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Friday, May 9, 2014

What is Project Based Learning and Should I Be Afraid?

I have had a lot of questions about Project Based Learning lately, and I feel like I should address some of the common myths circulating around Texas. If your school district is implementing Project Based Learning, do not be afraid. There is nothing new under the sun, and Project Based Learning is no exception. First, I will explain Project Based Learning and then I will address each myth separately. I would also encourage you to post any questions you may have in the comment section and I will gladly address any concerns you may have.

The following is an explanation of Project Based Learning (PBL) from The Buck Institute at

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Essential Elements of PBL include:

• Significant Content - At its core, the project is focused on teaching students important knowledge and skills, derived from standards and key concepts at the heart of academic subjects.
• 21st century competencies - Students build competencies valuable for today’s world, such as problem solving, critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity/innovation, which are explicitly taught and assessed.
• In-Depth Inquiry - Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.
• Driving Question - Project work is focused by an open-ended question that students understand and find intriguing, which captures their task or frames their exploration.
• Need to Know - Students see the need to gain knowledge, understand concepts, and apply skills in order to answer the Driving Question and create project products, beginning with an Entry Event that generates interest and curiosity.
• Voice and Choice - Students are allowed to make some choices about the products to be created, how they work, and how they use their time, guided by the teacher and depending on age level and PBL experience.
• Critique and Revision - The project includes processes for students to give and receive feedback on the quality of their work, leading them to make revisions or conduct further inquiry.
• Public Audience - Students present their work to other people, beyond their classmates and teacher.

In laymen’s terms, PBL is an instructional strategy that leverages the important skills that our students will need to work in today’s economy. Unlike educational “fads” of the past, today’s schools are actually improving what they do based on research. Not just any research, synthesized research (studies that pull together the results of research from several sources over several years). PBL has been studied over the last 40 years and the results are in: it is absolutely the best way for students to retain what they have learned and apply it in another environment. It is also the best way to get students engaged and excited about learning. For more information on the research behind PBL, follow this link:

Let’s take each myth separately to help relieve any fear you may have regarding PBL in your district.

MYTH: If students are in a PBL classroom, they will not longer learn basic facts or spelling.

TRUTH: Basic facts are a very necessary component of PBL or any instructional approach. However, it may not look like it did when we were in school. For example, the flash cards we used to learn our basic math facts, looked like this:

Today’s flash cards, developed from researched best practices, often look like this:

This approach allows students to begin to understand the relationships between numbers. Not only do they learn the facts, but they also use critical thinking to determine the relationship between the numbers. The goal is to begin preparing them for algebra while building their basic facts.

Spelling is also taught in a contextual way. But, it is very important that teachers who use Project Based Learning still give spelling tests and assess a student’s mastery of basic facts.

MYTH: Project Based Learning is just group projects and students just receive group grades.

FACT: Students in a PBL environment are subject to group accountability (group grades) and individual accountability (individual grades). Well-designed PBL units ensure that the state standards are mastered. To ensure this happens, teachers must assess learning throughout the project. A true PBL unit will never have just one group grade at the end of the project. The teacher will have to check for understanding as the unit progresses and make sure the unit was designed so the students, at an individual level, will have to master the standards to complete the project. Students still take tests, they still complete homework, and they still have direct instruction from the teacher. In other words, students will be measured on their individual achievement. Common sense will tell you that it would be impossible to teach a student a new concept, like finding the mean of a data set, without instruction. In fact, highly functional PBL classrooms have more explicit instruction and structure than traditional classrooms. Without it, PBL would not be successful. For more information on how students are graded in PBL and the structure of PBL classrooms, visit For an explanation of how PBL differs from projects, visit

MYTH: Project Based Learning is a Common Core philosophy.

FACT: Project Based Learning cannot be a Common Core philosophy by definition. Common Core is a set of standards; they cannot be curriculum or instruction. They cannot be a philosophy outside of what is written on the document listing the standards (please read my previous article on Common Core in Texas: With that said, there are school districts that use Common Core that also use Project Based Learning. There are also several districts that use Common Core that use traditional methods of instruction.

MYTH: Project Based Learning is a Marxist philosophy used to indoctrinate our children to be liberal minded. (There are other versions of this myth, like Communist philosophy, pro-Muslim philosophy, United Nations plot, Benghazi cover-up plot).

FACT: I think the idea that PBL is a Marxist philosophy originates from the idea that Lev Vygotsky was a Marxist; therefore his learning theories must be Marxist. If there are other ideas, please share them.

There is no question that Lev Vygotsky believed in the Marxist philosophy. However, fear mongers either don’t know or fail to mention that he did not agree with Marx in regards to learning theory. In fact, he challenged Marx’s ideas in psychology and rejected the idea of studying psychology as philosophy and insisted it be studied as a science (Click here to read an article that includes Vygotsky’s own writings on the matter: ).

So, how is Vygotsky’s research used in education? First, I will provide a basic explanation, then an education explanation. Vygotsky believed in social learning (don’t panic, it is not socialism). Here is a basic example of how we learn socially:

When you were born, you were not able to understand, much less speak, any language. How is it that you are now able to understand language? It is because of your surroundings. The reason you speak English (if it is your first language) is because everyone around you spoke English. You didn’t randomly begin to speak French in an English environment. It makes since that we learn from those around us.

Let’s take this idea a step further. Vygotsky stated that a child follows an adult's example and gradually develops the ability to do certain tasks without help. This theory is called the Zone of Proximal Development. Here is a graphic to describe the theory:

Here is an example of how this is applied in education:

A student is able to perform simple addition when working with a teacher or parent, but is frustrated when performing the task alone. By guiding the student to use tools and strategies, and by asking questions about why he/she is using each tool or strategy, the student is able to fortify knowledge and eventually add independently.

The bottom line is this: Project Based Learning is an instructional strategy that seeks to use researched best practices to help children learn. There are no Communist plots. It was around a long time before Barak Obama, Bill Ayers, and Linda Darling-Hammond and several other liberals believed to be behind its development. Teachers, who are primarily conservative in Texas, are not involved in an elaborate plot to indoctrinate your children into any liberal agenda. I am not surprised to see that liberal educators use Project Based Learning any more than I would be surprised to see them at Whataburger. It’s good stuff. But, just because a liberal eats at Whataburger and you eat there too doesn’t make you a liberal. It just means you have good taste.

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