A Quick and Dirty Look at Project-Based Learning

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Project-Based Learning or PBL seems to bundle some of the noisiest buzzwords into a single package, making it a convenient general model for best practice. But I have to confess that I seldom use the term because it’s so slippery. Every time I think I have a grip on it, it oozes away. Now that I have a few days before the start of summer session, I thought I’d try to get a firmer grip on it.

I did the usual googling, and Edutopia rose to the surface. I liked their site because it simplified, simplified, simplified the idea. In other words, it left out the philosophical history and pseudo-theoretical pedigree that’s top-heavy with Dewey, Piaget and the like. In a brief document titled “Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience” (28 Feb. 2008), I got what seemed like all the pieces to the puzzle.

Using the mouse, I cut away the excess verbiage to isolate the key elements, and this is what I ended up with. Through PBL, students:

  • experience “active and engaged learning”
  • “explore real-world problems and challenges”
  • develop “cross-curriculum skills”
  • work “in small collaborative groups”
  • engage in “team-based and independent work”
  • “obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying”
  • “are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach”
  • “develop confidence and self-direction”
  • “hone their organizational and research skills”
  • “develop better communication with their peers and adults”
  • “often work within their community”
  • “are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparatively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports”
  • feel that “project-based work is often more meaningful to them. They quickly see how academic work can connect to real-life issues — and may even be inspired to pursue a career or engage in activism that relates to the project they developed.”
  • have “greater flexibility [in] project learning”
  • “might be evaluated on presentations to a community audience they have assiduously prepared for, informative tours of a local historical site based on their recently acquired expertise, or screening of a scripted film they have painstakingly produced.”
  • learn that this is “an effective way to integrate technology into [their learning]. A typical project can easily accommodate computers and the Internet, as well as interactive whiteboards, global-positioning-system (GPS) devices, digital still cameras, video cameras, and associated editing equipment.

Granted, this investigation is too limited and even too simple to be considered a “study,” but it does provide a quick and dirty look at PBL. Of all the items on the list, the only ones that I felt stood out from what I consider standard fare in traditional classrooms were these two:

  • “often work within their community”
  • “might be evaluated on presentations to a community audience they have assiduously prepared for”

I applied the same process to Gary Stager’s description of PBL. He’s the executive director of the Constructivist Consortium, but I picked his comment because it, too, simplified, simplified . . . . He says that “the elements of a good project should include”:

  • “relevance for students”
  • “ample time to plan, change, and complete the project”
  • “enough complexity to inspire intense work”
  • “a way to connect the project with people across the hall, on the other side of town, or across the world, an opportunity for students to collaborate with peers, international experts, and anybody in between”
  • “a way for students to share their completed work”

(Stager is quoted by Wayne D’Orio in “The Power of Project Learning: Why New Schools Are Choosing an Old Model to Bring Students into the 21st Century,” Scholastic Administr@tor, May 2009)

From this short list, the last two items emerged. Combined, the unique features from the two lists are:

  • “often work within their community”
  • “might be evaluated on presentations to a community audience they have assiduously prepared for”
  • “a way to connect the project with people across the hall, on the other side of town, or across the world, an opportunity for students to collaborate with peers, international experts, and anybody in between”
  • “a way for students to share their completed work”

My take on these four features is:

  1. Students often work on projects that take them beyond the school grounds into the real world, where they do actual research and field work on topics, issues, or problems that interest them.
  2. They are expected to work with selected people on campus and in the community.
  3. They are expected to present their project results to an audience that might include relevant members of the community.
  4. They are evaluated on the quality of their methods and procedures as well as their success in attaining objectives that are suitable for their project time frame, environment, and resources.

The teacher’s role in PBL can be projected from these four features. To put it mildly, it’s labor intensive and daunting. Thus, she/he will have to either receive released time for these additional duties or have the option to drastically reduce the proportion of face-to-face class sessions. In this altered role, teachers will:

  1. Help students explore and select suitable projects and objectives.
  2. Guide students in planning their projects.
  3. Guide and regularly monitor (via formative feedback) their students’ off-campus activities.
  4. Oversee the selection of community participants in these projects.
  5. Facilitate project presentations,

Furthermore, the assumption is that interactions among students, teachers, and community participants will be facilitated by ICT.

But this list is only for starters. PBL, to be successful, has to also measure up to the master’s standards. And the master is Dewey. Real-life experiences, by themselves, aren’t enough. Dewey says that “practical attempts to develop schools based upon the idea that education is found in life-experience are bound to exhibit inconsistencies and confusions unless they are guided by some conception of what experience is, and what marks off educative experience from non-educative and mis-educative experience” (Experience and Education, Simon & Schuster, 1938/1997: 51). Projects have to be educative, i.e., they must promote:

  • Active learning: Dewey felt that the typical classroom is designed for only one thing — passive listening. He says, “The ordinary school room, with its rows of ugly desks . . . is made ‘for listening’ . . . . The attitude of listening means . . . passivity, absorption” (The School and Society, U of Chicago, 1900: 32).
  • Scalable skills development: That is, they must teach students learning skills (reading, writing, math, and science as well as ICT, social networking, and collaboration) that can be infinitely refined and compounded. Dewey says, “There is nothing to which growth is relative save more growth; there is nothing to which education is subordinate save more education. The educational process has no end beyond itself — it is its own end” (Democracy and Education,  Indo-European Publishing, 1923/2010: 35).
  • Learning efficiency: According to Dewey, “The value of any fact or theory as bearing on human activity is, in the long run, determined by practical application — that is by using it for accomplishing some definite purpose. If it works well — if it removes friction, frees activity, economises effort, makes for richer results — it is valuable as contributing to a perfect adjustment of means to end. If it makes no such contribution it is practically useless, no matter what claims may be theoretically urged on its behalf” (The Psychology of Number and Its Applications to Methods of Teaching Arithmetic, with J. A. McLellan, Appleton 1895: 1).

