Concerns About “Project Based Learning” (PBL)

I’m currently in the final stages of prepping for a “Project Based Learning” (PBL) workshop on Monday for Salem School in Orange. In an effort to avoid direct instruction, we’re asking participants to explore definitions, criticisms, and examples of PBL, and then to articulate their own definition and biggest concern – and begin planning a project for their students. It’s a tall order. Here’s the wiki agenda and resources – I’d love any feedback you have on it.

As you can see, we’ve settled on an agenda and activities for the day, but I have experienced some ambivalence about this approach as I’ve prepared for it. This has led me to thinking (and writing – mostly via email) that forms the foundation for this post.

In short, the more time I spend with PBL resources the more I’m uneasy with the very specific way the term is used. Not unlike professional learning communities (PLCs), PBL means something very specific to those who dedicate their time to it – and something much more broad to the rest of us. To me it still means only this: learning by doing a project rather than through drills and tests. But most of the definitions I find are much more specific, even to the point (in some cases) of saying that PBL must relate to improving the environment or making the Earth a better place.

By brining this specific term into our training on Monday it has morphed from being a day for creating multi-media projects for students into something much bigger – and much more challenging to accomplish in a day. Asking teachers to incorporate multi-media and the read/write web for student projects is one thing (and this is how I imagined the day to begin with). However, asking them to create authentic, cross-curricular, inquiry-driven projects with a connection to the real world is another thing altogether – one that either presumes they’ve already got technology integration skills or doesn’t necessarily require them.

Part of me has thought we might have a better focused day if we backed away from the “Project Based Learning” phrase and reframe the day around incorporating multi-media and the read/write web for student projects. (This is the next step from their previous trainings on iLife and Blogs.) Much of the activities we’ve cooked up for the workshop would remain the same – and we could still have them search for what makes a good student project. But we wouldn’t introduce any additional difficult to meet expectations associated with PBL.

If we do go forward with PBL, I want to frame it in a way that is not overwhelming for the teachers, that gives them a specific goal for the day, and (here’s the tricky part) in a way that does not violate the very specific PBL definitions they will come across. For instance, I would want to (at the very least) focus on the fact that they are creating something for use with their students, and that their work to change their teaching will make the world a better place. This is the only “authentic” element of the day we have planned. Also, I would want to follow as much of this advice as possible if we do PBL.

Also, I have felt that we might consider avoiding the hybrid nature of the day and either have them learn about PBL through PBL (which we’re not really doing as it is, at least in the strict sense of PBL) or else have them create a project for their students (which they probably won’t complete during the day as it stands). Some PBL workshops have teachers complete a project themselves (as if they were students). Others, have teachers create projects for students – Eva went to one of the later types of workshops and it was completed over several days. We only have several hours. Brian Crosby even pointed out in a tweet that when PBL is done under a time crunch is when teachers and students might experience a crisis. Similarly, Chris Lehmann pointed out that projects can sometimes become “high stakes.”

I definitely want to avoid these two pitfalls. I’m increasingly finding that less is more as teachers learn to incorporate new technologies and I want this day to be successful (and even fun) for the participants – something they will want more of. So, I don’t want to be too ambitious.

However, I’m also sympathetic to the position that we need to not only model this type of teaching, but also need to model risk taking. There is no question that the day as it stands is a bit outside my comfort zone as a professional developer. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the participants (and I) do need to be pushed to the edge of failure, as Tim Surridge likes to say, in order to have the most powerful learning experience.

I’d love to hear any feedback from any of you – particularly those of you who are PBL experts. But also from anyone who can imagine being in this workshop – or who can imagine the teachers they work with being in this workshop. How does this approach look to you? And how would you do it differently?

At this point, I have a day that I feel good about bringing to the teachers – so I’m not worried about Monday, but it has led me to many questions that if explored might make the day even better – or make future workshops even better. Also, of course, though I say we have only hours on Monday, we have almost ten months left to gear up toward the 1:1 initiative starting at Salem next year, so this is still just the beginning.

5 Responses to “Concerns About “Project Based Learning” (PBL)”

  1. Sharon Peters Says:

    Mark, you raise some valid concerns about PBL. Here in Quebec, our new QC Education Plan is fundamentally about competency-based learning through learning and evaluation situations (pbl) that are rooted in authentic experiences that have been accomplished through integration of resources (i.e. ICT) and reflective practice. I have an abundance of resources (visuals and examples) that I can pass on to you about our approaches. Frankly, I think it is one of the most progressive models of education that I have seen. However, as you have mentioned, it presupposes a familiarity and exposure to technologies that many teachers still do not possess. This is the paradigm shift in understanding pedagogy that is so needed universally in our education systems around the world. You are quite right about standing back a moment to consider best approaches for this shift.

    Part of my job is to create learning and evaluation situations so that teachers may have resources that align with our provincially directed mandates of this new education program. Implementation of such a program is the biggest hurdle yet! I would love to continue a conversation about how to bring teachers at the classroom level to understand how to develop 21st century competencies through authentic activities that promotes reflective metacognitive practices.

  2. Dean Shareski Says:

    Definitely not an expert but our school division’s recent plunge and my role as support has helped me to understand things better.

    Here’s a few things I’ve taken away from my work in this area:

    1. PBL is not necessarily a foreign idea. Most teachers at least in part, have used aspects of PBL for years. What’s different is our intent is to have it the primary focus of learning rather than an add on or something that’s only for gifted students or when you got your “regular” work done.
    2. PBL is for everyone. Many of the best examples have been done with disenfranchised students. Often high acheivers resist it because they’ve had success playing school and this requires a different level of thinking and work and they fear it may jeopardize their current status.
    3. Key questions that PBL requires are ones like “What would you want your students to remember in 20 years? What is really important”.
    4. PBL although can potentially be done without the use of technology almost begs its use. Creating authentic, relevant learning opportunities in today’s world almost inevitably leads to the use of technology.
    5. The most challenging aspect includes helping teachers determine essential outcomes and offer ways to build projects using them.
    6. Feedback loops are critical. Students must get feedback at all aspects of the project.

    Those are just a few ideas that have surfaced in my learning.

  3. Kevin Says:


    You need to check out Project Foundry. It’s a web-based tool that manages the PBL process and is being used by 50 very innovative PBL schools in the US. The website is: .

  4. sylvia martinez Says:

    Dean makes some really great points. In fact, you might consider it a success if your teachers end up questioning your decisions! And then you can refine your course, which I think is another component of successful PBL, the willingness of the teacher to change and improve the assignment. There’s always some way to make it better “the next time”

    Also, don’t be afraid of a little instruction. I think the strawman set up by anti-PBL people is that the teacher somehow makes everything happen by magic and never actually instructs or directs students. That’s just not true.

    By the way, I’ve never heard about any orthodoxy about the projects only being community or environmental – that’s a new one for me.

    Love to hear how it goes!

  5. Suzie Boss Says:

    Curious how you (and your colleagues) have resolved your questions and concerns about PBL. Our new book (Reinventing Project-Based Learning) offers some practical ideas, particularly for helping teachers who are new to this approach ease into project design. Sometimes, the best first step is to join an existing project or model yours on a project that’s already been successful. (We offer lots of examples for both.) Have any promising projects emerged from your November workshop? Always interested to hear about them.