12 Ways to Know if You’re in a Project-Based Learning Environment or Merely Having Kids Create Projects in Your Classroom

30 07 2012

I often talk with educators (and parents and administrators) who are convinced that their students are working within Project Based Learning environments. They tell me about the wonderful projects the kids have created and how much fun the kids have. I’m always delighted to hear the kids are having fun in school! However, I find that when asked a few probing questions, it becomes clear whether or not PBL is actually happening or if the teachers are merely creating projects for students to complete.

Similarities:

English: Students learning about vermicomposting

Students learning about vermicomposting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Projects and PBL can both be fun.
  • They’re often both hands-on.
  • They often ask students to work in groups.
  • They often are graded with rubrics at the end.
  • They are often presented to the class at the end of the learning period.
  • Both are rooted in hard academic content and standards.

On the surface, both “projects” and Project Based Learning can seem awfully similar. So what is the difference? How can we tell if students are working with traditional classroom projects or with a richer, more complete Project Based Learning environment?

Take a look at some of the following pieces and see what you think:

The launch of the project: 

Does the learning start with a big-idea question that the kids have to answer? And they can’t answer it without learning information and skills along the way? (PBL)
Or does the learning happen with you directing what and how they’ll learn; then the kids get a choice to show you what they learned? (project)

As students get older, are they the ones who are creating the question instead of the teacher? (PBL) Or are the challenges always teacher-created? (projects)

Is the question or challenge broad (or specific) enough to create an environment of “optimal ambiguity,” where no one really has a quick, Google-able answer? Where several answers might actually be right? Where multiple academic disciplines might need to be brought in to solve the problem/question/challenge? (PBL)
Or is there a specific right/wrong answer that the students are trying to find for their end-results? Is there a strong focus in only one academic area, with little to no over-lap with other content areas? (projects)

The process of learning new information:

Do you know in advance the path the kids will be taking with their process? Are they off-track if they veer from your expectations and suggestions? (projects)
Or do you have a clear path in mind for what the kids will probably need to follow, but refrain from sharing that path with them? Instead you let the kids ask their own questions for what they need to know and learn and materials/resources they’ll need to gather, as they create their own paths. And you’re ok if their path varies greatly from your predictions? (PBL)

The research: 

Where do students get their information for research? Have you provided all the materials they’ll need for research, with specific right/wrong answers possible? (projects)
Have you created avenues for them to be able to contact additional resources of information, including people? Do they sometimes bring back information and facts, some of which you’re not sure is accurate because you didn’t previously know those facts? (PBL)

Quality of student-provided resources and information:

When your students are gathering resources and information, who is in charge of verifying the accuracy of their information? Have you been the one to vet all their resources? (projects)
Or are students learning how to evaluate and validate their own resources by learning the concepts behind triangulation of information? Then they present to you how they know their information is accurate? (PBL)

The final product: 

Are you ever surprised with the direction and end results that kids come up with for the final product to illustrate/demonstrate their learning?  (PBL)  Or do you always know what they will create before the project starts and what the optimal results should be for that final product? (projects)

How much does the aesthetics of the final product matter? Are you more concerned with the beauty of the work (*projects) or the learning that happens? (PBL)
*Note: Aesthetics does sometimes matter in PBL, depending on the focus of the challenge/question. Usually, though, it’s more about the learning than the artistry and “pretty” of the final deliverable.

Which was the primary focus of the learning: academic standards (projects) or skills? (PBL)
Or were both academic content and skills equally vital in the success of the learning? (PBL)

Final presentations: 

Do students have a strong say in how they are assessed (PBL) or did you create the rubric wholly on your own? (projects)

Do students have meaningful participation in the positive and constructive questions of their own and each others’ work? (PBL) Or is the teacher the only one who gets to assess the learning? (projects)

Do the presentations include audience members from the real world helping to assess the results of the project? Are the presentations published online in networks that have connections to the topic at hand (PBL) or are the presentations kept within the confines of the school-related community?

