Schools around the world are shifting to project-based learning, which challenges students to create something original while collaborating and building knowledge through authentic learning tasks. But how do you make this kind of deep learning a reality in your classroom? There are so many moving parts to PBL that it can be difficult to know where to start.
We spoke to experts to learn more about the most common myths and mistakes that they see teachers make when getting started with project-based learning for the first time. Don’t let these throw you off course as you transition to PBL!
1. MYTH: Project-based learning requires more planning time
David Ross from Partnership for 21st Century Learning told us that "One of the enduring myths about PBL is that it takes more planning time. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the design process for PBL.” Mr. Ross reminds us that the planning required for traditional teaching doesn’t necessarily save time, either.
“Traditionally, most teachers plan lesson to lesson, day to day. This is inefficient use of time because many of the tasks must be repeated daily - photocopying, resource collection, giving students directions, etc. In PBL the planning process is front-loaded, meaning you review standards and data, collect resources, schedule guest speakers or field trips, photocopy, plan assignments, etc., prior to the launch of the project. When the project launches you are free to do what you do best - teach."
Transitioning to project-based learning may mean reallocating your planning time instead of trying to squeeze more time into your busy schedule. Planning in teams is a great way to get started, since you can dedicate department or grade team meetings to collaborative planning.
2. MISTAKE: Watering down project-based learning until it’s ineffective
It’s definitely okay to ease yourself into project-based learning by starting small, but small doesn’t mean watered-down. Dayna Laur from Project ARC told us that she frequently finds herself asking teachers “Is this just a research paper in disguise?”
“Project-based learning has become a watered down phrase in recent years. The reality is that much of what is referenced as PBL, online and in professional development, is actually just a challenging assignment focused on low-level Bloom's.”
Ms. Laur advises that teachers focus on building connections. “The key to developing authentic, relevant, and complex learning experiences is to find the sweet spot between where your content transcends the classroom walls and meets the standards for which you are responsible in your course. An important first step in doing this is to connect to your community assets to find out how these assets are using your content in the real world. This means, rather than viewing your content as segmented lessons, you must uncover the common threads that make meaning of your content as a whole.”
Connecting to an authentic audience is a great way to start shifting your classroom practices, and you’ll see better results than with a watered down project. You can go global with a PenPal Schools project or find connections in your local community.
3. MYTH: There is no room for direct instruction in project-based learning
Many teachers are often hesitant about project-based learning because they’re not sure how it will allow them to focus on the learning outcomes they are responsible for.
Andrew Miller has heard this a lot, too. He tells us, “A question I get a lot from teachers new to PBL is about direct instruction. Some mistakenly believe that direct instruction disappears or is nonexistent in a project due to the belief that a PBL project is purely experiential. That is a myth. In our our world of clear learning targets and outcomes we must ensure students learn, it is important to know that direct instruction has its time and place in a project.”
Project-based learning does allow you to provide direct instruction - and it will likely be more meaningful than in a traditional classroom. “The key is to provide ‘just in time’ direct instruction linked to student inquiry. When teachers launch a project and provide a powerful driving question, students then generate their own questions related to the project or their ‘need to knows.’ As a teacher examines this list, they can reflect on what questions might be an appropriate place for direct instruction. Similarly, as teachers assess student learning and discover gaps, they may need to provide direct instruction to some or all students to ensure they learn. Rather than automatically provide direct instruction, teachers need to do it when students need it.”
4. MISTAKE: Planning simulated activities instead of connect learning to the real world
To design truly authentic learning experiences, educators need to connect students to the world outside of the classroom. Jennifer D. Klein from Principled Learning tells us, “Connecting students across classrooms, schools, cities and countries is incredibly valuable for students, particularly because of how such experiences build their sense of connectedness and constructive engagement with the world around them. The more students get to collaborate across the boundaries of country, religion, and politics, the more their intercultural skills can grow; and the more authentic the challenges they engage, the more likely our students can have a real impact in their own communities.”
But how do you actually do this? Jill Clayton from Project ARC told us that “There isn’t one answer for everyone - it’s really about digging in and doing the work to create an authentic learning opportunity for the kids.” Project-based learning has to be meaningful - to both teachers and students - in order for it to be effective. “Schools and students can often become complacent. Our kids can smell a fake - they can spot something that’s a scenario from a mile away. After a while, everyone is like okay, what’s next? Or, schools go back to the old school way of teaching because it’s easier.”
Just like her partner at Project ARC, Ms. Clayton recommends starting by connecting to your local community. “Who is your community? Who are your community assets? How do you as a school create long-term partnerships instead of a drive-by career day or exhibition of scenario projects?” One small, authentic connection to your community will be more effective than a simulated experience.
5. MYTH: Project-based learning is too chaotic for my classroom
A project-based learning classroom might be louder than your traditional classroom, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! When students are excited and engaged they’ll have more energy than when they are sitting diligently in their desks. Don’t let fears about classroom management prevent you from adopting project-based learning practices.
Ms. Klein tells us, “When adults step back and really let the students make their own choices about what and how they want to learn with their partner classes, students always step up. For such experiences to really foster innovative young leaders, I believe that teachers need to worry a little less about controlling the experience and spend more of their energy empowering their students to find their own best solutions to the world’s gravest problems in collaboration with other young people. When we practice PBL as more than just a pedagogical method and engage kids’ passions and talents in the service of something larger than the fulfillment of standards, that’s when students become most engaged and our classrooms become think tanks that can be as powerful as any NGO working to improve the human experience on this planet.”
6. MISTAKE: Thinking about project-based learning as a lesson
Schools will sometimes transition to PBL by encouraging teachers to follow up a unit of study with “a PBL project.” This makes it challenging for teachers to start to shift their practice. Myla Lee explains, “Teachers will see PBL as a lesson, but it isn’t - it’s part of the culture of your classroom. All the best practices of project-based learning are things we want to see in the classroom all the time. You can embed things into your own classroom routines so that it’s a seamless transition into a unit that just happens to be project-based.”
Ms. Lee supports educators in the classroom, and she often hears teachers apologizing when they haven’t been able to do a PBL unit. “I’ll ask them what you’ve done, and they’ll say ‘I’ve done a lot of questioning’ so I tell them ‘that’s ongoing inquiry.’ Teachers should try not to see PBL as just a unit or lesson, because then it becomes this thing instead of just part of their teaching. When you see it as part of who you are as a teacher and part of your classroom, then it’s not such an overwhelming thing. What makes PBL powerful is that you actually do it. If it’s too big of a plan or idea, you won’t be able to actually implement it. Start off with a unit that is simple and practical enough for you to do.”
It takes time to shift the learning culture in your school or classroom. Avoiding these common myths and mistakes can help you stay patient as you grow your practice. There are endless resources available to support you, from PenPal Schools to the experts who contributed to this article! It will be worth it when you see your students take ownership of their own learning and begin to impact the world around them.
4 Steps to Get Started with Project-Based Learning
How to Make Project-Based Learning More Collaborative
Easy Project-Based Learning Question Stems for Essential Questions
Top Ten Ways to Fake an Authentic Classroom
Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real-World Approach to PBL
Developing Natural Curiosity: 5 Strategies for the PreK-3 Classroom. (Upcoming 4-8, 9-12, and higher ed versions are up for pre-order this fall!)