A hand with a magnifying glass brings the a written "PBL" into focus.

Did you know there is a difference between PBL and PBL?
Well, there is!

When we talk about PBL, we talk about “Project Based Learning” which is the process that students will learn the content through an authentic real-world project. Students will then share their application of their core content knowledge and skills via a product or authentic demonstration.

Teachers often internalize this as putting students in groups of four and having them build a product. When we start to discuss and focus more on the PBL as: academically rigorous learning of content that can be applied authentically, students become more clear on the expectations of learning outcomes which leads to higher quality demonstration of knowledge.

When the focus in your project design is on the PRODUCT, this will lead to the students thinking success is designing that product.

The true goal of any project design is to ensure students are academically growing while connecting content to authentic contexts.

I am fortunate to work at a school that has been doing wall-to-wall PBL (New Technology High School Napa) for the last 24 years. In all of our meetings, our norms, and our conversations are around Projects.

As a Learning Coordinator, I organize tours and immersion experiences on our campus to build better understanding of authentic rigorous project based learning.

  • How to improve project design
  • how to make them more authentic for students and
  • how to get more growth in student learning outcomes.

We also believe in transparency. “What does it (PBL) look like when it is going on in the classroom?” That’s a question that nearly 1500 visitors a year ask when they come through our school to observe Project Based Learning in action. We highlight the process of learning the content through the project rather than just making really nice products.

Over the last year there have been many trends that I have captured from our visitors. There are the usual questions teachers ask of our students and teachers:

  • “How do you handle a student who isn’t pulling their weight?”
  • “How are you graded in your project?”
  • “How has Project Based Learning prepared you for college?”

These are questions we have all grappled with in our educational careers. We want the skills of a 21st Century Learner but does that sacrifice content and academic growth of our students? How can we ensure kids are growing academically while being prepared for the “real world?” I want authenticity, kids contributing to their community and making an impact, but will that come at a sacrifice of foundational knowledge and content I “need to cover?”

We are all scarred by our experiences of putting students in a group of four, and then one student does all of the work. How can we group students effectively to gain the skill of collaboration while ensuring each student learns the academic content?

These were the questions and challenges I was grappling with 15 years ago as I wanted both academic growth and skills. How do I achieve the ideal graduate while gaining academic success? These two are not in competition but should work together, we can do both.

When we start to get into thinking of PBL as “Product” Based Learning, we start to cause a drift in our focus and the outcomes become shifted to completion of the product. We start to skip instruction so that students can complete the product in time.

Then as teachers we fall into the myths of PBL, like I didn’t have a well-crafted Driving Question, or I needed more of a Public Product, or maybe I needed more Voice and Choice?

These are traps.

We might be told that “If students can tell you the Driving Question then they know what they are doing.” MAYBE, they may also just be doing what I call CBL (Compliance Based Learning). Students will play the game and complete the tasks you ask them to complete because that is “what we do in school.”

However, do they know that the task should be evidence of a learning outcome and success criteria?

Take for example a junior at our school talking about her group’s project.

“Not every project I have done has been successful, whether it was the way it was designed or that my team was unprepared in regards to our final product, but PBL has taught me that the most important part of any project, is whether or not I learned something. If I can present my learning at the end of a project, even if I had a sub-par product, that project would be seen as successful in the eyes of both myself and my teachers. Not every project results in a spectacular product, but a project that teaches a student something, for example a skill that they will use for the rest of their life, is what I call success and is exactly what we should be striving for in PBL.”

When we, as educators, are clear on shifting our focus from “product” based learning to the learning that should happen in a project, then our discussions, our analyzing of data is focusing on how students are acquiring the knowledge students need to be successful in the project.

It also helps dispel many of the myths of PBL, “I don’t have time for PBL because so much time is spent on developing the product and that it takes away from the learning.” Or one of my favorites “embrace the messy middle!” When the focus is on defining success in the project that is centered on the acquisition of knowledge, there isn’t a “messy middle.” I know as a teacher, I don’t want a messy middle, I want a learning middle.

