George Lucas Educational Foundation

What's Wrong with Project Learning?

What's Wrong with Project Learning?

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I'm not a teacher but, as a teaching/learning method, PBL seems like a no-brainer to me. Since it's not universally accepted and deployed, what are the downsides that I'm missing?

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Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

This has been such a great discussion. I'd love to hear other community members' thoughts on PBL's stumbling blocks.

Please continue...


Mark Reynolds's picture
Mark Reynolds
Project APS, TUSD's Community Transition Program Tucson, Az.

"I am a Special Education teacher at the HS level and to me PL would provide more opportunities for students to learn transition skills such as self-advocacy."

We are trying to use PBL to teach transition skills also and are finding that it is a great tool. We are seeing what our students need to learn about interacting with others, following directions and being responsible participants as we work through the projects. Sometimes our PBL seems like a prior knowledge assessment of what our students know about being independent on a job or in the community. In these cases we try to use group reflection to identify the skills we need to work on.

Suzanne Smith's picture
Suzanne Smith
exceptional education -community transition program

but it can be done. First, I think the teachers or individuals involved need to have realistic expectation and deadlines set to keep the project moving forward. The individuals need to follow through and make that commitment to the project. Usually,everyone gets so busy and gets burned out and then it is hard to give the time to put in the project then things fall apart. I only make a commitment to one or two projects a year so that I do get burn out.

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Tristan de Frondeville
Project Learning Consultant for PBL Associates

One of the teachers at my class in Des Moines last summer was a colonel in the army reserve. He had been to Iraq three times, and he was teaching at risk kids in Des Moines...what a person! He told the following story (and I apologize if I get the exact statistics wrong).

Apparently, the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS, had been having trouble recruiting members. This was highly unusual, since an appointment to go to the school generally preceded the promotion from Major to Captain. Reaching this rank is an assurance of a strong career in the Army. So why were these captains to be refusing to sign up? It was the year 2005. Prior to the Iraq war, 80% of appointed Major's chose to go to the school. In the two first years of the war, the sign up percentage dropped to 60%, then 40%...even after signing bonuses were included! The college surveyed the declining officers. They said that their commanding officers were arrogant and were often making sloppy decisions that were getting men unnecessarily killed in battle...and they did not want to follow such a path. The Command and Staff College evaluated their program. They discovered that they were using a traditional 'sit and git' curriculum, and the best and the brightest were getting the appointments to Iraq as Captains. But the best and the brightest were best at reading, writing and test taking. Taking the example of business schools, medical schools, and many of the schools around the world who have embraced PBL, the college switched entirely to Project Based Learning and authentic task - performance based assessments. Within 2 years, their sign up rate was back above 70%.

Moral of the story - If the US Army can do it, why can't we?

Brian Stayte's picture

Last year I interviewed at a New Tech High School and the focus of the interview was on PBL. Now there is talk at my current building of moving in that direction. I'm not necessarily "old" school, but I'm wondering if the model is being effectively immplemented in the high school math classroom. Who is doing it? Where are there resources? I would LOVE to abandon the traditional teaching model, but need support prior to moving forward.

For more info on the New Tech model, visit

Dylan Robertson's picture

I might be jumping into a discussion that is almost over, but I have a couple thoughts on problems with project based learning.

- I think one vulnerability of PBL is that students can work hard with a lot of motivation but not gain a deep understanding of the big ideas underpinning a project. If students are enthusiastic and working collaboratively in groups, I think it is tempting to assume that deep learning is happening, but that is not necessarily so. Projects can be engaging, fun, interesting, etc. yet not require students to gain a deeper understanding of the big ideas.

- I think this mostly stems from the fact that the goal of PBL is the project itself, not the deep understanding. Surely some teachers create classroom cultures where the understanding is the primary goal and the project is part of that, but I think that this isn't always true. Often times in professions that do real knowledge work, the 'project' is just the knowledge created, be it a design, a theory, a business model, or something else. Students need to engage in this type work, be it developing a theory for why some trees lose their leaves or why the Incas were successful at building an empire or how authors create suspense in a story. The projects can be great manifestations of deep understanding, but the understanding is always the goal.

A great article about this is:
Bereiter and Scardamalia (2003) Learning to work creatively with knowledge:

The second part of the articles looks specifically at project based and problem based learning.
I'm trying to use some of these ideas in my 3rd grade classroom, with some notable successes (along with some humbling flops and trips back to the drawing board).

Jerry Schiffman's picture
Jerry Schiffman
Long Time Principal

I have been at it for 42 years and nothing beats PBL. As a Principal I encouraged teachers to have at least one per year. I would help them get started and then let them experience the enthusiasm of the kids.
It's good to be with people who know PBL is the way to teach.

LearnMeProject's picture

The problem, at least as many people and most systems see it, is that project learning leads to depth, not necessarily breadth--though you are better prepared to seek out breadth, to appreciate it, to connect it back to what you you know (i.e. depth) going forward. In other words, it doesn't directly lead to better test scores, more "successful" immediate assessment (as assessment is is currently deployed). There's more creativity involved, hence less control, less order, less predictability, more new ideas, approaches, questions, etc., meaning new, fresh, creative, thoughtful responses are needed (as opposed to yesterday's).

Steve Freeman's picture

One problem is it certainly makes Grading/ Evaluation more difficult. I switched to a Project-Based Learning curriculum this year, and now am struggling mightily to come up with a rubric for evaluation of projects. I could not find anything useful on this site or anywhere else.

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