Gina, Kristy, and I have created and facilitated many professional developments around project-based learning worldwide. No matter where we go, we hear the same fears, worries, and misconceptions from educators, which is a natural part of processing a new teaching pedagogy.
On top of processing and absorbing new information, PBL has been around long enough that most educators have heard something about it. Perhaps a colleague has tried a project or knows someone who went to a professional development training on PBL. While the spread of PBL is fantastic because of the positive impact on students, it can also lead to some misconceptions. Below we share the top ones we regularly hear, provide some insight, and additional tips/tools/strategies to move beyond them.
1. PBL is All Student-Directed
While we want project-based learning to be as learner-centered as possible, the teacher plays a critical role in guiding students in the proper direction. If you walk into an experienced PBL teacher’s classroom, it only LOOKS like the students have directed everything. That teacher has helped set the conditions, culture, and guidance for the project to be successful by ensuring the project stays on track as students feel empowered.
Additionally, there will be times the teacher will have to do some direct instruction, and that is okay. PBL teachers will ensure it is tied to a student question from the project and is chunked for processing time. And let’s be honest, if you are talking more than 10 minutes to your students, they stopped listening around minute 5 anyways. So yes, you can use direct instruction, but it should always be in service to empower students to answer the driving question.
Want more on this? Check out these resources:
2. PBL Only Works in Certain Classes or Can’t Work With Standards
My former principal always said this line to us “is the project cute, or does the project count?” and what she meant by that is the project had to be about the transfer of long-term learning goals. So whether it is your standards, graduate profiles, competencies, etc., it should always further and deepen the knowledge & skills for students in every subject. It helps to make the project interdisciplinary, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, a single subject PBL project has many beneficial factors, and other times not.
All of those factors make it tricky to know what content to use as an anchor in a project. To help, consider the following:
Is it a “must-know” rather than a “nice to know” standard or learning goal?
Does it require higher levels of cognitive demand rather than facts and recall?
Does it add value to my students beyond that of test success?
Does it provide a basis for future student success- next grade, multiple disciplines, ideal graduate, etc.?
If the content doesn’t meet the above criteria, consider how it could be included in another PBL experience. Could you teach it, not as part of a whole PBL experience, but by creating a single lesson that incorporates a design principle of PBL or two.... or three? Remember, PBL is a mindset for teaching and learning. We never want PBL to feel like a singular event in the year.
Want more guidance? Check out these resources:
3. PBL Works Only with Some Students
PBL is one of the few pedagogies that aim for inclusivity and educational equity. Due to the very nature of its focus on being learner-centered, it allows natural differentiation to meet students where they are, work on learning goals, and maintain academic rigor. Does that take work by teachers to do so? Yes, it does. Teachers will only meet the needs of our IEP, 504, ELL, and low-income students if we all work in collaboration. So when you are planning a project, invite SPED & ELL teachers in, along with social workers and school psychologists. Having them as thought partners at the beginning of the planning process will help to be proactive to meet the needs of students, rather than reactive.
Want some concrete tools and strategies? Check out these resources:
4. PBL is an Add-On to Student’s Regular Content
Nothing is more deflating when talking to a group of teachers, and they share, “oh, we do PBL, but after testing.” Immediately it is a tell that they don’t fully understand project-based learning or it is not part of their go-to pedagogy of teaching yet. Either way, we want PBL to be the way students learn the necessary content and not be an addition. In other words, the project is the unit rather than it being at the end. PBL focuses on product and process while being driven by student inquiry aligned to the project’s learning goals. While an effective PBL experience can be tricky, you want to resist making this be another thing you or the students check off. PBL should help answer that age-old question of “why are we learning this today?”
Want more? Check out these resources:
5. PBL is Hard to Assess Individual Students Because Everything is in a Group
Collaboration is a crucial component of PBL, but that doesn’t mean teams should all get the same grade on a collaborative project. You want to give far greater weight to individual work, not group work. This will help prevent concerns about unfair grades, especially from high-achieving students (and their parents), and prevents some students from riding the coat-tails of others. Also, you don’t want to “divide and conquer” the work in a project. If students only do one part of a product or presentation, they’re not likely to learn all that you intend. So you want to be mindful of how you assess students individually along the way to meet their needs and honestly know where each student is on their understanding of the intended learning goals and outcomes.
Want more tips on assessment? Check out these resources:
BONUS MISCONCEPTION: Students Get Too Much Choice in PBL.
Yes, choice increases student ownership, which helps them build confidence and become more independent. You need to be mindful when you should offer an option. Too much choice doesn’t always lead to better outcomes because it can halt our progress and muddy the waters related to learning outcomes. To maximize when and where you should give students choice, consider these questions:
What are my goals for student independence?
Where does choice support critical thinking in this project?
Will choice deepen engagement or provide for a more authentic experience?
Can my students consider options here and still practice or demonstrate the learning outcomes?
As a PBL teacher, you are still the leader of your classroom, and you have the best perspective on what will be most effective for your students. As you and students become more comfortable, you can take more risks and increase the choices provided.
Want more? Check out these resources:
At ACP, we like to say that PBL is a journey that will have many forks and unknowns along the way, which can be scary. Don’t let that fear prevent you from trying something that can re-energize not only your students but also you.