Project Based Learning


Project based learning also know as problem based learning or inquiry based learning is a current best practice in the teaching field. Project based learning centers around the student seeking answers to their own questions through projects, hands on learning and performance.  Although, not all inquiry based learning focuses on the student as the driving force, the best types of project based learning centers on what the students wants to learn in relation to the defined curriculum goals.  A quick example of PBL on the topic of tree's "drinking" water would be for students to experiment with celery and food coloring, as opposed to the teacher lecturing about how trees get water throughout their structure.  This model of learning puts the students in charge of exploring the ideas and questioning what they have been taught instead of the teacher drilling the students with lessons and worksheets.

According to Project Based Learning Online, "Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon authentic learning activities that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom."

Why is Project Based Learning considered a "Best Practice?"
Although many critics disagree with PBL, it still remains a best practice in education because of the fact that it puts students in charge of their own learning.  In North Carolina, PBL is considered a best practice by the DPI because it "engages students in sustained, collaborative real-world investigations." Nationwide, PBL is gradually taking hold in classrooms as teachers are more and more willing to experiment with teaching strategies that differ from direct instruction.  I also think that PBL is now considered a best practice because it exemplifies the 21st Century learning goals which are so prevalent in American school standards today.  If a teaching method can be fun and exciting for students while also teaching skills that will be useful in future employment and job experience, why not consider this method a best practice?

In Comparison to Understanding By Design
Project based learning (PBL) and understanding by design(UBD) are very similar in many ways.  Both methods focus on questions and inquiry as the driving force behind the lessons/projects. Without essential questions, UBD would just be another lesson, planned backwards.  The same goes for PBL, without an overarching question it would just be a project with no meaning.  Sadly, this is the case for many classrooms across the nation. Teachers believe they are doing what is best for children by incorporating projects into units, however they do not approach the projects correctly and tie the theme together with an essential question, leaving the students clueless as to the importance of the project.


Originally project based learning was developed for medical students and the teaching of medicine in Canada. Current research on PBL suggests it is a practice that has not yet fully taken hold in the United States education system. "The Buck Institute for Education, which focuses on professional development and materials to support project-based learning, believes that, as with most complex instructional approaches, there are many conditions that need to be met for schools to embrace project-based learning."  However, based on personal research, I feel as though there is a bigger PBL following than is being portrayed by the Buck Institute for Education.  According to a study by the faculty of Education at Mahasarakham University in Thailand, there is a direct correlation in positive change between project based learning and students retention rates (Panasan & Nuangchalerm).  This study not only demonstrates the project-based learning is successful, but also because the study was conducted in Thailand, it proves that PBL is more widespread than is being portrayed by BIE.  Because of the recent realization by many teachers and administrators that rote memorization and direct instruction are no longer applicable to students of the 21st Century, there has been a movement towards more hands on learning in the classrooms. In support, "Based on the developments in cognitive research and the changing modern educational environment in the latter part of the 20th Century, project-based learning has gained popularity" (NCDPI).  Project based learning has grounded itself on the research conducted by John Dewey and his philosophy on experiential learning. "The idea that learning is fostered when students ahve the opurtunity to formulate adn achieve their own learning goals is mentioned clearly in the work of Dewey (1910, 1944) and can also be found in Piage and in Bruner (1959, 1961)" (Gijbels, et al.) With this stable foundation in many educational philosophers work, PBL seeks to take roots in classrooms across the nation.

As with many best teaching practices, PBL aims to put students in control of their own learning. Because students will not be in public school for the rest of their lives, it is the job of educators to teach students, while in school, how to work collaboratively towards a common goal, as well as how to solve complex problems.  In an economic environment that is rapidly moving towards teamwork and project based jobs, it must be the goal of the public schools preparing students for the workforce, how to think like an investigator and researcher. Therefore, it is my argument that PBL become the leading best practice in schools nationwide, backed by other practices which focus on 21st Century learning and lifelong skills.


Project-based learning, supports a wide array of content areas and age levels, due simply to the fact that the practice works mainly from student inquiries and performance. Using the project-based learning method of teaching allows students to take control of the pacing of their learning while also putting the students in control of researching interest areas within the given project.  For instance, if a teacher assigns a project focusing on human interactions with the environment, which in 7th grade Social Studies would focus on Africa, Asia and Australia; the students would be given certain requirements such as:

1.) Students must determine the geographical landscape of the assigned continent (including but not limited to: climate, landscape, landforms, ecology, zoology, hydrology and food sources.)

2.) Students will discover how the earliest peoples of this land survive (i.e. where did they live, what did they eat, what did they wear, what kinds of shelter did they have? These are only a few examples, it is up to the student to delve deeper into this subject).

