Project Based Learning Done Right: 10 Misconceptions Plus 10 Resources to Raise the PBL Bar

Illustration: Character raises heavy barbell with one hand

As I travel from state to state providing professional development in regards to Project Based Learning I see a confusion as to what Project Based Learning really is. Comments I constantly hear are phrases such as: 

  • I already do PBL by incorporating a project at the end of the unit for learning.
  • I tried PBL and I just did not have time to cover the standards.
  • The problem with PBL is that projects cannot teach the standards.
  • My students just cannot get engaged in PBL.
  • I don’t think I can replace traditional teaching with PBL
  • PBL Projects last too long.
  • I cannot design cross-curricular projects because I only teach one subject.
  • I cannot fill my year with PBL
  • Our school does not have the technology to support PBL
  • PBL does not provide the rigor students need in order to be college/career ready.

These are all misconceptions in the area of Project Based Learning. Let’s take a look at these ten areas, and also how we as educators can use PBL as a vehicle for authentic student-centered learning. I am sure you will find the reading and resources valuable. Keep in mind that some resources go to PBLWorks which may require a free registration. You will be excited to explore all the resources in the PBLWorks Community. 

  1. I already do PBL by a project at the end of each unit for learning. – This might be the most common misconception that I hear. In this statement, we need to examine the definition of PBL. The pedagogy of PBL is exactly as is states, Project…. Based… Learning! The project is the foundation for the learning experience. This is quite a contrast to what I see as turning the letters of PBL around to LBP… Learning… Before… Projects. Please understand that while LBP has its place, such as learning reinforcement and performance/portfolio assessment, it is not PBL. The concept behind PBL is to have the learning occur throughout the project in a careful scaffolding manner. Through intentional and careful facilitation by the teacher, the project is used as the teaching/learning tool. Check out this video that explains scaffolding in PBL. Note how the planning for the project is front loaded, complete with project products, learning targets (standards), lessons, and assessment. It really does not require much additional planning, as it requires deliberate planning and design before the start of the project. A good starting place is to take a past project that might be closer to LBP and seeing how it might be re-engineered to become closer to real PBL.
  2. I tried PBL and I just did not have time to cover the standards. – This is an understandable problem and can have for several reasons. First, if the teacher is involved in LBP (Learning Before Project) imagine the teaching time followed by students’ project construction time. In this scenario, it is very possible that time could run out. Second, please understand that with PBL teachers sometimes get very enthusiastic as students experience the inquiry process to uncover the standards. (Please note the difference between teachers covering and students uncovering.” This sometimes makes the project become larger than expected in either the planning stage or project stage. One PBL rule I always emphasize is that the project timeline should equal the number of standards taught. It is important that PBL when done right, is standards-based, including content and process skills. It is important that the teacher set a timeline and stay with it. While the pedagogy of PBL may take a little longer, remember to keep time in mind. Last, realize that not every unit has to be PBL based. In some math and even science areas, the content standards may actually be best delivered through PrBL (Problem Based Learning). The question is not as open and the process is somewhat abbreviated. Take a look at a look at possible differences here provided by John Larmer at BIE.
  3. The problem with PBL is that projects cannot teach the standards. – This misconception once again comes from the idea of projects being completed after the learning. In PBL the lessons,  learning targets, and assessment… all represent scaffolding inside the overall project. Standards go beyond learning to actual understanding, as students go through a cycle of learning. These experiences are student-centric with an emphasis on doing. John Dewey stated: “You can have facts without thinking but you can’t have thinking without facts”. The process skills, often referred to as the 4C’s or 21st Century Skills, are not only facilitated… but are also assessed. Students experience authentic learning and understanding by the doing, already found in the verbs of most standards. A wonderful resource for the 21st-century skills can be found at P21, the Foundation for 21st Century LearningLast, keep in mind that the project really isn’t teaching, it is the teacher facilitating and guiding the learning opportunity that the project provides. I like to think of it as true student centered learning!
  4. My students just cannot get engaged in PBL. – Just because students are taking part in a project, does not guarantee engagement. One way to make sure that PBL is effective is to study the Gold Elements as highlighted by the PBLWorks (BIE). You can read about them at this link. It is really only when a project contains all of these elements that a project becomes powerful. Perhaps the most important element in our students’ eyes is that of authenticity. It is important that students see the purpose of what they are doing, as they learn. One of the best areas to base a project on is to cross reference standards with local news and current events. It is also important that students own the learning, and  PBL allows for this student ownership. A very first attempt on a project may also require some teacher critique and reflection. Last, culture is the foundation for effective PBL. It is important that teachers build a culture that includes relationship, caring, excitement along with an emphasis on process over product.
  5. I don’t think I can replace traditional teaching with PBL – First, it is hard to define traditional teaching.  As educators reflect they will see many things they have always done fit into the mapping of PBL. At the same time, there is still a need for a lecture or a really good story, perhaps after an exploration. Students still may have to read a chapter in a book or an article of their choosing. There is still a place for summative assessment that appears as a test or a performance task. This should follow important formative assessment, including even a possible quiz or checkup. Rubrics perhaps become even more important and student input could become invaluable. There is still a place for homework and it is inspiring to see students start asking for it, and even making their own as they get in the flow of a project. A teacher does not have to make up new ideas for projects. Learn how to adjust past projects and even explore ideas on the internet. Take a moment to check this database of projects from PBLWorks (BIE) to explore some more.
