Project-Based Learning Tops Traditional Instruction

Students working together on a challenging project. Photo: LajosRepasi/

In today's world, teachers have a long wish-list for their students: They want them to be globally competent, problem solvers, critical thinkers, technology literate and collaborative, to name just a few. But those characteristics cannot be taught through traditional instruction.

Project-based learning (PBL), slowly displacing traditional forms of teaching, has evolved as a way for teachers to help their students become what the world will one day demand of them.

"In order to build those characteristics you need to have a different kind of instruction, and PBL is one of the best ways to that," said John Larmer, director of programs at the Buck Institute for Education.

What Is PBL, Anyway?

Project-based learning is an increasingly popular approach to teaching that allows students to explore real-world problems and challenges through working and collaborating with other students in small groups.

Just as in the real world, the challenges involved in the projects require students to use a spectrum of skills, which helps them fine tune their critical thinking ability, gets their creative juices flowing, and involves using knowledge from a breadth of curriculum.

While standard lecturing and text book reading may be part of PBL, the majority of the projects focus on active and engaged learning, which studies show help students retain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying.

In addition, PBL also helps students polish their organizational and research skills, build teamwork ability necessary for the real world, and become better communicators.

Furthermore, instead of traditional grading rubrics such as tests, PBL typically culminates with a presentation to an audience other than the teacher and classmates, and oftentimes includes producing a finished product, such as a Web site. This generally makes the work more meaningful for the students, who in turn, put more effort and enthusiasm into their work.

Most importantly, PBL allows students to better understand how academic work can connect to real-life experiences.

Challenges In Implementing PBL

While the benefits of using PBL in schools in clear, the method does come with a unique set of challenges.

The most common concern Larmer fields from teachers who want to use PBL but have not yet taken the leap is that PBL is not standards-based. Larmer's response: "Well, make sure it is standards-based."

Teachers can include numerous standards in projects once they become more comfortable with the teaching format, he assured. For beginners, however, he suggested including only the key standards that are most important, and if formal teaching has to be used to accommodate some standards, it is not the end of the world.

"At first it may seem like you're spending more time than you think, but then after a year or two you get the hang of it and realize just how many standards you can fit into a project."

Many teachers are also hesitant about using PBL because they don't think their students are ready – they can't work in groups, so how can they possibly do a lengthy project.

"That may be true to an extent," Larmer admitted. "Some schools spend a whole first quarter training students on PBL skills: how to be a team member, how to plan your work, how to set timelines, how to use technology and make a presentation."

PBL does not have to radically change teaching styles, he stressed. There is still plenty of room for traditional lecturing, for example. But now, because the students know it is part of a larger more exciting project, they have more motivation to listen.

Time constraints and resources are two additional hurdles for teachers. And while there is not much one can do about ever-shrinking resources, teachers can (and should) build time into their summers to plan out any PBL curriculum.

PBL Is Not Activity-Based Teaching

An important distinction Larmer stressed during the conference was that between PBL and activity-based teaching.

"Teachers do lots of activity-based teaching, which isn't bad," Larmer said. "It's better than just lecturing all day and doing worksheets and textbooks. But it’s not really PBL unless it's got some definitive features to it."

Activity-based teaching for example would be reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and then learning about the past and current history of Nigeria, acting out scenes from the book, watching videos about the country, and making African masks. They are fun and interesting activities, but not intellectually rigorous.

"It wasn't heads on," said Larmer. "It was hands on."

PBL, unlike activity-based teaching, is focused on a driving question and a central problem or challenge that frames all the work of the project.

"A lot of folks say, 'Oh we do projects,' but we call those dessert kinds of projects- the kind you do after you teach traditionally."

How To Use PBL Successfully In The Classroom

They key to successful PBL is a good driving question that will guide the entire project.

Successful driving questions should be provocative or challenging, but accessible to students. They should be open-ended with multiple possible answers. They should be answerable, of course, but not in a simple way. Stay away from questions that can be answered with a yes or no.

Importantly, the question shouldn't sound like it came from a teacher. It should be interesting from a student's point of view.

The best way to engage students with the project from the beginning, Larmer recommended, is to introduce them to it in a unique way. Take them on a field trip, invite a guest speaker to the class, ask them a puzzling question, or show them startling statistics.

From there, the PBL activity will guide itself. Teachers still need to monitor the groups of students to make sure they are adhering to timelines and working as a team, but with a good driving question and an engaging introduction to the project, the students should take lead themselves.

Refining A Driving Question

A driving question is the backbone of all successful PBL. The best questions are provocative and challenging, accessible to students, open-ended with multiple possible answers, and linked to important content. Here are some examples of how questions can be refined to get the best possible results from students.

1. From a "simple right answer" to more complex, local, and actively problem-solving: What are the characteristics of healthy soil? Better: Is our soil healthy enough to support a vegetable garden?

2. From abstract to concrete and challenging" How do architects use geometry? Better: How can we design a theater that meets specification with the greatest number of seats?

3. From "too big" to answerable: How has technology affected world history? Better: Does technology make war more or less humane?

4. From "sounds like a teacher" to student-friendly: How does the author use voice and perspective in The House on Mango Street to reflect on his childhood and community? Better: How can childhood memories show who we are today?

(Content provided by John Larmer, director of programs at the Buck Institute for Education)

Author: Lauren Smith


Please share your experiences:

1. What are some ways you turned your lesson plans into project-based learning experiences?

2. What are some creative ways to introduce your students to a project-based curriculum?

3. Is it possible to build an entire semester around project-based learning and still include all the required standards?