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Why PBL Isn't a Passing Trend, But a Completely Different Way to Learn

Is project-based learning a trend teachers can overlook or the future of education? Explore the evolution of learning and solutions for PBL problems today.


I recently had a conversation with an education expert about project-based learning, who reminded me that "project-based learning is a passing education trend that schools stopped practicing." I know that schools and teachers are usually influenced by the latest education trend, which they are convinced will transform education as we know it. In most cases, they last a year or two before a new trend takes its place. Some trends include equitable learning, social-emotional learning, flipped classroom, hybrid classroom, and much more. Most of these trends are not even in contradiction or competing with project-based learning, which begs the question: why did teachers abandon this teaching method? 

Is project-based learning a trend that teachers can overlook, or a new way to learn designed to replace the current school model? To answer this question, let's take a look at the evolution of learning, and how to overcome today's struggles with PBL.

PBL Dates Back to Primitive Times

PBL dates back to prehistoric times

Project-based learning is probably the most ancient type of learning used by humans. It started with the prehistoric and primitive cultures as they were transmitting daily survival skills to the younger generation. The entire goal of their education was to ensure that the younger generation could confidently perform the chores necessary for daily survival. Daily repetition of those chores led the children to an adult-level proficiency necessary to become equal contributors to their family's survival and a stepping stone for later establishing their own families.

Learning in the Industrial Revolution

Learning in the industrial revolution

As society became urban and industrialized, corporations flourished, potential employees needed an education for a decent job, child labor laws were enforced, and the urban school system changed. During the Industrial Revolution, bureaucracies developed alongside the educational foundations for the current school model. Young workers were trained and organizations were built for mass production, assembly line work, and factory jobs. In schools, students learned to value hierarchical command, standardized outcomes, and specialized skills. These needs formed the basis for school bureaucracies today.

Although this type of education was developed to address a need for an industrial society, it often led to the divorce of gained skills from the larger context of the job. Many workers were performing repetitive tasks without understanding the bigger goal they served. Schools were training students to ensure any graduate could be slotted into a globe-spanning bureaucracy, competently replacing any other individual. In short, it was optimized to turn humans into replaceable parts who have no clue why they are learning something and what bigger purpose it serves.

Education Is Life Itself

John Dewey Education is not preparation for life

Fast-forward to John Dewey, 20th-century American educational theorist and philosopher, who believed in learning that's grounded in experience and driven by student interest. Dewey challenged the traditional view of the student as a passive recipient of knowledge (and the teacher as the transmitter of a static body of facts). He argued instead for active experiences that prepare students for ongoing learning about a dynamic world.

By stating that "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself," John Dewey not only ties education back to its prehistoric and primitive roots, but also clearly states the goal of education should be to train students to become capable active participants in daily life. Students need to perform tasks in real-life projects to help them develop the necessary skills to step confidently into those roles as adults. Anything we do in life is a project—whether it is cooking, raising kids, designing a marketing campaign, or creating an art piece—and the ability of students to step into those roles will determine the extent to which they will be prepared to manage their own lives with confidence.

How Do You Learn By Doing a Project?

The question that needs to be asked is: what does this type of learning entail? How do you learn by doing a project? Projects can be different things to different people. Some consider a project to be a summary of a topic they investigate, others feel a project to be building something, and some believe a project to be a problem they need to solve in real life. The best way to answer these questions is to determine the goal of learning.

Learning in the everyday world, where people live and work, is common and essential to survival, let alone progress. In homes, businesses, organizations, and societies in every culture, learning is driven by problems that need solving. How do I pay for a new car? Which schools should my children attend? How do we design a marketing campaign What is wrong with the computer? How do we raise funds to support municipal services? 

Modern life presents a deluge of problems that demand solutions, which is why learning to solve problems is the most essential skill students can learn in any setting. In professional contexts, people are paid to solve problems, not to complete exams. In everyday life, we constantly solve problems. We face problems, big and small, simple and complex, clear and confusing, every day in our lives. That is why the types of projects that students should be engaged in are those that solve a problem they or their community are struggling with, preparing them to assume their life roles with confidence.

The State of PBL in Schools Today

Rigorous PBL supported by research-1

Plenty of research backs the fact that project-based learning increases learning outcomes. Last February, the George Lucas Foundation released four studies together with five major universities confirming its effectiveness. Kristin De Vivo, executive director of Lucas Education Research, said that "the evidence is clear, rigorous PBL results in a significant boost in academic achievement for students from many different backgrounds." These conclusions about PBL have been repeating themselves in many studies years back, yet project-based learning is struggling to survive, and many still consider it a passing trend. However, it has not been completely eliminated from the education scene. The positive outcomes that most PBL studies generate led a few schools to include it in their curriculum. Most schools will commit to one or two of what they believe to be PBL projects throughout the year.

Obstacles for Teachers Implementing PBL

PBL implementation problems start with the lack of understanding of what PBL really is. Many teachers believe that assigning a project about a topic students learn and then having them summarize it is project-based learning. Others think that students need to build something physical for it to be considered a project. Most don't understand that project-based learning entails the ability to solve a problem designed to develop skills they can employ in any problem-solving situation they encounter. This type of problem-solving cannot be a small part of otherwise traditional learning to the test. If correctly implemented, it should be a complete transformation of the way students learn. Students should constantly practice these problem-solving skills, getting better and better at them, until they are ready to face any problem that comes their way and know exactly what to do to solve it.


PBL problems for teachers

Another reason that keeps schools avoiding the practice of PBL is due to the complex format it is presented to them. I have browsed through multiple reputable sites that offer project-based learning lesson plans for teachers, and I was stunned by the level of complexity and chaotic management. Lesson plans are described as a "wall of text" scattered across multiple pages, leaving the teacher confused on how to make a project out of it for students. In addition to the level of complexity that defines these projects, teachers also have to tie everything to standards and create rubrics for each part of the project. I showed a few of these lesson plans to professionals in different areas of expertise, whose bread and butter is to create projects every day, and they told me that they would not have been able to make sense out of it themselves, let alone teachers who have never done a project before.

How PBL Should Be Practiced

Learning should always measure whether students are learning the skills they will need to confidently step into their roles in life. Teachers need to make sure that students can connect with the problems they're trying to solve and make them feel that their learning can help them in life. Any project-based learning endeavor should always start with detailed project planning, assigning roles, and a breakdown of tasks. These last steps are frequently overlooked, which in many cases, is the main reason why project-based learning fails. There's also an important psychological aspect of giving students the feeling that they are a team of employees solving a real problem in their workplace. The more realistic the scenarios seem to students, the more wholeheartedly they will engage and commit to solving the problem.

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Project-based learning cannot be performed as something a classroom does once or several times a year because project-based learning is a different way to learn. All these steps require a different classroom setup and benchmark lessons on project management, collaboration, and other best practices. These skills must be repeated throughout the year to make them ingrained in how students approach every problem-solving situation. 

The success of a project depends to a large extent on how well students are trained in a set of related subjects that students must learn. Research skills are one of the most important subjects to learn before doing any project. The quality of any project depends on how well the students research the subject and how versed they are in deciding which sources are valuable enough to rely on in their projects. Students need to master research skills before they attempt any project. Both teachers and students need to also learn how to manage their projects. Project management can make or break a project, and mastering the skill can make the difference between a successful project and one that fails miserably. Finally, learning how to collaborate is an essential skill that can become an obstacle when students don't know how to work with others and how to avoid conflicts 

When students have learned all these, they are in great shape to start working on any project they encounter independently, and that is the goal that we all should strive to achieve.

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