Simply stated: What are some common misconceptions about project-based education? Or, to put it another way, what misconceptions do we have about project-based learning that prevents it from reaching its full potential?
TeachThought is a proponent of project-based learning, one of many progressive learning models that can help grow teachers and the potential of students.
This site offers HTML-based learning professional development, project-based workshops, and many resources. We thought it would be helpful to look at the myths surrounding project-based learning, which may prevent it from being more widely adopted or integrated across K-12+ education globally.
12 Most Common Myths about Project-Based Learning
1. Project-Based Learning = students doing projects
One of the most common myths surrounding project-based learning is that students “doing projects” equates with students learning through PBL.
Although it is unlikely that students will complete projects without learning anything from them, project-based learning emphasizes learning through design and execution. Students would ‘be learning’ through completing projects but it wouldn’t be project-based learning because the emphasis would be on the project, not the learning.
It’s not project-based learning, but project-based.
Planning, research, collaboration, problem-solving, iterating and pivoting, publishing, and other ‘PBL verbs’(that is, the cognitive tasks required to complete projects in PBL). All require students to take ownership and be creative and critical thinkers. But to shine, PBL should be able to focus on learning as a process. It also encourages growth over time. Projects provide artifacts. That process and growth are used to reflect, curate, and symbolize human achievement (versus student achievement).
2. It is the teacher who should plan the projects.
Teachers can design the projects or components of them like the timeline, graded assignments, and checkpoints. However, it is best for students and teachers to work together with support from relevant experts, families, community members, and families to guide the learning process over time and how students view themselves.
3. Project-Based Learning makes Standards-Based Instruction difficult/impossible.
A method of teaching that is standards-based places the content (in the form of academic standards) at the center of the learning process (through backward design, for instance).
This method of teaching is part of modern education reform. It involves educators becoming very clear about their standards and ‘what’ they are saying (often through learning objectives), then designing assessments around those standards. Grading systems that are standards-based also have been developed.
To focus on academic standards mastery, Project-based learning seems like an interesting fit–and, I would have to agree. If the content is your main concern, there might be better ways to help students learn, grow, and work with them than PBL. However, if you are interested in helping students grow and being able to transfer knowledge and skills from your classroom into their lives and futures, Project-based learning is worth your attention and understanding as a professional educator.
It’s not always easy to determine how to align standards with PBL. However, direct instruction, RTI and ability grouping, mixed abilities grouping, reciprocal instruction, literacy instruction — or any other activities that a teacher and school do every day to help children grow — are all possible. It’s all hard.
4. “Doing PBL” doesn’t mean you can’t do other things.
This myth is one of the most problematic about project-based learning. It can discourage teachers or schools from using it.
Literacy plans, 1:1 programs, Google Classroom, Competency-Based Learning, Brain-Based Teaching, Team-Building, and Inquiry, or Critical Thinking, regardless of what ‘your school’ is focusing on. There are very few schools that would allow PBL. PBL is primary as a way to structure curriculum and the work students will do to master it. It doesn’t need to be either/or.
Focusing on one program at a given time is not a good way to improve school performance and student achievement. If you are going to focus on just one thing, it should not be improving the lives of students. From there, everything else can be redirected.
5. Teachers should always grade projects.
You can certainly grade the project but project-based learning involves learning through the design, ongoing execution, and maintenance of multi-faceted projects.
If you feel that the student would benefit by grading the final product/artifact (assuming one exists), grade it.
You can also give oral or narrative feedback if you feel it makes more sense.
You can get feedback from the community or from a content expert if that makes sense.
Do what is best for the student in front of you.
6. Project-Based Learning allows students to learn less.
This will depend on what data you are looking for, how you define learning, and how open you are to seeing your school and classroom as a research laboratory that produces data to help you be research-based.
Many studies have shown that PBL doesn’t work. This means that students are unable to learn by creating products or leading local service projects through inquiry. This is why the study is absurd. Education requires better research. The mixed results of PBL are an excellent example.
It is what matters that you learn, not the pretended research that predicts what will lead to effective learning in universal contexts or applications that have little to do with your students in your class.
7. Project-Based Learning is expensive technology.
Technology is not required for learning unless you are learning about technology.
Technology can be used in project-based learning to enhance its strengths and increase its scale. It can also enable more precise personalization of PBL teaching and learning. However, it is not essential and should not be considered as a ‘lesser than.
It is the process that matters, not the technology.
8. Project-Based Learning Is Less ‘Rigorous’ Than Traditional Academic Work
Simply put, PBL is not more or less rigorous than traditional academic work.
It’s possible to assign Shakespeare or a six-page research report in a multi-genre unit. This can result in significant complexity and rigor. However, this can lead to a loose-minded project that requires very little cognitive development within the student’s unique zone of proximal development. In this case, it would be true that the former is more rigorous’ than the latter.
You can ask students to collaborate with local water quality groups to create and market watershed-based practices that improve water quality and support a healthy, native, water-based ecology. This project could include research components, writing, literacy, extensive publishing, and much more. One thing to remember is that ‘rigor’ can be misunderstood in education and is not inherently better than the other.
9. Teachers must always create a syllabus.
The teacher is the expert in understanding. This includes the teacher, parents, community, and students. The teacher is also an expert in the understanding process, resourcefulness, and assessment. If they are experts in understanding and assessment, the student should use that knowledge to create a rubric. Perhaps the teacher can help the student connect with an authentic audience or expert to determine what will make the project work’.
It may be possible, depending on the context, that the teacher is the best person for creating the rubric. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to.
10. Project-Based Learning makes classroom management harder.
Bad classroom management makes classroom management more difficult.
Classroom management can be made more difficult by a lack of leadership at the school or in the district.
Classroom management can be made more difficult if there is no clear plan for behavior at the grade, team, or department levels.
It’s possible that learning through projects can lead to difficulties in the same. However, sit-and-get direct instruction and related conventional’ methods lead to classroom management problems.
11. Project-Based Learning isn’t ‘research-based.’
We need better education. Research that supports ideas that are not relevant in modern classrooms is called research. However, research that supports ideas that are relevant in modern classrooms is called research-based. There is also research that supports ideas that aren’t necessary.
You can do your research in your school or classroom, and invite experts to assist you.
12. Students should publish their work in the real world.
The myth surrounding PBL isn’t too problematic as it is solid advice. (That’s why I placed it so low on my list.
Authenticity is a term that’s often used in education to refer to real-world knowledge and skills. This is a huge concern, in my opinion anyway, and perhaps more important than the idea of PBL. But that’s another topic.
This post is about authenticity. While authenticity can be ‘good’ for student work and thinking and can increase authenticity, it can also cause problems with projects and the learning process due to a myriad of privacy issues, student safety and Digital Citizenship, and other related concerns.
Project-based learning can be a great way to encourage student engagement. However, it doesn’t necessarily have to solve real-world problems. This is called problem-based learning or place-based education. Make sure the opportunity is appropriate for the student’s needs. Focus on the student, not an artificial sense of progress and innovation.