What Project-Based Learning Is — and What It Isn’t

| January 2, 2013 | 37 Comments
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Screenshot/High Tech High

The term “project-based learning” gets tossed around a lot in discussions about how to connect students to what they’re learning. Teachers might add projects meant to illustrate what students have learned, but may not realize what they’re doing is actually called “project-oriented learning.” And it’s quite different from project-based learning, according to eighth grade Humanities teacher Azul Terronez.

Terronez, who teaches at High Tech Middle, a public charter school in San Diego, Calif says that when an educator teaches a unit of study, then assigns a project, that is not project-based learning because the discovery didn’t arise from the project itself. And kids can see through the idea of a so-called “fun project” for what it often is – busy work. “They don’t see it as learning; they see it as something else to do,” said Terronez. “They don’t see the value.”

“If you inspire them to care about it and draw parallels with their world, then they care and remember.”

For Terronez, the goal is to always connect classroom learning to its applications in the outside world. He’s found that when the project is based in the real world, addressing problems that people actually face, and not focused on a grade, students are naturally invested. “If you inspire them to care about it and draw parallels with their world then they care and remember,” he said.

It takes a lot of diligent planning by the teacher to design projects that give students space to explore themes and real-world resonance to make it meaningful for them. And it takes trust in the students, as well.

When Terronez assigns a writing project, it’s rarely just for a grade. Rather, the goal of the assignment is to be published in an anthology or in some other way relevant to the world around them.

Here are just a few examples of some the innovative things Terroniez has tried.

1.   DESIGN YOUR OWN CLASSROOM.

When students arrived on the first day of school they found an empty classroom. The first project Terronez asked his students to undertake was designing their own learning space, one that would support experience-based, collaborative learning. “I wanted to see what would happen to my instruction and the student’s learning if we didn’t let the classroom design, desk, chairs, whiteboard, etc. form the way I teach class,”Terronez wrote on his blog. “What would come of the studio space that used to be my classroom if students became the designers of their own space?” From the outset, the project mattered to the students and they took it seriously.

2.   DESIGN AN IPOD APP.

Terronez asked his students to design an iPod app that would solve a real-world problem. They came up with an idea, designed the display icon, figured out how users would navigate the app, prototyped sample tabs, then pitched their mock-up to an audience. They didn’t actually code the project, but they did all the conceptual product development. A sample project, the Virtual Yard Sale, allowed yard salers to post a virtual sale, listing the items that corresponded to their actual yard sale. This way, buyers could bid on items before stopping by to pick them up.

3.   HOVERCRAFT PARADE.

In a project exploring air pressure, Terronez’s students built their own hovercrafts using a leaf blower as the engine. When the hovercrafts worked, the students designed 3D representations of themes from “Freedom Fighters,” a Discovery School education video about racial struggles featuring the stories of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Their creations were featured in a hovercraft parade on Election Day.

[RELATED: What’s the Best Way to Practice Project-Based Learning?]

4.  IRON CHEF COOK-OFF.

To understand the reasons behind colonization, Terronez explored the spice trade with his class. Students participated in an “Iron Chef” competition where they each picked a spice important during the Imperial era in Europe, learned its history and then had a cooking competition featuring both the history of the spice and a dish. Other students then judged both the cooking and the content.

5.   LABEL-READING LITERACY.

 

 

These projects were all undertaken without Terronez “teaching” anything. The learning developed along with the project, guided by an educator who had already put a lot of planning hours into the intended outcomes. Students took the projects in whatever direction most interested them and the teacher’s job became pushing students to think through the real implications of their choices.

[RELATED: Life in a 21-st Century English Class]

Take a look at High Tech High art teacher Jeff Robin’s video explaining the difference between project-oriented learning and project-based learning.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1207611233 Melanie Link Taylor

    Wow! This is great, setting the bar perfectly high.

  • http://twitter.com/Henderson204 Matt Henderson

    Love the conceptual analysis, but not sure if the ipod app example demonstrates PBL or POL.

  • Anne Marie Dominguez

    As much as you claim that students should learn through the process of planning and executing projects, inherent in your examples is the presence of previous knowledge that their previous school and life experiences have given them thus far to create the project you assign. So it seems to me that the difference between pbl and pol is perhaps placement of the project when students can best use their newly acquired knowledge (perhaps through lecture) to discover more knowledge. Also, you haven’t clarified the pedagogical benefits of pbl other than students feeling good about displaying what they made.

    • JC_in_StL

      Instead of imagining this happening with previous knowledge about the subject in place, try to think of how one can learn about a subject by exploring an intriguing question. I am interested in how the US Congress can work against each other so intently that nothing gets accomplished for years on end. So, I research what congress members are responsible for in their positions. I then learn about what it takes to make policy changes at the local, state and federal level. From that knowledge (weeks into my project), I am able to deduce what a congressperson is able to do with favorable peer presence or an unfavorable one. I use mathematics, social studies and business research to calculate how certain bills may play out in congress.

