Project based learning

One of the newest buzzwords going around the education communities is project based learning. From what I can gather, the students are given a task or goal and work to accomplish that goal and may present their process or results as part of an assessment.

Clearly, project based learning has many, many advantages and could be used to promote several of the “soft skills” (although I belelieve these soft skills to be the most important outcome of a quality education) including: cooperation, communication, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, self reflection, etc. Yet, I can see how many teachers would raise concerns about the content of the courses using PBL. While I nearly have a masters degree in chemistry, I am not much of a content person. I feel all of my students will gain from promotion of rational and reflective thinking while less than 1% will benefit from increased content. Furthermore, PBL could more accurately model how science really works. When students understand the true nature of science, they might see science as more interesting and will be able to more thoroughly engage in public discourse about scientific issues (for example, someone who truly understands the nature of science realizes that the evolution “debate” is one of science vs non-science and should not be a debate, each party should leave the other alone.)

So, because content is important, how can we structure PBL in a way that covers content in a developmentally appropriate way. If we just send kids off to learn about X, they may head straight for content over their heads. The role of the teacher is to provide scaffolding and guide students through a path of learning and modify that path as needed-providing concrete representations first and building to more abstract. Yet, when students are given freedom, they usually start abstract (reading) and end concrete (pictures or models in their presentations). Yet, because they don’t have the background knowledge of a teacher, they do not know how to represent a concept concretely, or even what a concrete representation is!

While I am perhaps raising more questions than providing answers, I think wrestling with the questions is important. I have used PBL in my class extensively (just didn’t realize it had a name), but I do wonder if PBL could be taken too far. If the teacher is too far removed from planning the instruction and becomes ONLY the guide on the side, are we setting kids up for failure because they will not have the important concrete experience on which they can draw? Sure they might produce some amazing things (which is great) but will they only learn how to produce a product rather than deeply understanding a new concept?

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8 Responses to Project based learning

  1. Lori says:

    what you are describing is more, to my thinking, problem-based learning. there is a subtle but important difference.

    the topic in project-based learning may be provided by the teacher or the students, depending on the school’s approach. deep understanding comes through long-term investigation of the topic (which can branch out to cover quite an area), interdisciplinary work, inquiry-based investigation (hopefully students answering their own questions), and multiple representations in different media. it shouldn’t, in my opinion, be a linear path from abstract to concrete — students should be investigating multiple, overlapping lines of inquiry, sharing their work with each other, and starting over when they uncover new questions. given adequate time, students can build authentic, deep understanding — and the amazing products that make their learning visible reveal that, rather than stand in for it.


  2. jerrid says:

    Lori, I agree that there are many benefits and that students “should” demonstrate greater learning. My point is that “should” is not the same as “do”. There are lots of opportunities for students to make a great project and learn little about the concept. We need to continually remember the vital role of the teacher to continually orchestrate the learning environment not just “let it happen”.

    Also, I fail to understand your demarcation between problem and project. I agree there is a difference, but wonder how your point hinges on that difference.


  3. Aaron Eyler says:

    I think that there are a number of questions posed here that need to be looked at very closely. The one that interests me the most is the discussion of reflective and rational thinking versus content. I tend to agree with you that students rarely benefit from increased content. As a history teacher I grapple with this same issue on a daily basis. I promote what I would consider to be “New History”. Students using inquiry (generated by themselves or the instructor) to analyze events of the past in an effort to make connections to the present and predictions to the future. Do students really need to know the battles of the Civil War? I think not. Do they need to understand the purpose of government and how it has evolved throughout history? Absolutely. My thought process resonates around what will make kids successful in the future. I love history, but if a student walks out of my classroom able to think in a clear manner with limited content knowledge then I consider my mission accomplished. My contention is that you feel the same way. The largest battle ahead is convincing others that they have to teach these skills.


  4. Lori says:

    there are two different philosophies, “problem-based” and “project-based” learning .. and you seemed to be describing the former. in what i have observed, problem-based education generally consists of teachers providing students with real-life problems to solve. project-based learning, however, is what i have actual experience using, and students began with a single interest and branched outward, building knowledge organically. teachers worked to integrate skills meaningfully.

    re: should vs. do, well, you can apply that argument to absolutely everything in education.


    • jerridkruse says:

      re: should vs. do, Yes, you CAN apply that argument to almost anything in education. Which is why most things in education fail: we do not acknowledge the vital role of the teacher in pulling it off!


  5. Dayna Laur says:

    Jarrid –

    As a PBL teacher, the greatest factor in ensuring content is covered deeply is to start with an essential question. The essential question should guide all learning throughout the project-based unit. In my class, students must continually add to their understanding of the essential question in a daily journal and in bi-weekly class discussions. If students are only producing a product then they are merely engaging in a project for a class. If they are using an essential question to get to the root of the authentic learning that is taking place, then they are involved in project based learning. It is also imperative that PBL makes connections to the real world and is presented to an outside audience. Without these two elements, again, you only have a project and not project based learning.


    • jerridkruse says:

      Dayna, Thanks for your comments and helping us tell the difference between projects and project-based learning. One thing i would like to draw readers’ attention to is that the reflections and teacher feedback are integral parts to pulling this off – project based learning requires the teacher to ensure that learning is taking place and to help students move along a continuum of learning. I am wondering if you could post some example essential questions to help us better understand how these might guide student projects and their learning. Thanks!!!!


      • Dayna Laur says:

        Jerrid –

        “How does the political system of today reflect the ideological and philosophical traditions inspired by the Framers of the Constitution?”

        This is an example of an essential question that I use for my first unit in AP Government. Notice that the question also draws a connection between the past and present day. All too often essential questions fail to do that and therefore lose their “essential” quality. How is the past relevant to our students if they are not making the connections to today?

        I am also posting a link to my professional wiki that I created this spring for workshops and presentations that I do on Project Based Learning. This particular page describes the entire project that goes along with this essential question. I did this presentation for a group of 90 administrators that attended the PETE & C pre-conference set up by the PA Department of Ed.

        Let me know if you have any questions.



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