3.) Students will learn how humans have changed the landscape of their assigned continent since man has inhabited the land.

4.) Students will research current population models and growth percentages in order to find how rapidly the population of their assigned continent is growing (students will also need to research why the population is growing, failing, or remaining the same).

4.) Students will make predictions as to how the land may look in 10,000 years if the current population status continues.

These steps seem very in-depth, however, this process will be guided and paced according to student needs, as with all project based learning adventures.  The goal of this specific project is to hopefully have students discover how the three continents (Africa, Asia, and Australia) have changed due to human populations inhabiting the area. There is not a limit to how far the students may take their research however there is would be minimum requirements along the way to guide students as to what they need to be learning.

It is suggested, that for project-based learning in this perspective, a rubric be used to guide students as to what goals they should be reaching with their research and discovery.  There is no time limit on project based learning, depending on how in-depth the teacher wants the students to address the topic the project may last anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks and depending on the structure of the project and how much information is covered it may even last 3 months.  The beauty of project-based learning is that the time allotted can be adjusted at any point during the project depending on student needs or teacher needs.

PBL can be used in any classroom with any age level, the projects do not have to be huge daunting tasks they can be as simple as putting food color in water with a celery stalk to learn about water movement through plants.  There is no limit to what can be performed with PBL, the only limit is the imagination of the teacher and students.

The following video is a documentary on PBL as it is used in schools today:

Current Implementation Challenges

As with any teaching method that takes emphasis away from testing, challenges arise in ways of opposition from those who think you should teach using direct instruction for the test. Project-based learning takes students minds off EOGs and any other test that measures their performance because PBL works towards assessments that are performance based. Some people see this as a downfall of PBL solely because they feel direct instruction and rote memorization are the best ways to learn "for the test." However, research has proven in many instances that PBL learning ups test scores and knowledge base (Panasan & Nuangchalerm, 2010). 

In an article written by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, it is suggested "that the past half century of research on this issue has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence that unguided or minimally guided learning is significantly less effective and efficient than guidance that is specifically designed to support the cognitive processing necessary for learning" (2004).  This argument disputes the entire nature of PBL and challenges the core of what constructivist educators believe.  The argument goes so far as to suggest that no only is this learning ineffective in many cases that it is in some cases harmful to the students involved (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2004). Studies and articles which devote time to bringing down PBL can be very detrimental if landed in the wrong hands, for instance if a school principal were to read this article it may persuade him/her that PBL is disastrous and should not be used in the school.  Small articles and publishings have the power to stop a great initiative or teaching method in its tracks, therefore  a huge challenge for PBL is backing up the methods with enough research to persuade those in charge that it is the "right thing" to do.

As one teacher worded the most widespread challenge, "Although project-learning is the best way to engage students, without additional help, most teachers just don't have the time or energy to devote to project-based learning" (Rimland).  This is the single greatest challenge facing PBL in my opinion, opposition by teachers who are already overworked, stressed, mandated to do certain things, and underpaid.  All it takes for a great method to be crushed in the school system is for it to be seen as an add-on to what is already being implemented, teachers will immediately shun the new practice.  This is a huge challenge to PBL, getting teachers to realize it is not an add-on, PBL is a way of teaching, one of the best ways in fact.

I'm sure there are hundreds of arguments that seek to shortchange PBL and what it can do for a classroom, however it is up to teachers to negate these arguments and push onward with what they know is best for the students.

Overall Thoughts

In my opinion project-based learning is something that when used correctly can make a regular classroom into one that is developmentally responsive, exploratory and relevant to the students.  However, I did say when you used correctly. I have been in quite a few schools where PBL is seen as something that if you give students a topic and a rubric that is all you need. PBL is much more than a topic assignment and a rubric, PBL is inquiry, it is teachers becoming the inquirer with the students, it is exploration of a topic on many different levels and it ultimately is self-teaching for the students.  I know that sounds like the teacher is not needed, "well if the students are 'self-teaching' then why do we even need to employ teachers?"  We need to employ teachers who can correctly implement PBL because it is not as simple as direct instruction. PBL takes extra time for planning, it takes vast amounts of research, and grading PBLs takes at least double the time of grading a standard test, therefore not only do we need teachers we need dedicated teachers who are committed to teaching this way no matter how much time it takes.  In my opinion if PBL is implemented correctly, and the stress of testing is taken away from school, than there is no way that students can show no improvement.  I am an advocate for PBL because I learn best through research and hands-on exploration, as do many of the students we teach, so why go against what we know is a best practice and teach using direct instruction?