Once we build clarity with our students that the focus in the project is on the core content knowledge and that the end of the project is showing their application of their knowledge authentically, we reduce all those other questions students always have:

“Whose group am I in?” “How do I get an individual grade when I am in a group?” etc. etc. etc.

It also helps us bring in more authenticity.

How would a biologist show their work and gain feedback? This shifts my classroom from a classroom of building “products” (which I don’t have time for) to building a classroom of learning that is shown in authentic ways.

This is a graphic I created and we use to help ensure that at each stage of learning it is connected to the transfer stage of learning.

Venn diagram showing how to unlock the potential of PBL.

Even at the foundational knowledge of learning, students can connect the purpose of learning of the content to the application of their knowledge authentically (yes it can be a product). At each stage of learning students can connect their learning to how they might apply their learning in an authentic way.

Spoiler…when we build clarity in the learning outcomes and what success looks like around the learning, then we DO have time for PBL.

It also demonstrates and models to students that it might not matter as much whose group you are in. It brings clarity to the students of what the expectations are for the learning in the project. It also allows me as a teacher to be more flexible in grouping, student voice and choice, and opportunities to scaffold and differentiate for all of the learners in the class.

In this clarification and defining PBL it also helps dispel the myths that foundational knowledge and success skills need to be taught prior to the project. Let’s honor that students need these foundational knowledge and skills to be present in the project and their end product. Students can gain the foundational knowledge in the early stage of the project. This also leads to more success as the learners are clearer on why they need their foundational knowledge. Then students can connect to how they are going to apply it to an authentic problem or challenge. We need to be intentional and aligning our instruction to the right stage of the project.

As an example, direct instruction does work in PBL. It is extremely effective during the surface level stage of learning. After a project launch, we have created a gap in student knowledge. This leads to using direct instruction to help fill that gap early on in the process.

We need to start to write PBL differently….pbL. This puts the focus on where it should be…on the learning.

The measure of a successful project shouldn’t be how many adults come to exhibition night, but did the students learn the content intended and can they apply it authentically in different ways. Using the right instructional and learning strategies intentionally at each stage of learning to move student learning forward.

“Project Based Learning” is the learning of content through real world problems or contexts. Start using the phrasing learning in authentic contexts (or even Learning Based Projects) as another description. Subtle shifts in our language puts the focus on academic growth, not a product. Students will show their learning of the content in the application (transfer) stage of the process.

If our focus is on the design and we define success in the project as a product, presentation, or the developing of the product, it is causing a distraction to the learning, shift the focus. Drop the product, then during the presentation phase, have students share their learning and how it applies authentically.

Here are some questions that I use to help me reflect on project design:

  • What is the learning I want students to have in the scope of the project?
  • How can I build clarity among my students on what success looks like?
  • How can I use exemplars to help build clarity for student success?
  • How am I ensuring that students are interacting with success criteria throughout the project and reflecting on their growth of learning?
  • Are there different contexts or ways students can show their application (transfer) of learning authentically?

In the PBL world, there is often an Ideal Graduate poster that is developed to build the “WHY?” for teachers. In the last 10 years, I haven’t seen an ideal graduate poster where someone says…”I want my students to be great builders of stuff and learn how to divide and conquer group work.”

Let’s build the Ideal Graduate…better yet, let’s build the “Ideal Learner” together: the critical thinker, collaborator, empath and problem-solver around content. Isn’t this the type of “ideal graduate” we all want? One who can reflect on their learning, determine next steps and apply their knowledge?

How are you thinking about the projects that you design?

When facilitating our workshops, I always made sure that we start with the phrase “Often we focus too much on the “P” and not enough on the “L” meaning that the learning should always drive the process.

In your next project design, shift the focus back to the “L” in your project. Ensure that the learning doesn’t sacrifice over your presentation. If you have clarity in the learning outcomes for your students, you can success for both the content and the skills!

How will you shift your next project design? Please share