A lot of what you think you know about project-based learning (PBL) is likely to be wrong, according to Professor Pam Grossman, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Speaking on the latest episode of Tes Podagogy (the Tes teaching podcast – listen on the player below), she explains that this approach to teaching suffers from a wide range of misconceptions, mostly because no-one has really agreed what PBL is.
“There are a wide set of definitions around PBL, and problem-based learning gets thrown in there sometimes, too. So there are a lot of teaching approaches under that heading,” she explains. “Part of the effort in the States in the past few years has been trying to agree a definition for PBL and what high-quality practice looks like.
Having been part of that research, she says a decent definition could be: students work on projects that are designed by the teacher to extend their learning around a single content area or multiple content areas. Usually, it is a real-world problem they feel ownership of and that they feel is authentic. They demonstrate their knowledge in that area through the project, so the project is the way of learning and the assessment of that learning.
In the process in finding out what PBL is, researchers also became clearer on what it is not
For example, it is not – as many assume – discovery learning, where the teacher just sets the pupils off on a task and lets them figure out what to do themselves.
“A big misconception is that PBL is pure discovery learning,” she says. “PBL has more structure to it – the teacher sets the project, there are learning goals within that, and teachers will use direct instruction, and mini-lectures, so the kids have the knowledge they need to do the project. The teacher is an important resource for knowledge.”
Another myth is that PBL is always cross-curricular: “Sometimes it is cross-curricular, mostly at primary, but at high school, it can be in a single subject - it is not always true is that it is always interdisciplinary.”
And a third confusion, says Grossman, is that PBL will always lead to a tougher time managing behaviour. Like any method, poor behaviour because of the teaching is a risk only if the teaching approach is not enacted well, she says.
“Behaviour is definitely mentioned as an issue and it is clear that one of the most important things about PBL [to counter that] is creating a classroom community,” she explains. “Teachers need to spend time at the beginning of the year to develop the norms and routines that support this type of group work and way of teaching. That is critical. If you don’t have that, it is a challenge. If teachers do not invest at that front end, then it can be hard going.”
Indeed, she feels a lot of the problems cited with PBL are not actually down to the method itself, but more with a lack of preparation and training for teachers to be able to teach this way.
“We get excited about project-based learning and then we critique it, because we say kids are not learning enough,” she says. “That happens because we never invest sufficiently in developing teachers’ skills in that area.”
This is also an issue with the now common comparison between direct instruction and PBL. For starters, it is an unhelpful one, she says, as many teachers will use both as required. But also, we haven’t really got robust research, she argues, to make a claim either way.
“What we know is that direct instruction can be successful for certain outcomes and PBL can be successful for certain outcomes and both can be unsuccessful,” she says. “If you want to compare approaches, you have to find really high-quality versions of each. You cannot compare low-quality DI to high-quality PBL and vice versa. That has been part of the challenge – finding situations where you have high-quality teaching on the same content area with the same kids and it only differs in terms of the instruction.”
She adds that there is far more good quality research around direct instruction than PBL, so comparing the literature is difficult, too. And then you have the tricky issue of: good for what, and for whom? If we do not agree what the outcomes of education should be, then we cannot properly compare approaches, she says.
In the interview, she also discusses where PBL really excels, the need for more accurate and rigorous assessments of soft skills like resilience and collaboration and how finding your style as a teacher – be that PBL or direct instruction or another approach, can be key to teacher motivation and retention.
You can listen on the player above or by typing 'Tes - the education podcast' into your podcast player (including Spotify)