While there are certainly other components which can be considered in the “PBL vs projects” debate, these seem to be some of the quickest indicators of a classroom shifting toward a PBL environment. I’m sure there are some I’ve missed so if you’d like to add a few, please do!
If you’re a teacher who is looking to shift from projects to PBL, please take a look at LifePracticePBL recipe cards. These PBL recipe cards are specifically designed to help bridge the span between traditional classrooms and the perfect PBL projects that we often see highlighted in the big blogs and magazines, but find it difficult to re-create in our own classrooms. I know. I’ve been there. Go check out LifePracticePBL.org 

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32 responses

30 07 2012
MissFitz

Beautiful. I love how you clearly outline the differences between PBL and projects, as they definitely are different. I think this is something a lot more teachers should be considering during the course of educating kids, whether you do projects or PBL, these ideas are great metacognition for good teaching practices. What could be bad about getting kids MORE involved in their own educational paths? A fine example of something teachers can do differently, with often jaw-dropping, mind-blowing results. Thank You!

30 07 2012
GingerLewman

Thanks, MissFitz. I’m slowly trying to thoughtfully address those “gotcha” questions I was continuously asked when I was too busy to be able to adequately address them. Now, with a little time and perspective, I hope to create a library of intelligent responses. You know…what I should have said, if only I could’ve thought fast enough? Please feel free to not only use these posts, but also send me more gotcha questions that someone slammed you with. I’ll take the time for both of us! :)

30 07 2012
George Knewit

Just a couple of perspectives left unaddressed. At what point should PBL’s end, or should they be the natural extension into future learning? And where does failure fit in the picture….there is always learning in failure,

30 07 2012
GingerLewman

George, absolutely. With PBL, there’s nearly always an extension to the learning (since learning never ends) and with projects, there is usually a finite completion.
Although, these two points, in some instances aren’t completely black and white, as it might depend on the original question(s) or challenge.

31 07 2012
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[...] « 12 Ways to Know if You’re in a Project-Based Learning Environment or Merely Having Kids Create… [...]

31 07 2012
Rose Fry

I like the point about verifying student research. Often, we are tempted to just ‘give a little lecture’ when we see they’ve gone down the wrong path. Another item is assessment. Our past experience shows that a real-world mentor, or even interested public along with peers can provide a much richer assessment experience. I always like to ask why their project was important and if it’s made a difference.

31 07 2012
GingerLewman

Thanks Rose. As educators, it’s in our DNA to help others, especially when we see them struggling or going down the wrong path.
Incidentally, you can usually spot the new teacher at the family reunion–you know, the one who has all but alienated herself from her family by making too many “suggestions.”

If we might just pause and ask deeper, probing questions, or ask a student to justify their assertions, backed by authentic information, the learning might end up richer in the long term…if we can just survive the frustration of the student right then. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? That achievement of “optimal ambiguity?” While one student may need questions for help, another might indeed need a brief workshop full of answers we can provide. It all depends on their personality and frustration levels at that point, right? Ah. The Art of Teaching.

I really do appreciate you reminding us to ask students why their projects are important and how the learning and work has made a difference. We need to be wary of “stock answers” students might learn to give us that indicate a need for some additional metacognitive coaching.

Thanks for chiming in, Rose. From one PBL practitioner to another, I appreciate your additions!

1 08 2012
12 Ways to Know if You’re in a Project-Based Learning Environment or Merely Having Kids Create Projects in Your Classroom | Project Based Learning SMUSD | Scoop.it

[...] I often talk with educators (and parents and administrators) who are convinced that their students are working within Project Based Learning environments. They tell me about the wonderful projects …  [...]

1 08 2012
7 08 2012
12 Ways to Know if You’re in a Project-Based Learning Environment | Learning, Teaching & Leading Today | Scoop.it

[...] "I often talk with educators (and parents and administrators) who are convinced that their students are working within Project Based Learning environments. They tell me about the wonderful projects the kids have created and how much fun the kids have. I’m always delighted to hear the kids are having fun in school! However, I find that when asked a few probing questions, it becomes clear whether or not PBL is actually happening or if the teachers are merely creating projects for students to complete.Similarities:- Projects and PBL can both be fun.- They’re often both hands-on.- They often ask students to work in groups.- They often are graded with rubrics at the end.- They are often presented to the class at the end of the learning period.- Both are rooted in hard academic content and standards.  [...]

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8 08 2012
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16 08 2012
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16 08 2012
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18 08 2012
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24 08 2012
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28 08 2012
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28 08 2012
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30 08 2012
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24 10 2012
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22 03 2013
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24 03 2013
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26 03 2013
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29 03 2013
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8 05 2014
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