  • Denis Roarty

    I would like to see an expansion of the notion of ‘real world’ to include any problem that perplexes… over in the math blogosphere, one of Dan Meyers’ (and followers) evolving themes is that problems don’t have to be “real world” to be worthy of problem based or project based learning. The content can also be contrived, as long as it is engaging and perplexing. Upon being perplexed, a student has just set his/her own learning goals. Which seems to be the point of this post.

    • JC_in_StL

      Certainly, being able to develop the ability the think on one’s own is necessary for any level of problem solving. Is this your point? If you are referring to mathematics and the implications of using project-based learning, I’d refer you to and garden-based education. It may sound silly if you know little about gardens, but as you learn alongside your students, you’ll quickly see that math is an integral part of gardening. Not only are you able to explore geometry and trigonometry, but advanced mathematics dealing with probabilities and physics quickly come into play. Try it out and then post back, please.

  • ShiftingT

    You have defined THE Problem! Are you a fly on our “Project-Oriented Wall?” I see you (:D ! All jokes aside, — thank you for clarification.

  • arlene shmaeff

    Myself, Arlene Shmaeff, and my partner Camille Calica, teach a three day “hands on” workshop on PBL where teachers go through the process of doing a project themselves. Our thinking is very aligned with this article. We are in the Bay Area and would love to work with schools that are interested in doing this work. We are inspired by the Project Approach in Reggio Emilia. We offer coaching to individual teachers as well as groups. We are currently working for the Marin Community Foundation. Please contact us if you are interested in more information.

    • Jeff Robin

      If you go to jeffrobin.com you will see all the other videos I made about how to do PBL. Sometimes it helps to see what things are not, too.

  • Caitlyn Bellinger

    The way I understand it, pol focuses the lesson on the content and standards, then throwing on a project at the end, sort of like, “This is what you need to know and now we are going to do this.” In pbl, the project is the focus of the lesson, then students gather background information and execute the task, more like, “This is what we are going to do and these are the tools you need to do it.” If this is correct, it seems like any project could be taught pbl, it’s all a matter of the delivery.

    I would have liked the video to show more about pbl instead of describing pol.

  • Jane Chadsey

    At Educurious we talk about this as Problem and Project-based learning. We believe that starting with a compelling, contemporary problem gives an important focus and “need to know” to the work that students do. An example is our ELA unit – Avoiding the Path to Panem which is based on the Hunger Games novel. It’s on our website at http://www.educurious.org. The problem/question is “How can we avoid the path to Panem?” Students look for evidence from the text to determine how we may have gotten from where we are now to a world like Panem. Then they create a call to action (posted on Glogster) that describes what we can do to avoid the path to Panem.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/johnstippick John Anthony Stippick

    Many schools are using the http://www.ProjectBasedLearning.com as their platform for student learning and teacher professional development

  • Bored With PD

    More edu-jargon. I’ve been teaching for decades, and it’s always the same stuff with a new name…goes in circles and circles and circles…something disappears, comes back, disappears again. I’ve seen dozens of fantastic teachers with dozens of different methods, hell…some teachers can lecture “chalk and talk” all period, and the kids get it, love it, are engaged. Too all new teachers, don’t get caught up in any hype of any particular style, take it with a grain of salt (put it in your “tool box” if it works for you/your kids)…the most important thing…love what you’re doing, love how your doing it, do it the best you can…and the kids will learn.

    • JC_in_StL

      Yeah, sure; if you love what you’re doing, they get it. They connect to that passion and want to feel it too. No one loves writing jargon on a chalk board for an hour and waiting for the kids to copy it down; not unless they have a serious mental health problem. Don’t downplay active education unless you have an actual counterpoint.

    • Ks

      I’ve used project-based learning and it looks different than what many say has been just another strategy we scrapped from the past. My students would listen to “chalk and talk” in my classroom but PBL is making them into thinkers, collaborators, and engaged learners, while learning more than what I hoped for and expected.

    • Azul Terronez

      Bored With PD,
      I appreciate your advice for new teachers not to “get caught up in any hype,” which I agree to. New teachers have many things to be concerned with. However, the post industrial revolution model of education is shifting, and though students might be engaged in a classroom with a particular teacher, the work that they will do when they leave school is changing. It is no longer just enough to go to a good college, to find a great career, just look at the job market for recent college grads. Students must be prepared for the changing tides of the world. I also agree with you that teachers should love what they do, but too many students are failing to say we should just do our best and the kids will learn, WE as educators must change with the world.

