What makes PBL different from doing projects?

After a wedding weekend/boys weekend away I find myself desperately wanting to write. I’ve been doing these blog posts in earnest since the beginning of November and have come to appreciate just how much they mean to me, both intellectually and emotionally. I have this self-realization when writing that I’m doing something worthwhile about my craft. These reflections on #mschat have made me constantly rethink my practice in my classroom and has become real-time professional development about a whole host of topics I would might have been too timid to broach on my own. It has connected me with some truly great educators from around the world which has led me to encourage as many educators (at any level) to embrace the connectivity and potential of Twitter for education. If you want to see what my experience was link joining twitter, check this blog post out about it.

@blocht74 has been a great moderator for the #mschat community and I do feel like it is getting close to s tipping point where it is going to really start to take off over the next few months. There were more new faces in this week’s chat than I had seen in a while so there will be quotes from a variety of sources in the next few blog posts.

Talking about PBL to a teacher who has never heard of it is often a painful experience. Some of the canned responses I’ve heard in the past to PBL go something like this:

“We already do projects”.

“That’s not new teaching, we’ve been doing that for ages”.

My response is usually something simple like this : *facepalm*

Yes, some teachers have been doing project based learning for many years and some classrooms work under that model as @ezigbo_ said:

“Let’s not miss the fact that many “traditional” teachers rocked hands-on learning”.

Yes, but… PBL is NOT projects. It is also not just some tacky add-on to a project like @MrZawlocki said:

“PBL is not a diorama tacked onto a research project.”

There are projects embedded into the structure of the learning but the reality is that PBL is more than that and the chat participants really exemplified this notion with their comments. I mentioned in a tweet at some point during the chat and quickly made a picture of it that sums this idea up.

PBL is a methodology that takes the lecture out and replaces it with a problem to be solved and then an exploration of information that is student led. @FinkTeach realized that it is in many ways so much harder for students but at the same time more engaging because, “PBL requires higher level thinking & active learning.”


#pbl is more of an ethos than a project. It is embedded into EVERYTHING that is done within the scope of your year.”

@askteacherzcom said it brilliantly

#PBL is a student centered, problem solving, critical thinking format of learning w/ no ceiling; Teacher = lead learner.”

and so did @8rinaldi,

“Projects were usually a culmination project to connect learning at the end of a unit. PBL is project based from beginning to end”

There were so many great ideas floating around the #mschat about the difference between PBL and projects that I had a hard time keeping up with them all (possibly because I had made some reference to providing cookies to a few #mschat peeps… my own fault really)

Starting things off was @nyrangerfan42 who put it succinctly about what we went through as kids compared to PBL today:

“projects used to be “do these steps in this order in this way” #pbl is “here’s the problem, how can we (you) solve it?””

and @FinkTeach said:

“No more cookie cutter type products. Each Ss project reflects learning and individual creativity” to which@jbhanlon responded:

@FinkTeach I agree it’s about purpose and products! No one size fits all- more collaboration”

These comments emphasized the realization that top-down instruction, lecture, ‘do this because I said so’ types of educating are starting to go the way of the dinosaur. I’m not saying there isn’t an occasional place for direct instruction or lecture (I still use both depending on what I am doing) but the focus it seems is starting to shift! I really loved what @smartins3313 said about learning being open ended today:

“When I was a kid we were given specific instructions. Now, we encourage open ended thinking and innovation.#mschat”

The conversation at this point shifted a little bit to describe what some aspects of PBL look like. This is by no means an all inclusive list but it does hint at what PBL teachers do on a daily basis. @OConnorAshlie talked about the use of materials

“Resources are immediately available. Its the action & follow through that is being reinforced. about the method than the search” and @adrember mentioned the need to create

“Hands-on and real-world relevance. Teaching through experiences rather than rote drill & practice.”

although I wish that I had seen that tweet in the chat because I might have pushed back a little on it and being up the fact that ALL good teaching should bring in real world relevance and personal experience, not just PBL.

The point I enjoyed reading in the chat was @blocht574’s coment about the purpose of PBL.

“PBL is for learning, projects are summaries of learning”

Here we are noticing many connected educator really thinking deeply about what we do in the classroom and making conscious decisions based on these kinds of chat/discussions which are really ‘real-time’ professional development.

I was glad when someone brought up the point that PBL is a student led/ teacher facilitated endeavor. @MrAllardSS used a nice analogy to desxcribe the difference. This is one I think we might all start using when trying to convince the un-connected teachers in our buildings to try a PBL approach.

#mschat Projects are more like recipes, where PBL is more creative and gives the Ss more of a voice in their own learning”

Here is a great example of PBL in action. The kids had a question that didn’t seem to have an answer in the media so they did SCIENCE to find out an possible answer to the question: “Did the Patriots cheat?

When students are inspired to investigate a problem that affects them on a personal level, they are engaging in the learning. Being free to explore a variety of sources for information and inspiration gives students control and accountability for their own education. When teachers identify themselves as a ‘lead learner’ in a class and not as the authoritarian, it creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and admiration for the work that everyone is doing to solve the problems at hand.

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