Project Based Learning: 5 Misconceptions Plus 5 Resources to Raise the PBL Bar, Pt 1

Project Based Learning: 5 Misconceptions Plus 5 Resources to Raise the PBL Bar, Pt 1

I wanted to take a moment to share some of the thoughts I often hear from educators as I travel the country providing PBL Professional Development. I really believe it might be a helpful read for those wanting to make that PBL possibility in their school or district. Before continuing, I would appreciate having you take a moment to subscribe to this Blog by RSS or email and follow me at (mjgormans). Taking that moment ensures that we can continue to network, something that is very magical to me. Also, please share this post with others and even provide a re-tweet. Last, please check my Booking Page to see how I could be part of your school PD or Conference plans. May your New Year be the best ever as you Make new possibilities for your students! – Mike Gorman (

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

These are all misconceptions in the area of Project Based Learning. Let’s take a look at these five areas, and also how we as educators can use PBL as a vehicle for authentic student-centered learning.

  1. I already do PBL by incorporating PBL 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 reengineered 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 doing, but you can’t have doing 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 Learning. Last, keep in mind that the project really isn’t teaching, it is the teacher facilitating and guiding the learning opportunity that the project provides.
  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 BUCK Institute (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 scaffold 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 West Virginiato explore some more.

As 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 a short as a couple days. Keep in mind that PBL does not have to cross disciplines although transdisciplinary 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 Gold Standards. I will highlight some of these ideas plus more in some upcoming posts. Also… check out the next 5… in the next post!

Booking Info – It is time to think about your school or conference needs. I have traveled the country delivering PD relating to technology integration, PBL, STEM, Digital Literacy, and the 4 C’s. In fact, you might want to learn more about my affordable One day Splash and Two Day Extensive PBL Workshop. I have delivered hundreds of workshops and presentations. Check out my Booking Page. Please contact me soon if you have an interest. I am now almost booked through April. Perhaps you need to think about summer conference dates or PD needs, and it is not too early to think about the 2017/18 school year! Look for contact information at the Booking Site.

Are you going to Alan November’s BLC in Boston this July? Check out my sessions! I would enjoy meeting you! (Link to Classes at Conference)

  • PBL Splash A Look at Project Based Learning (1/2 day Workshop)
  • Beyond the Initial Technology Shine: Developing Lessons that Promote 21st Century Skills and Significant Content
  • PBL: Learn, Plan, Step, Action….A PBL Deep Dive for Teachers and Leaders (1 day Workshop)

Click here to learn more about BLC17…. I hope to see you in Boston this July!

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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