Project-based learning School Reform

Project-based learning: Should traditional schooling make a shift in pedagogy?

Project-based learning (PBL) has received a fair amount of attention in the education community in the past five years.  The Buck Institute, an organization devoted to PBL professional development, has been working on promoting PBL for the past 15 years.  Currently, they operate about 100 PBL workshops around the country to nearly 4000 educators.  In addition, Edutopia, a professional development website for teachers sponsored by the George Lucas Foundation, has adopted PBL as one of its core strategies for innovation and reform in education.  Susie Boss writes an informative and interesting blog about PBL on Edutopia’s website.

I think the reason there is so much attention being given to PBL is because educators are looking for ways to make the classroom experience more relevant to students’ lives and the assessments tied to learning more authentic.

So what is project-based learning?  The Buck Institute defines PBL as:

students going through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student “voice and choice,” rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations. (see Buck Institute website)

In addition, read the article, Seven Essentials for Project-based Learning, in Educational Leadership’s September 2010 edition, Giving Students Meaningful Work, that was written by John Larmar and John Mergendoller.  The authors are from the Buck Institute and lay out a clear and concise outline for what constitutes PBL.

In education there are two PBLs, project-based learning and problem-based learning.  In his blog post at It’s About Learning, Contemplating pbl vs. PBL, Bo Adams writes about all the possible “pbls” that people discuss.  He does a very nice job of building on the work of Larmar and Mergendoller, giving examples from his own experience for what constitutes “real” PBL.  In both project or problem-based learning, the process relies on creating a learning environment driven by inquiry and collaboration within an interdisciplinary context to address meaningful, “real-world” problems or questions.  One difference between the two strategies is that in project-based learning the design structure requires a public presentation or performance as one of the outcomes.  That is not necessarily the case in problem-based learning.

Project-based learning is a teaching strategy that uses authentic learning activities to engage student interest and motivation.  In PBL, students collaborate, problem-solve, make decisions along their journey, create something new, and present their work.  Projects are designed to address essential questions or problems that represent experiences people encounter in their world outside a traditional classroom.  One of the goals of PBL is to engage students in learning that goes deep into an idea, asking students to grapple with concepts from many different perspectives.  Finally, PBL is an effective vehicle to teach students 21st Century skills, like communication, collaboration, organization, time management, research, self-assessment, and reflection skills.  The cycle of inquiry in Figure 2 is a schematic for how to conceptualize PBL.  This cycle of inquiry, which comes out of the Buck Institute, is laid out in Larmar and Mergendoller’s article.

Figure 2

The following video from teachers and students at Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, describing their work on the Media Saves The Beach (click here to see a student website) project, gives a detailed description of what project-based learning is about.  High Tech High schools in San Diego are structured around a PBL instructional model.  When Bo Adam’s describes PBL vs. pbl, I think he would say that the Media Saves the Beach project is PBL (the real deal).

So should traditional schools look at redesigning structures, schedules, and curricula to facilitate PBL for their students.  From my perspective absolutely!  However, significant planning and training has to occur on the part of faculty, and administrators have to fully commit to overcoming the obstacles that will get in the way of implementation.  Faculty need administrators support and the school needs a plan for using PBL as an instructional model.

5 comments on “Project-based learning: Should traditional schooling make a shift in pedagogy?

  1. Yes! I definitely consider HTH’s Media Saves the Beach a capital PBL – an example in the upper right quadrant of the matrix and far to the node on the spectrum of pbl to PBL. I imagine much of my next leg of my educational journey will be to explore and implement this kind of PBL. I believe schools must consider organizing at least portions of time and curriculum around “grand challenges” in which we undertake big projects and engage the work with various lenses that we typically call “math,” “science,” “English,” etc. The point is to have projects that the disciplines serve rather than remaining overly departmentalized and looking for projects that serve our siloed disciplines. I am even working with a GT leader who is heading a task force on looking at such college reorganization.

    Thanks for this post, Bob.


  2. teachingbattleground

    “students going through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge”

    Well this has been a recurring fashion for at least 100 years. The evidence doesn’t support its effectiveness:

    Click to access kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf


    • Thank you for sharing the link to your article OR the article by Kirshner. I will be reading it in the next few days. While I understand, I think it is important to look at the body of evidence that does support the effectiveness of project-based learning as an instructional methodology. Here is a link to a number of studies completed by the Buck Institute and others about how PBL has positively impacted student achievement. This is the just the tip of the iceberg of evidence to support this way of engaging learners.

      I have read extensively on the topic and believe there is sufficient research evidence and softer, positive stories which would substantiate the use of these inquiry methods to teach students. You’re assuming from the title of the article that instruction is PBL is “minimal guidance.” I would dispute that characterization of PBL instruction. There is targeted facilitation and instruction that takes place in PBL. Granted it is not as teacher directed as a lecture style approach. If the lecture style approach is maximum guidance, what if the lecturer is not a “true expert” in the field? I might draw the conclusion that the instruction will be poor and the learning less than optimal. Have you ever witnessed PBL instruction or seen a PBL learning environment. These environments empower students to be independent learners, critical thinkers, and associational thinkers.

      This debate would be an interesting one to extend further and flush out the pros and cons of PBL versus more teacher-directed instruction. I will read the reference you supplied and appreciate you reading the post and sharing your thoughts.


      Bob Ryshke


  3. Nice article – great overview of PBL. Unfortunately the link to the student website is bad … the posts are not related to the PBL topic. Maybe needs to be checked?


    • Thanks Bianca! I appreciate the fact that you read the post and liked it. Thanks for the alert to the link. I just linked to my blog and tried the video. It worked fine on my laptop. Give me more feedback if it still doesn’t work. It is a You Tube video from High Tech High Students called, Media Saves the Beach. Here is the link:

      Please let me know if you try it again and it still doesn’t work.


      Bob Ryshke


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