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  • Erika Wilson

    I really enjoyed this blog, it was very informative. Especially that video at the end that discussed the differences between PBL and POL. I now see how some might get the two confused, but I now know PBL is very much student discovery. The different project examples are also very helpful to me because it gives me a better picture. I see as educators we will really have to stretch our thinking by giving those students less direction. The “create an app” activity is super relevant to the 21st century students and I find learning and creating technologies to be very important. I also enjoyed you sharing your colonization and chef competition. What a brilliant idea! Thank you for sharing!

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  • Roy Hanney

    What people seem to be calling project-based learning is actually project-orientated problem-based learning – people seem to forget that it is the problem at the heart of a project that drives the learning and the project is just a way or organising the activities around certain kinds of goals and activities – unless you are talking about Agile Projects (which is an entirely different subspecies of project and a pedagogy in its own right I would argue) a project is by its very definition just a series of activities that are time-bound and unique (in that the project is not a regular work activity or task)… A project is not a pedagogical process in-itself it is in the problem where the pedagogical motor is buried… actually a project is sequential series of problems that change over time which is why it needs to be differentiated from traditional forms of PBL – the nature of these problems encountered during the life of a project require differing solutions of solving them so one of the benefits of this kind of pedagogy is that students need to learn a range of problem-solving strategies in order to deliver a projects outputs…. I could go on but I think I will summarise and say – project-based learning is not a pedagogy without a deeper consideration of the nature of problems and how students approach solving them and delivering project outputs….

    • Peter Hogaboam

      Interestingly the comments instantly got into whether Problem- and Project- based learning are the same thing. There are similarities, but they are two different pedagogic designs informed by different learning theories and which developed independently (despite the Dewy roots). I’d still argue that Project-based learning is a pedagogy in it’s modern incarnation, particularly as it has adopted many of the drivers and refinements of problem-based learning. In essence project-based learning takes advantage of solvable problems and the learning that takes place in empirical work, whereas problem-based learning is highly focused on the thinking process, and theoretical in nature (owing in part to the type of problems selected as drivers). In some sense the difference is similar to the difference between empiricist and rationalist traditions. Most projects I see are generally some type of engineering/design task, and problem-based units seem to trend toward drawing theoretical conclusions based on pre-existing evidence. Would love to hear more about your thoughts on this.

      • Roy Hanney

        What I know of both approaches would suggest to me that they are often used interchangeably with projects for example exploring theoretical problems and PBL applied to practical real world problems so I am not sure its possible to differentiate the two on those grounds. Have can’t cite actual examples off the top of my head but I am sure I could dig some up and lets not forget that PBL emerged historically from medical education. I agree that modern incarnations of Project-based learning has as you say adopted many of the “drivers and refinements” of PBL and I think that to me is an important issue and points towards some important stuff. If you look into projects and project management there isn’t an inherent pedagogical approach to developing, managing or delivering projects. There is often a review process and a sense of “what did we do last time” in many methodologies. But actually a project is a tool for administering activities of a certain kind towards a certain kind of output. This is of course useful in an educational setting and so the term has been adopted and widely used despite the fact that, at least in my experience, the notion of a project as pedagogy is largely un-theorised to any rigorous level. Thats not to say there hasn’t been some good work (see Making Projects Critical for example) but there is not much of it. My background is in teaching creative media practice and the nature of this sort of project contrasts significantly with engineering types of projects and I would say the ‘thinking skills’, while not philosophically deep in relation to theorising are extremely crucial to a projects success. Anyway… I am rambling a bit here… my point is that the use of the word project-based learning is problematic for me at theoretical level precisely because a ‘project’ by which I mean the tools and processes at play are not pedagogical in nature (of course learning occurs its just not foregrounded) unless you are talking Agile which is another beast altogether… Personally I would argue that the terms project and problem based learning are defunct and unhelpful and that we should be thinking about Agile learning as a open and adaptable pedagogy which incorporates all of these various approaches, conditions and premises – placing problem encounters in all its myriad forms at its heart. That would put to bed the project-based, problem-based, project-orientated etc… It doesn’t matter what you do around the problem that is rightly dependent on local conditions and requirements – the problem(s) encounter(s) are what need to be theorised if we are to really engage with projects as a pedagogy :)

  • Erin S.

    This seems like the topic is already decided. This doesn’t sound like project based learning…as I’ve come to know it. Project based learning, in my humble opinion, arises from a need found while in the midst of learning. I think of it as following a tangent. A good idea comes from something else, let’s see where it goes. This is a fun thing to do, BTW, and can be very engaging, but it doesn’t replace the fact that kids need basics in reading, writing and Math. My fear is that we are swinging to far to one side with our learning practices. Maybe it should be let’s work and discover our numbers, letters, science topics etc. and then make some time to see what kind of questions we can pursue from these or other areas of interest or piggyback them into technology areas, physical education, music etc…As a mom and a teacher I want my kids to have a specific skill set when they leave me for the next grade but variety is the spice of life.

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