July 24, 2024

3 Steps to Project-Based Learning

In Time for Optimism, I explored how progressive, learner-centered ideas, like project-based learning were becoming more popular, at least among elites choosing educational experiences for their children. That’s obviously a good thing.

That growing popularity may explain why I encounter a remarkable number of social media posts by teachers charged with teaching in a project-based fashion in which they ask for “a PBL” to teach a specific concept, skill, or subject. My first inclination is to suggest that they ask the person employing them to teach “a PBL,” what they should do. This pattern of helplessness and wishing that the Web will magically dispense the perfect lesson plan is not confined to “a PBL,” but also to teachers hired to teach Scratch programming, making, or computer science to children. This often takes the form, quite literally of, “I am supposed to teach Scratch programming. What should I do?”

I am sympathetic to well-intentioned teachers seeking guidance, but such public requests demonstrate a lack of curiosity at best and quest for a quick fix at worst. Twenty years ago, a student found his way onto a listserv and asked the assembled educators for a solution to a homework problem. One colleague responded by asking for the email address of the kid’s teacher so he could submit the work directly. Why would you announce publicly that you are unqualified to teach how and what you are employed to teach? (Hint: It’s not a good look.)

I adore teachers and will do anything to help anyone invested in growing and service to children. Therefore, I work hard to keep my frustration in check, even when a complex, beautiful, important pedagogical tradition, like project-based learning, is reduced to meaningless jargon – soon to be replaced by something even more vacuous by disingenuous TED Talk-watching, assessment addicted, educational consultants.

Today, I tried helping a teacher asking for a “math PBL” online expand their aperture and think about the powerful ideas inherent in a project-approach by pointing them to our popular book, Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, the book’s web site of resources, and even more specifically, this curated collection of resources featuring an entire section dedicated to teaching with projects. Apparently, that wasn’t enough. The person could not find any information in any of those resources.

“That’s all I can stands. I can’t stands no more.”

– Popeye


While it takes a lifetime to master teaching in a learner-centered, progressive, project-approach, I humbly suggest three first steps for educators sincerely interested in learning how to begin.

Step 1

Project-based learning, like all learning is not a noun. It is a verb! Learning is an active intellectual process engaged in by the learner. It is not the direct result of having been taught – no matter how clever the teacher is. Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Teachers would be well-advised to spend their time and energy supporting memorable, open-ended experiences for the students they serve. Project-based learning is an active pedagogical approach rooted in a number of progressive traditions including open education, constructionism, and the Reggio Emilia Approach (to name just a few). You can, and I believe should, develop the skills necessary to teach everything in a project-based fashion.

Therefore, once and for all, neither I or anyone else can give you a “math PBL” or “ancient Rome PBL.” Anyone suggesting otherwise is a charlatan. Stop seeking a handful of magic beans.

Step 2

If you are seeking a way to teach math or history or writing or marine biology or flute playing in a project-based manner, first find out what a mathematician, historian, writer, marine biologist, or flautist does and create experiences for students in which they can do the thing(s) those practicing the discipline do. Start there and you will be on the right track.

Step 3

Of course I would love for you to read my books, peruse my papers, listen to my podcasts, and hire me to mentor you and your colleagues, but I would be satisfied if you just bought and read David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole. Perkins will teach you how and why to do Step 2 by creating a junior version of the whole game for what you want students to learn-by-doing .

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!

If you wish to go deeper, check out some of the resources I gathered on this page, An Open Education Primer.

Note: One cannot tell every story from every perspective in a single blog post. Teachers alone are not responsible for the sorts of behavior described above. In many cases, they are merely responding to unreasonable or half-baked directives from fad-chasing administrators. That said, teachers are not hapless pawns lacking in autonomy, common sense, or a capacity for personal growth.