Friday, September 2, 2011

Project Based Learning – meaningful action … or merely activity?

The world is awash with people and groups wishing to reform education.  Some want to go “back to basics” while others want to go “forward to the future”.       Amongst the more progressive groups there is a surprising degree of similarity in what they propose. Thus, the RSA “Opening Minds” project in the UK or the US based P21 or the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow Today all have a high degree of overlap - indeed a Venn diagram of their views would be almost a single circle.  

One thing that is common to reformist groups is the emphasis placed upon students working together in authentic project based learning (PBL).  As Alan November clearly demonstrates there are many valid humanistic reasons for this.  However, as in all approaches, there are dangers inherent in this technique. Done poorly this method can consume vast amounts of time for minimal return.  However, when done well  the returns can be astounding.  

John Lartimer and John Mergendoller, writing in Educational Leadership,  have identified seven essentials for PBL.  They identify two important criteria that define a project as meaningful.  The work must be personally meaningful to the students and it must have a valid educational purpose.  I’d interpret this last aspect as meaning that the PBL must have clear links to the curriculum.

The seven criteria are;
  1. Students have a  need to know the topic.  It is no secret that many students are not engaged with their schooling.  Lartimer and Mergendoller maintain that this is often because students don’t see a need to know what they are being taught.
  2. A driving question.  Many of the educational reformers refer to a curriculum based upon questions. Lartimer and Mergendoller maintain that a good driving question is clearly stated and provides purpose and challenge.  They should be open ended and link to the core of what students want to learn.  It is no surprise then that they also advocate that the students be involved in framing the guiding question.
  3. Student voice and choice.  Students should be able to make genuine choices and decisions relating to the task - this is not to suggest “free reign” by the students but they should be able to suggest what artifacts they could produce and the methods by which they create them. Depending on circumstances students might also have meaningful input into time and resource use. (Teachers would have a “gate-keeper” role here).
  4. 21st Century Skills are developed.  This is becoming an overused and under-defined expression generally.  However,  Lartimer and Mergendoller envision it as involving genuine collaboration, critical thinking and the use of technology.  It also must have an important purpose - just like the work place.  These skills are not just nurtured by the teacher - they are explicitly taught.  These could include production of simple videos or podcasts as well as print based work.
  5. Inquiry and Innovation.  This should be genuine and meaningful - it is not simply format shifting provided  information or regurgitating  data from texts.  Students follow their driving question, form hypothesise, test them, revise them, summarise their results - which may be the solution to a real world problem in the student’s context.  This contrasts with “research” where students are given set information to locate and then supply to the teacher - information that the teacher, in all probablility, knew in advance.
  6. Feedback and Revision.  Feedback provided to students is delivered during the process - which enables them to revise and hopefully improve their work.  As Edison is reported to have said “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration".  Or, in less well know parlance - “the only job in which you start on top... is a grave digger.”  Our students need to understand that first efforts are usually drafts - drafts, that need editing and improving.
  7. A publicly presented product. Key in many reformists writing is the notion of public performance / presentation of work. Obviously, the nature of the task would reflect the audience - but a significant aspect of authentic PBL is that the artifact created is shared with an audience.  So, if a “project” is not shared outside the probably isn’t really authentic PBL.   (Steven Levy addresses this well in his article “The Power of Audience.”)

The team at edutopia (  have produced a free resource called “Top Ten Tips for Assessing Project-Based Learning” PDF.  Not surprisingly it has much in common with Lartimer and Mergendoller’s piece.  Their advice includes:

  1. Keep it real with authentic products.  “Authentic products naturally reflect the learning goals and content standards you have identified during project planning. They don’t feel fake or forced.”
  2. Don’t overlook soft skills.  “Soft skills” echos some aspect of 21stC skills above - creative problem solving, critical thinking and global awareness.  In what universe are these really “soft” skills?
  3. Learn from Big Thinkers.  The concept of “assessment” needs to be rethought with this approach. It is not always sensible to assess in a traditional manner when using PBL.  Fortunately the  PDF provides links to leaders in the field - including James Paul Gee and Grant Wiggins.  Good practice would suggest that the assessment criteria would be assessed with students at the start of the PBL.  Gee would suggest that, if the task has been well designed, then successful completion of the task is itself the assessment.  
  4. Use formative strategies to keep projects on track.  A teacher using PBL is less of a lecturer out the front of the class and more of a “guide on the side”, constantly moving around the classroom and offering advice...and asking questions.  The metaphor of project manager is not entirely inappropriate.
  5. Gather feedback - fast. Providing feedback quickly is important in PBL - especially as the students are likely to be working in territory that is uncharted for them personally.  However, it is not just about providing feedback - it is also about receiving it.  There are many  activities that allow students to provide a quick snap shot of their learning and understanding to teachers.  It is important that this is done - not only does it inform the teacher about student learning, but it also indicates how the creation of artifacts is progressing.
  6. Focus on teamwork. Teamwork is another one of those highly prized 21st century skills. It doesn’t always develop naturally - and a range of strategies that both scaffold and direct team work are required for effective PBL.
  7. Track progress with digital tools.  A rough rule of thumb when working with”digital natives” is “think digital”.  The details will differ from project to project - but in general terms, the use of digital technology for recording work and providing feedback is recommended.  This could also include student reflection throughout the process - for example, instead of writing a reflection about progress students could do the same thing in a group wiki, individual blog, or perhaps even a podcast.
  8. Grow your audience. Think back to Steven Levy’s “The power of audience” article.  Think outside of the classroom - have the students contact the local, state, national, or even global “experts” in a given area.  Send links to completed digital artifacts to them and ask for feedback. Share work on appropriate social media.  The classroom no longer has walls.
  9. DIY Professional Development. It is likely that your skill set as a teacher will need to improve rapidly to enable you to assist students in their PBL.  Fortunately, there are experts galore online - use the internet as an online training facility to learn the skills you need - as you need them.
  10. Assess better together. Depending on how and what you decide to assess, don’t do it alone. Ask a colleague to assist you. (The guide suggest some specific sites to assist in this).

Although no single educational technique holds all the answers to educational reform there is certainly a sizeable movement of significant people advocating PBL as being one of the important components of providing sensible educational reform.  Maybe PBL could be your next personal learning experience.

(To see where PBL fits into the broader educational agenda you may like to follow this link to TARGETS - Educational Reform in Three Minutes.)

Credits and acknowledgments:

Both main articles used in this blog are both highly readable and highly recommended.

Steven Levy URL =

Edutopia guide URL =

Alan November link =

PBL graphic =,r:15,s:133


  1. great post. I'm working on a series of PBL posts from a real world project experience perspective (see here). My challenge is to map my real world experience into the education sector. It's very much a work in progress so posts like yours help me refine my thinking.


  2. Thanks Malyn,
    I think the "real world" element is essential otherwise PBL is just a fancy term for group work.
    Good luck with the posts - I look forward to reading them.

  3. Nice summary piece. Bottom line is when your PBL gives students a chance to get out and explore the real world with curriculum standards as a tool, it's authentic. If you bring the real world to you students just to meet your curriculum goals and objectives, it's just another teacher driven activity.

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  5. Thanks Kubikhan,
    I guess one of the many challenges for teachers adopting PBL is to find a way to match authentic learning to the requirements of the system. I’m not sure that “teacher driven” automatically prevents an activity from being valid PBL – as long as the students pick up and take ownership of the activities. Teachers still have a valuable role to play as “windows on the world” and introduce students to things they may not otherwise experience.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  6. PBL is real world investigations and arms the students with collaboration skills needed in today's workplace. However, the curriculum is based on state standards. I am guessing that the project on preventing the spread of germs took up at least a week of classroom time. Will this science teacher have enough time to cover the other standards? Careful planning of projects can lead to covering the standards, but the time for professional development to do this is enormous. Not to even mention getting lecture-homework-test teachers to buy into this type of learning.

  7. Hi Debbie,
    You have hit upon two of the important issues with PBL – time and alignment with the curriculum. The second I think can be addressed in most cases by careful planning on the teachers part – but I accept that there will probably always be areas of mandated curricula that are not easily addressed via real world projects. In these cases the question that begs to be asked is…why are they in the curriculum at all if they do not match real world scenarios?
    The other issue you nominate is one of time. It could be argued that this is also an issue for traditional curricula. Can teachers really address the entire curriculum in the allotted time currently? Do all students currently have the capacity to master that which is required of them at present? Integration of subject matter is the only way that effective teachers even come close to doing this currently. This method is ideal for the PBL approach.
    Another thought I have in relation to your observations is that we are trying to retrofit a turbo-charged learning engine to a model T-Ford. It simply does not work. At some stage we need to accept that our entire educational system was designed well over a century ago for a world that no longer exists. Education may well be the only institution of society that has not significantly modified its approach since it evolved – in reality, many of our schools have only swapped ink and nib pens for biros while others have replace type-writers with keyboards, but the fundamentals remain the same.
    PBL is one approach that may allow us to significantly redesign our approach to education.
    Thanks for your comments.