Project-Based Learning: The Easiest Way to Get Started


As mentioned in a previous post, one element of effective professional development is taking into consideration who is on the receiving end of it (in regards to their experiences, beliefs, attitudes, current practices, etc.). On a recent webcast I listened to Daniel Pink claim how the project-based learning label is constantly overused and misused by educators, and this is a statement with which I can easily agree. As a result, when presenting project-based learning professional development it could be advantageous to not just discuss best practice, but to take educators from where they might be (projects) to where we think they should land (project-based learning).

We will compare and contrast the two columns on the chart, one step at a time, while also discussing how the transition could be made from projects to project-based learning in a way that is transparent and simplified.

1. Projects: By providing students with a polished and finalized rubric, the teacher has essentially taken the inquiry and sucked it out of the project. Although it might seem like a good idea to begin by letting students know what advertising features they must include in their work (especially if one is “pressed for time”), this approach ensures that the students are robbed of the opportunity to uncover these features through the use of authentic examples.

1. PBL: The students analyze advertisements (possibly selected by the teacher), in order to determine the effective features of advertisements based on evidence. After spending time evaluating authentic products, students have a clear vision of what needs to go into their work in order for it to be successful, and they are able to better understand the teacher’s expectations. At the same time the students see that their creations will have “real world” appeal. (The rubric creation process can be as simple as, students work in small groups to come up with a list of effective features > the entire class gathers in order to create a definitive list > the teacher takes the definitive list, transforms it into a rubric or checklist, and distributes it to the students.) Under Charlotte Danielson’s Domain 1 – Planning and Preparation – a teacher has reached the highest level (distinguished) when “Students participate in designing assessments for their own work,” and “Students develop rubrics according to teacher-specified learning objectives.”

2. Projects: This situation sometimes happens when a teacher thinks, “I’ve found this great program and I just have to get my students on it!” While this practice is acceptable from time to time, especially with short-term learning experiences, this approach should be avoided with long-term project-based learning units. When we say, “Use this technology, and use it like this,” we are more or less telling students to simply follow a series of overly contrived steps that do not leave room for creativity and problem solving.

2. PBL: For the creation of product advertisements, students could realistically call upon programs and/or apps that include Google Presentations, Google Drawings, Apple Pages, ThingLink, iMovie, Green Screen by Do Ink, Action Movie FX, Layar, Qrafter Pro, Snapseed, Doodle Buddy, and more! While a few demoes would provide students with a comfortable starting point, it is vital that students define the learning process by determining for themselves how they are going to satisfy the given requirements. In the end, if all products are the same, the teacher has failed.

3. Projects: The majority of project time will most likely be dedicated to this step, as this is when almost all of the student work takes place. As a teacher, one option is to tell the students, “Work hard. Follow all directions. I will take a look at your work when it’s done.” Even worse, most of the work could be done at home, where the teacher does not have access to it until its completion (without any cloud based solutions such as Google Apps for Education).

3. PBL: According to James Popham (2008), “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing,” and independent work time is the perfect opportunity for the teacher to circle the room in order to meet students at their various levels with individual and/or small group instruction. Every learning experience should contain at least one or two “checkpoints” at which students need to have their work reviewed by the teacher before moving on. Depending on what the teacher sees during these checkpoints, instruction could then be adjusted accordingly. On a personal note, the majority of my time with my students is spent strategically walking around the room while students work independently or in groups. In Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk he refers to a version of this approach as “broadband + collaboration + encouragement and admiration.” In other words, Let go!

4. Projects: At the conclusion of the project the teacher distributes a final grade that is based on the rubric. In this instance, the rubric is useful because it was given to the students ahead of time and therefore both students and parents cannot argue with the final grade since everyone was aware of expectations.

4. PBL: By the time the teacher fills out the rubric there should be almost no surprises for all parties involved, as student progress has been monitored throughout the duration of the learning experience. In order to maximize the chance that students actually consider and utilize teacher feedback, the teacher can leave written feedback and leave out any type of letter grade. According to Dylan William (2011), students ignore comments when they are given alongside scores, both high and low. As a result, written feedback is far more effective when it exists on its own.

5. Projects: Parents must sign their child’s rubric. This way, the teacher is ensured that parents are aware of student progress, and the teacher could also use the signed rubric as evidence (just in case any parent should claim lack of communication on the teacher’s part).

5. PBL: While it does not hurt to have parents sign rubrics, the conclusion of the project is spent on student reflection and resubmission. Here the rubric can be leveraged as part of the formative assessment process, as students are provided with opportunities to improve upon their grades. Once again, it is about the learning, not the grade. Also, students are given time to post their work publicly through their blogs, portfolios, classroom websites, etc. (“Why write for your teacher when you can publish for the world?”)

According to the Buck Institute for Education’s 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning, all eight essentials are satisfied by our project-based learning example (or the right-hand column of the chart). While I do not believe that all of the essentials must be used in order for learning to be categorized as project-based learning, I do consistently refer to these elements during the planning and preparation of my units as they can serve as reminders that help in enhancing instruction and therefore student learning. Finally, as we can see, incorporating these features into our instruction is not very difficult at all.

7 thoughts on “Project-Based Learning: The Easiest Way to Get Started

  1. Hi Ross!
    We have a PLC group working on an inquiry on PBL and I think they will love the clear way you have written about the differences between projects and project based. (I am forwarding this to them!)
    Thank you for this extensive resource and all of the great links to research and further resources. I particularly liked the reference to Sugata Mitra’s TED talk and his advice to “let go”!

    • Mary, I am glad that you find the resources useful. Please make sure to share the work of your PLC! It’s both interesting and wonderful that an entire group is dedicated to inquiry and PBL. I am sure that they are making a difference.

  2. I enjoyed reading your comparison between “projects” and PBL. You capture the big different…student inquiry – “the teacher has essentially taken the inquiry and sucked it out of the project.” We’ve got way too much of that going on! But that’s our leadership challenge. Thanks for your thought-provoking blog!

    • Yes! In short, I do believe that inquiry is the difference between projects and project-based learning. I would be interested in hearing how you work with teachers to promote inquiry in the classroom.

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