  6. Projects in PBL last too long – This can actually be true! On the other hand, there is no rule that states that projects have to go week in and week out. They can actually be as short as a couple weeks depending on schedule set up. In fact, when starting out, I suggest that teachers begin their adventure with smaller projects. Watch for jumping into a project with too many ideas and the over planning that comes with this. Make sure that the project is based on standards and these standards are carefully aligned from the opening entry event to final assessment. Do not spend significantly more time on a project than might be used in the traditional delivery. If there is the temptation to grow the project, make sure that additional standards are part of the growth. Discover more about project length from Al Solis at this wonderful post on PBL timing.
  7. I cannot design cross-curricular projects because I only teach one subject. – Keep in mind that PBL does not have to cross disciplines, nor does it require teaming. PBL can be part of a single subject classroom. In fact, I often suggest keeping it to one discipline for teachers first starting the PBL path. It is much easier since one can plan on their own and teaming does not have to occur. If possible and appropriate, it is always helpful to show some of the obvious connections to other disciplines and the outside world. If a group of teachers wants to cross curriculum it is important to make the cross meaningful. It is essential to realize the difference between Interdisciplinary and Trans-disciplinary Learning. Trans-disciplinary uses a PBL approach by providing a driving question that is answered through multidisciplinary studies. This is an amazing approach and a powerful final goal as schools reform pedagogy, learning spaces, and daily schedule. Take a look at this video from the School for Tomorrow to learn more about a Trans-disciplinary approach. While it is important to make connections outside of one curriculum, as a teacher learns PBL this can be done within the constraints of a single classroom. As teachers become proficient with the process there will be a natural desire to take the next step as both an individual and a group of educators in a building.
  8. I cannot fill my year with PBL – A year does not have to be filled with PBL, although lessons should begin to take on and reflect a few of the Gold Standards. There are some schools that are built on a total PBL culture, and because of that will have projects from the start to the finish of a school year. Read more about the New Tech Model which incorporates a whole school PBL approach.On the other hand, many schools have teachers practicing PBL and may not see this practice as “door to door” PBL all year. In a traditional school setting, I suggest teachers try possibly one or two projects the first year they try to extend their teaching into a PBL environment. It is important to take small steps and to not feel that these projects have to be large. It may take a while to feel comfortable in handing the control and responsibility of learning to the students. There may even be a need to check student understanding and learning through traditional means. Understand that students are also experiencing a change and could feel some frustration and uneasy feelings as they progress. As a classroom enters a PBL culture there will be a new understanding involving the learning that takes place, even if students are not part of a project every day. The individual elements of PBL (Gold Standards) will begin to take hold throughout the daily learning experience.
  9. Our school does not have the technology to support PBL – I think it is important to define technology before going any further. Many educators think that the introduction of digital technology with computers and devices began the idea of technology integration in the classroom. We must all be reminded that technology represents the tools for doing! Students have been “doing” in various classrooms throughout and beyond the past one hundred years, and more! They have been using tools such as pencils, paint, markers, rulers, compasses, and so much more. If one looks at the era of Dewey it is apparent that PBL was being incorporated long before the first digital device. I often remind teachers that allowing students to make and create does not necessitate digital technology. What is necessary is for a teacher to understand that real learning and understanding demands that students be a part of an active learning experience where they have a sense of ownership. Keep in mind that today’s digital technology allows for an amplification of this learning experience. It promotes new possibilities and avenues never before available. With this in mind, it must be understood that rich and powerful PBL is, and always has been possible without digital technology. You can learn more at my past article in Tech & Learning Magazine linking four technology indicators to PBL.
  10. PBL does not provide the rigor students need in order to be college/career ready. – From my experience, I have actually found the contrary. Rigor should not be defined as “more work”, but instead should involve work that incorporates deep and engaged learning opportunities. Often, true rigor can be difficult to incorporate without authenticity and true student buy-in. Watch students in a classroom that are truly in the “flow of learning” and you will also find rigor. With rigor comes perseverance, student self-regulation, passion, and a deeper understanding of the content. As students are engaged in projects, the never ending inquiry and the sense of creating and solving with a real purpose develops a culture that promotes a drive for success. Perhaps we also need to look at the idea of “College and Career” ready. I think it should be stated the opposite…. “Career and College” ready. If we start thinking of career possibilities, the important 21st-century skills become more apparent. PBL often allows students to discover their passion. This newly found passion will produce a rigor that drives and prepares students for next path, whether it be college or a different amazing post K12 experience. Take a moment to explore this article on rigor from Edutopia. As rigor is truly defined, one can see that PBL is a perfect fit 

Once again you can see, it might just take a few tweaks to do PBL well! Enjoy the links and discover ways to connect even more to Project Based Learning. As you begin the process, take small steps. Projects do not have to go week in and week out. They can actually be just a week or two depending on your schedule. Keep in mind that PBL does not have to cross disciplines although trans-disciplinary projects can be powerful. A year does not have to be filled with PBL, although lessons should begin to take on and reflect a few of the PBL Gold Standards. Allowing students to do… demands the use of technology, although it does not have to be digital. PBL promotes student-centered learning, that allows for passion, which plants the seed for rigor. I will highlight some of these ideas plus more in some upcoming posts. 

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Michael Gorman oversees one-to-one laptop programs and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning and is on the National Faculty for The Buck Institute for Education. His awards include district Teacher of the Year, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and Microsoft’s 365 Global Education Hero. Read more at