Is PBL Right for All Students?

May 6, 2016



Drew Schrader

While there is no such thing as a dumb question, there are questions that reveal our misunderstandings.  Asking “Is PBL right for students?” reveals two persistent misconceptions it is important to address.

Misunderstanding 1: PBL is a way of teaching

Implicit in the question about whether PBL is right for all students is the idea that students teach themselves and that some students need more direct teaching than that. But PBL is not a teaching method. If PBL were a teaching method, it would be called PBT.  PBL is not a way of teaching; PBL is a way of organizing student learning. This is not semantic.

What makes learning project based is that students are brought into contact with new concepts and skills through a problem, context, or scenario that makes those new ideas worth knowing. Traditional teaching asks students to learn because the teacher said to.  In the context of PBL many approaches to supporting learning – i.e. teaching – make sense.

Two key aspects of PBL aid in the persistence of this misunderstanding. One is the useful caution against “front-loading.” We have a false image of teachers as experts who make it easier for others to do the things that they do. The rub, of course, is that we grow our expertise by doing things that are intentionally “not easy.” It feels right to try to make sure learners are fully equipped to solve problems before they get to them, but we know from our own experience that unless we have a reason to learn something it is hard for new information to have any meaning. Often, we don’t really begin to engage with that new information until we have to try to do something with it.

Another other aspect of PBL that adds to this misconception is that in good PBL, the learner must regularly consider what they need to know and how they might go about learning that. This introduces the shocking possibility that there is an answer to that question other than direct instruction from the teacher. This leads to the unfortunate conclusion for many that “students teach themselves everything” in PBL.  Again, this is a confusion between teaching and learning. PBL asks us to be skeptical about “what I taught” and deeply curious about what was learned. Teachers are very often the best resource for students to learn new material, the project reorganizes that experience to put teachers in the position we assume they have wanted all along, which is to be a valued guide for their students.

Not incidentally, this change in experience should make school a more fun and engaging place to be. PBL develops a suite of lifelong skills like problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. But even if it were just more engaging it would be worth doing.

Misunderstanding 2: PBL is about student preference

No doubt some students prefer project based learning and some students prefer a traditional course that is organized around the transfer of a set of body of knowledge, but the choice of which to use is not a matter of preference. The choice is about what we want students to be able to do. While I could learn a great deal about physical fitness by reading books, listening to lectures and watching videos, I can only develop my own physical fitness and athletic skills by going and working out. If we want our students to be able to do things with what they are learning, then we have to put them in positions to do those things.

Many traditional classes require students to also perform skills in that discipline. History courses require research papers, science classes have labs and reports, and math classes give challenging story problems. PBL clearly places a premium on the application of knowledge and skills, but it makes the process of learning something students must take ownership of as well.  In the fitness example, I might have a personal trainer or go to a regular fitness class because I don’t want to be an expert in physical conditioning. Part of the assumption in PBL is that we are all engaged in a lifetime of learning and so knowing how to learn new things in the absence of a formal class is not optional.  Back to preference. It would not be at all surprising that some students, especially those new to PBL, might say they prefer a traditional class. It is much easier.

Part of the persistence in this myth has to do with the student choice that comes with PBL. As noted above, choice is critical for PBL because makes the student an active player in the learning process and helps them own that process for themselves going forward. We apprentice students into being expert adult learners by involving them in the choices that need to be made about learning. Choice also improves the learning experience by tapping into the motivation that comes from having some sense of control and autonomy over your actions.

Choice, and PBL by association, has been unfortunately handcuffed to the idea of learning styles. This causes people to assume that it is in some people’s “style” to want to apply what they have learned and solve problems rather than seeing that as a key aspect of what they are being asked to learn. Advocates of PBL would argue that problem solving and learning to learn are not optional. This association with learning styles is also problematic because the idea that we have particular “styles” for learning has been largely debunked though the idea of visual, kinesthetic, auditory, etc learners remains very persistent in the minds of educators.  Let’s  just repeat that again, research does not support the idea that people have learning styles.

We choose PBL to organize student learning in ways that prioritize deep conceptual engagement, application, problem solving, collaboration, professional communication, and ownership over learning.

Maybe our revised question should be “What student, in what class, doesn’t deserve those outcomes?”

This blog originally appeared on Learning Habit.