Quick quiz:

In a unit on ancient Egypt, students spend two weeks creating their own miniature versions of the great pyramid – including the interior.  At the end of the project, they are inviting staff from the Smithsonian in to evaluate their projects.  


Is this project-based learning?


Read on and make your decision.


So first what is project-based learning? According to the Buck Institute for Education PBL means students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem.  The essential elements are:


image credit: Buck Institute

  • is intended to teach significant content. Goals for student learning are explicitly derived from content standards and key concepts at the heart of academic disciplines.

  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.

  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.

  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.

  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.

  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.

  • includes processes for revision and reflection.

  • involves a public audience. Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher – in person or online. This “ups the stakes,” increasing students’motivation to do high-quality work, and adds to the authenticity of the project.

Bess Keller adds a few more elements to this list in a 2007 Education Week article:

  • Rubrics are needed to spell out for students exactly what constitutes acceptable and higher-level work.

  • Students need to be “hooked” on the essential questions through an effective, dramatic device.

  • Students need to be grouped in appropriate ways.

  • The unit needs to provide students with the “scaffolding” they need to be able to do the final performance task – all the smaller lessons and tasks that get students ready for the final assessment.

  • There need to be periodic checks on progress as the unit progresses.


A few common misconceptions:

Thinking Hands-on = Project-based: Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist,  believes one common pitfall of project-based learning is  thinking it  “has to be active, by which is meant physically active.”  In reality, it’s not physical activity that matters; it’s mental activity according to Willingham.


Lack of Scaffolding: “Teachers forget they can’t just expect this magic thing to pop up,” says Pamela Wise, a Coalition of Essential Schools coach working with teachers in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Kids have to have exposure to it and time to practice it; you need a two-minute presentation [before] a ten-minute one.”

Lack of Feedback: Entrepreneur and consultant Bob Pearlman explained in a 2006 Edutopia article that project-based learning won’t work unless students get continuous feedback. “Students can’t improve or become managers of their own learning without constant, real-time assessment and feedback. Assessment for learning starts with outcomes, proceeds with projects, products, and performances that map to the outcomes, and completes the loop with assessment and feedback to students.” Rubrics make clear what the criteria are, and ideally, students see them as they start a project and use them to “self-appraise their work in progress and direct their own learning.”

Quick note to those worried about standardized test scores:

In a recent Education Week article, Liana Heitin describes the turnaround of the Al Kennedy Alternative School in Oregon.  The school transitioned to project-based learning model with sustainability as the theme. Students were divided into five cohorts – agriculture, energy, forestry, architecture, and water – and challenged to come up with projects that would have a real, positive effect on the local community. Cohorts stay with the same teacher all day.  Principal Tom Horn explains, “The model is a mixture of elementary school and a master’s cohort.”

What happened?

The student pass rate on Oregon’s state reading assessment has gone from 9 percent to 52 percent and math from 18 to 36 percent, while the writing assessment rate is still at 28 percent.

So to return to our original question:  Is the project we described PBL?  Leave your answer below.