How Project Based Learning is NOT Another Fad

project-based learning Oct 12, 2022

Oftentimes, when I speak to teachers about learning how to do project-based learning, I’m met with some resistance. Because I know what they're thinking, “Project-based learning is just another education acronym. PBL, SEL, ELR, PBIS, LEA----it’s another thing that’s supposed to have all the answers, and yet if you've been doing this work for a while, you know that education is often like pogs or beanie babies, or bottle flipping. 


It's a fad that's here today and gone tomorrow. 


But when you have limited time and limited resources, you don't have time for fads. Usually they come with the best intentions, and often there’s aspects to them that have lasting value. However, because of their temporary nature, education fads don’t make a significant difference in how teachers teach. They’re more like artwork hanging in the walls of a house rather than the house itself. They can bring color and interest to the house, but they are replaceable and not essential. And when you are trying to develop best practices to impact the lives of students, your focus should be what’s crucial and lasting. 


Our focus should be on the foundation of the house. 


I always start my workshops by acknowledging this reality and empathizing with the resistance teachers have towards education fads. I get it, who has time for that? But then I try to help them understand that project-based learning isn't actually another fad. It’s not ‘another thing’ meant to replace best practices or even just a tool to add to the teachers’ toolbelt. All PBL truly is is giving students meaningful problems to solve by using the content and skills that they are learning in the classroom.


Teachers can still use their best practices, still use those lesson plans that they've used many times before (Because they know they work!), except now there's this motivation for students to engage during those lessons. There’s a problem that matters to them, and so learning this material is worth it to solve that problem. The motivation is bigger than the gradebook or pressure from teachers and parents. 


Learning content lessons to solve problems.


For instance, I once had my students create cookbooks with very simple recipes for refugees in our area. It was emphasized to students how excellent spelling and grammar is essential for their cookbooks. For people new to the English language, proper punctuation is crucial. And so for part of that project, my students learned spelling and grammar. I used my tried-and-true grammar unit, which actually looks pretty traditional. Sometimes grammar instruction requires some drill and kill. 


‘I demonstrate, you practice. I demonstrate some more, you practice. Maybe I even need to bust out an old worksheet or two.’


From the outside looking in, this looks like a typical, traditional grammar lesson. But now my students are a little more engaged, because the purpose of learning this grammar, which can be tedious and even a little boring, was meaningful. If we want to serve our audience of refugees, we need to learn proper punctuation. This is at the heart of project-based learning: using best practices to teach students content and skills that they will use to solve a problem. 


PBL is not just another fad.


Now, there are best practices for planning and managing meaningful PBL, some ‘new’ things to learn in order to do it well. This is what we cover when I work with teachers or they take my online course. We talk about how to come up with problems for students to solve, discuss how to promote inquiry, how to manage collaboration and group work, etc., but before any of that, I try to disarm some of the misconceptions about it. 


PBL isn't just another thing to add on to your teaching repertoire. It’s the foundation for learning. Or maybe think of it this way: it’s like an umbrella of authenticity that goes over all of the good work you do with students. Students are motivated to work and learn for authentic reasons. And authentic motivation is something that lasts far longer than pogs, Beanie Babies, and bottle flipping. Which, by the way, I really hope doesn't come back. 

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