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.
- 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)
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)
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