Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Does Assigning Projects = Project-Based Learning?

While Twitter is my professional learning space, Facebook is my space for personal friends. Having moved many times while I was young, I have been able to re-connect with friends from elementary school and junior high that I never thought I would “see” again. Now that I’ve been in education so long, I can connect with former students now that they are out of college (one of my personal “rules” about my Facebook account.)

Over the holidays and periodically throughout the year, I read posts from my friends lamenting the projects that their children are assigned at school to complete at home. 

I know I assigned projects during my 12 years as a classroom teacher, and I remember the dread that I heard from students (especially the Rube Goldberg project they had to complete!) And while I had hoped to increase motivation and learning through hands-on projects, what I assigned would not have been considered part of "project-based learning."

Project-based Learning, or PBL, is defined as "a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge." (source

There is absolutely nothing wrong with projects, but assigning a project may not fit the definition of project-based learning. 

As we are looking for ways to “hook” our students and engage them in authentic, relevant learning, the chart below from Amy Mayer helps us to understand the difference between projects and project-based learning. 

Project based learning

The three differences that stand out to me are:
  • A project can be outlined on one piece of paper by the teacher, and PBL includes many "Need to Knows by the students and teachers.
  • Projects happen after the "real" learning has already occurred and are just the "dessert," where PBL is how students do the real learning.
  • Projects are turned in, and PBL assignments are presented to a public audience encompassing people from outside the classroom.

While students may not get fired up about PBL assignments, there are many qualities about the assignments that make them relevant and rigorous. Also, they can't be done without the assistance of the teacher. 

Simply, project-based learning is about the process, and projects are about the product.

I wonder if I would see the Facebook posts from friends if their children's teacher's used project-based learning in the classroom instead of assigning projects to complete over the weekends or holidays. 

Do you or someone you know use PBL strategies? Please share in the comments. 

Want to learn more about PBL? Click the link for a compilation of 2014's Most Popular Blogs and Hangouts on the Buck Institute for Education website.

Transitioning to PBL isn't always easy. Read this blog post by Benjamin Stern, "Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?"

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer,

    I not only enjoyed reading this, but I also contemplated it well after you first posted it. To me, project-based learning has such strong potential to push learning beyond the school walls. I particularly like the choice aspect as well as the "unknown" outcomes that may result. These two points make this much more learner-directed than teacher-directed.

    One thing I often wonder is, are teachers who proudly "do projects" with their classes, closer or farther away from "doing PBL"?

    And what steps would be needed to convert a "project" to "project-based learning"? Is it even possible?

    I can think of "PBL teachers" who are keenly aware of the difference. But what about the "project teachers"?

    Great post...because it got me thinking and kept me thinking!