own monument, and persuasively pitching a committee to build it.

Project-based learning typically is grounded in the following elements:

  • Role-playing
  • Real-world scenarios
  • Blended writing genres
  • Multiple reading genres
  • Authentic assessments
  • Authentic audiences
  • Real-world expertise brought into the classroom
  • Units that assess multiple skills
  • Units that require research and comprehension of multiple subjects
  • Student choice
  • Collaboration
  • Multiple methods of communication (writing, oral speaking, visual presentations, publishing, etc.)

(Brief note here: Don't panic. You don't need every single one of these elements to call your unit PBL. These are elements to strive for, not to kill yourself to achieve.)

Allow me to personify for a moment: PBL cares about our mission to educate all. PBL never forgets that one of our main jobs is to prepare students for the predicted future. PBL knows that students are not standardized, they don't learn in a standardized way, and that our clientele can't be assessed in a standardized manner if we are looking to foster innovation. PBL keeps its eye on the ball no matter the trendy standard or curriculum package du jour.

PBL doesn't ask you to replace your content. It asks that you create a vehicle in which to communicate your content. If PBL is a play, then the math or science or history or writing -- or whatever you teach -- make up the scenes that propel each act toward the final curtain call.

The learning story that you and your students create together makes up the overall PBL unit. Be prepared, however. You'll plan and frontload tons, but once you jump in, you'll discover that when you hand over the writing of the learning story to your kids, they will take it far and above any book you've ever read.

The above post is an excerpt from Heather's newest book, DIY Project-Based Learning for ELA and History.

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Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey Mary!
I so appreciate your work with PBL and Kindergarten! So many times you hear that the primary grades are too young for these kind of critical thinking strategies, but you're responses here prove those nay-sayers wrong! Great ideas and great advice.
Thanks so much for lending your expertise to this thread.

Mary W.'s picture
Mary W.
Kindergarten teacher in San Francisco Bay Area

Hi Heather.

Thanks for your comments. The hardest part I have found for Kindergarten is finding authentic problems. I can plan projects and sometimes simulations, and these provide the desired learning, but I have had trouble finding real-life problems with which the Kinders can grapple.I especially worked on this last year with STEAM projects but had limited success. Most of the ideas I find on sites are for upper grades. Only a few can be adapted to lower grades. Any ideas here are welcome.


Ryan Stuck's picture

Hello all. I went through a PBL training this summer and was really impressed with what I saw. I am really struggling though to come up with some projects for my LOTE level 1 students to do in the target language. Do you all have any suggestions or resources?

Thank you.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hello Ryan - LOTE 1 is a lot like World Languages level 1. I have posted a few blog pieces here on Edutopia for World Languages, if you would like to check those postings. Here is a link to my profile, under which you can see my posts.

This specific post has some ideas for you:

I also have a website where I have several resources for WL levels 1-AP for PBLL (project-based language-learning.

I would also recommend checking out the resources at the University of Hawaii, NFLRC - this site has devoted much effort toward creating PBLL lessons for WL but which will also work for LOTE.

These resources should help to get you started. Please do feel free to come back here at Edutopia for more! If you want to discuss LOTE/WL in particular, feel free to contact me directly through Edutopia so we can get a discussion started. Thanks for this post - we look forward to hearing more from you soon, Ryan!

Best wishes,

Peter Paccone's picture
Peter Paccone
9-12th Grade Social Studies Teacher - San Marino High School

Nice article. Thank you. I really liked the elevator speech - it provides a perfect definition for the term PBL.

On a side note, because I too have often heard the term PBL described in a way that caused my eyes to glaze over, I have gotten into the practice of not even using the term PBL without immediately thereafter adding the word "opportunity."

In other words, rather than say PBL, I say "project based learning opportunity" . . . which I define as nothing more than "a chance for students to work in groups to solve a real-world problem."

Khaled Mabrouk's picture

PBL is the performance task at IB schools. IB teachers always apply a project at the end of the bimonthly period. Considering that it is better to integrate the three subjects (Language Arts, Science, and Math) as the performance task helps the students in developing ideas in real-life situations through the learning process they shared with their teachers during that period. On the other hand, PBL/performance task can be a problem for those teachers who apply it without understanding the strategy they have to follow, as that might affect the students and make them feel depressed. In other words, it is better to say performance task should be a project that makes them feel that they gain something from it, but also such project might be effective by allowing the students to spend more time in the learning zone than the performance zone, and that what many teachers misunderstand. Because when we spend more time in the learning area we excel what we want to achieve, while spending more time in the performance area does not help us in applying what we want to achieve effectively.

Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable's picture
Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable
Enthusiastic teacher, writer, and learner

This is a great intro to all things PBL (I wish I had read it sooner)! Our district in in its third year implementing the Learner Active Technology Infused Classroom model that builds on the research of Dr. Nancy Sulla. It has made PBL a truly differentiated and student-centered proposition for our students and continues to drive student engagement and curricular authenticity! It is a lot of work for teachers up front most of the time, but stepping back and facilitating student growth rather than rigidly leading it is a game changer!

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

I'm so glad this was helpful and that your district is moving ahead with engagement and achievement. For that is what you'll see with PBL! Come back and check in. Let us at Edutopia know how it's going! Thanks again for your comment! - Heather

Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable's picture
Sheldon S | The Knowledge Roundtable
Enthusiastic teacher, writer, and learner

I'm moving forward with PBL as the basis for my summer tutoring this year. I'm hoping the increased engagement will help keep my kids energized in the face of so many other fun alternatives! I recently wrote about the concept here: A lot of my ideas are based on what I have seen work in the past and what I have learned from other educators in my PLN. I will certainly report back with the success stories!

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