Debunking the Common Myths of Project- Based Learning


The Medieval Fair

(Somewhere in a typical middle- school classroom):

“Ok class, now that we’ve learned all about medieval Europe, it’s time for the fun stuff! We’re going to create a medieval fair!”

The class erupts in cheers. Everyone exchanges high fives and begin stomping their feet. Even the most reluctant learners in the class murmur, “this is going to be awesome,” under their breath.

Is this the same image you conjure up when you think of Project- Based Learning? Fun, hands- on projects that ask students in some way to re-create what they just learned.

I have quite fond memories of projects from middle school. I remember creating a medieval weapon and small castle out of sugar cubes when I was 11 years old. I also remember using a drawstring at the castle’s entrance to empty a cup of water whenever it was tripped. This project was a blast.

I’m sure you had similar memories.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. One that I hope doesn’t upset the fondness with which you remember these experiences.

Most of these experiences are not Project- Based. Rather, they are fun activities that you might complete on a Saturday afternoon alone in your garage.

They are “project- oriented” learning experiences.

Debunking the Myths of Project- Based Learning

Project- oriented learning is the type of learning still taking place in many of today’s classrooms. It’s based around the misguided notion that projects are the “dessert” of learning, rather than the main course.

These activities are the posters to explain cell growth. The model of the solar system to simulate planetary orbit. The “kid friendly” textbook to teach the concept of Pi.

These one- off experiences are merely a re-creation of concepts, rather than an integral part of the process.

Project- Based Learning on the other hand is learning that is driven entirely by the project itself. It’s the learning that all revolves around a simple outcome- being successful in the project task.

It’s the composting of excess waste in the cafeteria to feed our gardens. The understanding of geometric principals to build a play space in our pre-schools. The learning of economic principals to create a thriving small business.

Project- based learning is all about engaging students in real experiences from the moment the learning begins.

CORRECTING THE FIVE MOST COMMON MYTHS SURROUNDING PROJECT- BASED LEARNING

In order to fully understand project- based learning, we have to understand the purpose it serves. It’s not a fun “add on” activity. It's the learning itself. Below are the five most common myths associated with project- based learning and concrete ways in which we can counteract the myths, and begin engaging students in real, authentic experiences.

1. Project- Based Learning lives outside the curriculum: This common myth rests on the assumption that the curriculum does not allow for project- based experiences. Much of our curriculum is written according to standards, benchmarks, content and skills. How can we cover such a vast curriculum if project- based learning is the major method of delivery? The answer is simple: Design projects around curricular concepts and skills. The most rigorous projects are those that force students to have a deep understanding of the concepts and skills embedded in the curriculum to fulfill project outcomes.

Challenge: Take three different colored highlighters and highlight related standards and skills in your curriculum. You will find common themes or ideas emerge for potential projects.

2. Project- Based Learning is entirely student directed: When most teachers think of project- based experiences, they envision a complete release of control in the classroom. While project- based learning does involve relinquishing some control, the students still need you! The teacher helps fill the gap of learning students will need to be successful in the project.

Let’s say students are asked to use the principles of molecular biology to convict poachers in Africa. They are going to need the teacher to help them learn various parts of a cell in order to properly identify the species. See the video below for further explanation:

3. Assessment does not exist in projects: This myth is entirely untrue. In projects, assessments, rather than act as checkpoints for a random assortment of knowledge and skills, are integral to the project itself. They ensure that a student is ready to move on. Let’s say for example, you are asking students to create small businesses to serve a community need. An authentic assessment in this case might be the creation of a business plan. As the teacher, you will be able to assess student’s understanding of rigorous economic and mathematical principals in order to advance them to the next step.

4. Project- Based Learning works well for some students but not others: Many schools reserve project- based learning for the “gifted students.” They assume that only students who have mastered certain skills can be successful in a project. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, it’s oftentimes the most academically capable students that tend to struggle in projects. It’s because these students are being asked to apply skills they have never used before. Well designed projects help meet the needs of all learners. They provide students choice with how they fulfill the project’s outcomes. Rather than a paper and pencil test that works for only a small minority of students, projects provide multiple pathways for success.

5. Project- Based Learning is not good for teaching math skills: The only way to debunk this myth is with some real data. Back in 1998, some researchers wanted to study the effect of project- based learning on students’ ability to reason and solve mathematical problems. To achieve this, they divided a seventh grade into two sections. One would receive project- based learning instruction, while the other would receive traditional learning from a textbook. At the end of the study, students were administered a test that asked them to solve an open- ended problem. Students from the project- based learning course consistently outperformed their peers. See results of the study below:

Project- Based Learning Study

This is also true of standardized testing in mathematics. At an international school in Beijing, China, students were similarly divided into two groups. One group would receive traditional math instruction from a set curriculum, while another group received math instruction via a project- based and personalized approach. In the Spring, students were given the same yearly test to measure their growth in mathematics. Out of all the students in the project- based learning group, 100% showed growth, whereas only 60% showed growth using the traditional approach.

In Closing

Project- based learning is an extremely effective approach when used correctly. It allows teachers to provide depth in the curriculum, meets the needs of all learners, and improves student aptitude and skills. However, when used incorrectly, it is merely a substitution for what has never worked in education. To ensure you are having the greatest results, make certain that it doesn’t live outside the curriculum. Create authentic assessments that cover a range of skills integral to the project itself. And most importantly, design the project with all of your students in mind.

Kyle Wagner is a school transformation and project- based learning coach. For additional resources on project design, e-mail him at kylewagner@transformschool.com.

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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