Done right, PBL can be a powerful model for school reform. But it will take some radical shifts in assumptions about teaching and learning as well as accountability for both. Perhaps this is why some reformers feel that it’s probably easier to start from scratch rather than try to change existing schools (D’Orio, “The Power of Project Learning“). It’s also obvious that ICT resources and skills will have to play a major role in PBL. Without it, coordination, monitoring, collaboration, and presentation would be extremely difficult if not impossible.

Not surprisingly, PBL, in its highest gear, will blur the distinctions between completely online and blended learning. When students and teachers become comfortable with schooling as an anywhere-anytime activity and rely almost completely on ICT for interaction, they’ll be, for all practical purposes, completely online.

5 Responses

  1. Project based learning was a real pain for me initially.
    I struggled through the NASA resources which were beautiful, and the National Geographic Kidsnetwork, and the Jason Project.

    I was able to do them as directed, but in my learning to use project based, or theme based learning , I realized that I had something that the people who wrote the projects did not have,.
    I had the knowledge of the students being taught, I had the resources within the community if there were some that pertained to the project, I had the classroom, to develop a learning landscape and many ways to create the entry to the learning styles of children.

    Kidsnetwork was like a ladder to learning for me, they did at National Geographic such a good job of creating the subject base and resources. I just had to link in what was independently viable, possible, and fun for the kids. With the Hello project we took bus tours of our neighborhood. WIth the What’s in our Water Project, we adopted the Chesapeake Bay, wrote a project for saving the bay and won $5000. It was amazing. So the theme base , project based, directional learning often is too general.

    I will never forget that a class called me on a snowy day because we were supposed to go to a Jason program at the National Geographic, we were 4th adn 5th Graders. I put on my snowboots and took the metro, and met the kids and the mothers there.
    We had OVERLEARNED if there is such a thing.
    We were sitting by high school kids who had NO idea of the subject matter and my kids were giving answers and connecting right and left. It is something of the kind of thing that Marc Prensky talks about. We grew in our learning and got affirmation from the involvement, but we magnified the learning by making it personal.
    I think that is hard to do without the transformative understanding of the teacher leader and permission from the school administration.
    I felt like a magician because the children truly learned. THe parents felt empowered because they
    were involved and solved lots of problems for me.
    The principal loved it. I am mot sure that all of the teachers did. Whatever we want to call this kind of learning , it is full speed ahead for continuous learning and the skills learned are measurable, in several ways.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton who used to teach the gifted and talented before technology allowed her to individualize and create learning for all students given a reasonable involvement of others.

  2. Design based learning. offers another variation of Project Based Learning can be found where it’s being applied in the learning of STEM subjects where kids learn STEM content, programming and problem solving through the design, development, testing, and revising of projects.

  3. Hi, Bob. DBL is a constructionist approach to learning, based on the idea that the hands-on building of real-world artifacts not only reinforces but stimulates and guides learning. It’s the old notion that learning is enhanced when we bring multiple senses to a task: see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it. Designing is also akin to modeling and “show and tell.”

    PBL is based on constructivist theory. In my article, the purpose is to demonstrate that one of its primary features is to extend the learning environment into the community. Dewey makes the case that the division into school and community and the separation of subject fields are artificial. In the student’s mind, the world is the classroom and the various disciplines aren’t segregated.

    What I like best about both PBL and DBL is that they’re problem oriented. Guide the student to a problem that means something to her/him. Teach her a process that allows her to address the problem via a project or a design. Underscore the importance of networking and collaboration in the process.

    Learning is fun and engaging when it taps into students’ natural curiosity, imagination, creativity. Tap into this vein, and we’ve hit the motherlode.

    The problem is that too many teachers don’t realize they’re stifling and suffocating students with outmoded approaches to learning.

    Thanks for the comment. – Jim S

  4. Bonnie: “I had the knowledge of the students being taught, I had the resources within the community if there were some that pertained to the project, I had the classroom, to develop a learning landscape and many ways to create the entry to the learning styles of children.”

    Bonnie, you spotlight the qualifications that define the successful PBL teacher. Besides subject area knowledge and classroom expertise, s/he will also need to (1) know her students, individually, to provide guidance in selecting appropriate project subjects, (2) have intimate and extensive knowledge of the people and places in the community, and (3) be able to communicate with and attract participants from the community.

    Without these teacher qualities, PBL wouldn’t fly.

    Thanks for your comment. -Jim S

  5. Here is another blog that I think illustrates Jim’s points about the efficacy of PBL. The video is short and inspiring. http://bit.ly/moiuJX

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