I spend a good chunk of time on Twitter, often participating in or lurking on a Twitter chat. I have seen project based learning — PBL — a topic of discussion, but at the same time, I see a lot of claims about PBL that are just not true. What bothers me about these claims is not that they are wrong but that these misconceptions lead to further problems when implementing PBL. I’d like to take some time to dispel some of these misunderstandings in hopes that they clear up other issues teachers may have with PBL.
“I do projects all the time.” Often when I talk to teachers they respond, “Oh I’ve done PBL for a long time. We’ve always done projects in my classroom.” To me this is often a red flag. Projects and PBL aren’t the same. However, I do know teachers that have done projects in the past that have had many of the elements of PBL but might be missing some. I use the Project Essential Elements checklist to ensure that I am in fact doing PBL and not projects.
“I don’t have time to do a PBL project and all the scaffolding needed and lessons.” A PBL project includes both the creation of the authentic product aligned to the project AND the scaffolding, learning activities, drill and skill, etc., that must occur to support student creation of the final product. When I say I am doing a PBL project with my students and it is going to take 2-3 weeks, I mean that it will take that amount of time not only to have students collaborate and create together to solve an authentic problem or address an issue, but also to get the important skills that they need to do so. Worksheets will occur. Direct instruction will occur. Group work will occur. All of the important and effective strategies we teachers use will occur within the context of the project.
“I have to focus on standardized test prep and don’t have time for PBL.” I wrote a blog on Edutopia to give some specific strategies on how PBL and standardized testing can coexist. Instead of making PBL and test prep separate, find a way to embed test prep within the context of the project. Let’s face it; it’s hard to get students to do test prep. Instead of fighting this by begging and pleading with them, make it somewhat useful. Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes. Have written products that mirror the template of the test they might take. Because students are engaged in the project, they might be more inclined to participate in a few moments along the way that feel like test prep. The difference is that the test prep serves an important function for both you and the students within the context of the project.
“Students will copy each other’s products.” Even though you may create a PBL project that targets specific content for all students, you must still provide voice and choice for students. We know that students can show their learning in different ways so make sure you are allow that. Voice and choice is an essential element of PBL. In addition, if you are noticing copying, it might be a project design issue. The project might be focused on facts and ideas that are easily copied instead of using the content in a new way. There might not be an authentic need of audience for the project, which in turn does not require students to create a product with the content that is specifically tailored to that audience and need.
Obviously, there are many more concerns and misunderstanding teachers may still have about PBL. There is another blog on Edutopia that goes over some of these. Instead of trying to put up roadblocks for PBL, try to problem solve, just like we want our students to do in a PBL project.
Andrew Miller serves on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD. He has given presentations and workshops at many conferences including NCTE, ISTE and ASCD. Miller is an avid blogger for a variety of organizations including ASCD, Edutopia and the education section of The Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @betamiller, and don’t forget to visit his website.