A PBL Pathway to 21st Century Deeper Learning Schools

Ten Debates About Project-Based Learning.

Driving Question: What is true and what is false about Project-Based Learning?

Jim Bellanca

 1.       Myth. Project-Based Learning doesn’t match with the standards.

The best PBL units of instruction (different from ‘projects”)  always start  with an essential question that aligns the unit’s study with the Common Core and/or the Next Generation Science Standards. Note how inquiry standards are woven through the new science standards. Note how thought-provoking and authentic  PBLs also  include research, problem solving and presentations that  align with the Common Core Standards for reading, speaking and listening and writing. Go to http://www.ILC21.org/library to see best practice examples of MindQuest21tm standards-aligned PBL units of study. These samples also show how PBLs also integrate soci0-emotional and ISTE’s NETS.

2.       Myth. PBL doesn’t  raise student achievement.

The research says differently. Not only do PBLs  raise achievement with far greater gains than other models of instruction, studies show how PBLs promote high engagement and advance 21st Century Skills with the same effort.  (Ravitiz, 2012)

3.       Myth. PBL is not teaching.

This myth contradicts Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Evaluation. It is a major tool for the best of teachers as measured on the Danielson rubric for proficient and distinguished teaching (planning, content, instruction) who have adopted PBL as a model of instruction. Close examination of the same framework will show that lecturing and worksheet use fit well in the low-level Basic category of this framework. Neither raises teaching to the proficient and distinguished levels of teaching that can be accomplished with PBL rich instruction.

4.       Truth. A good number of teachers do projects. 

Many teachers can assert this  if they include  hands-on activities or lab experiments in their instructional tool kits. They can also say it  if they distinguish between PBL,  a comprehensive instructional model aligned to the standards which includes balanced, formative assessments and explicitly develops 21st Century Skills in thinking, collaborating and problem solving vs those hands-on activities, lab experiments and science fair displays that are tacked on at the end of a lesson, used as Friday filler or for after-school clubs and are offered to gifted children only.  PBLs will include hands-on activities, labs and creative products, but as parts of the whole unit and as means for helping students’ learning align with what is called for in the standards.

5.       Myth and Truth. PBL takes too much time.

If teachers think about instruction in isolated blocks with time allotted for each subject, the time allotted for an interdisciplinary PBL seems larger than necessary. However, well designed PBLs integrate the basic skill instruction with advanced thinking skills applied to multiple disciplines at once. Such comprehensive units kill many birds with a single stone, thus taking less time than the sum of isolated skills instruction. PBL also is not about the mere filling of heads with information, as efficient as that may be. PBLs aim to teach students how to be more effective learners who develop their learning how to learn skills, apply these more honed skills to gain deeper understanding of the standards aligned content and become life-long, self-directed learners.

6.       Truth. PBL is  fun and games.

There can be no doubt that students engage more deeply in PBLs because they enjoy what they the cognitive challenges provided.  PBL inquiry, problem solving and design are not boring, rote work with worksheets or lectures. In addition, teachers report that the more students decide about what and how they are learning in a PBL, the more excited and engaged students become and report  “this work is fun”.

7.       Myth. PBL creates discipline problems.

On the contrary, PBL experienced teachers report that discipline problems disappear when students become deeply engaged in PBL work.

8.       Myth. PBL can’t be assessed.

Teachers have an easier time using formative assessments to guide standards-aligned instruction in a PBL. With student self-assessment, teachers can assess deeper learning outcomes related to 21st Century skills as well as deeper understanding of course content. In the end, formative assessments ready students for any final tests at the end of the unit without the need to resort to test prep and  to practices for recall and regurgitation of shallow information.

9.       Myth.  Projects and Project-Based learning are the same thing.

Projects are one-time events in which students make a product such as a water color painting, a diorama, a photo essay, a robot or a poster board. Most often, such make-and-take products as projects  are tacked on at the end of a lesson or as a filler event. They may also be products for after-school clubs devoted to robotics, chemistry or fine art. Although there is nothing wrong with stand alone products as projects, they are  limited and are not usually  the result of a unit of study that includes an essential question, explicit skill instruction, research, a product and a formal presentation, all aligned to  standards and aimed to create self-directed learners.

10.   Truth. There’s nothing new about projects.

This one is  absolutely true, if you go by the obsolete definition for hands on-activity with a product. as the result. Even PBL is not new to those who have distinguished their teaching and created whole units of instruction in which students learn from the multiple levels of “doing” that deepens their knowledge and develops their skills.

Share what you think. Agree or Disagree with this post and say why.


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