Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. This post appeared on Flypaper, August 3, 2016

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion.

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

10 responses to “Project-based Learning Needs More Learning (Gisèle Huff)

  1. I worked at a Big Picture School, which is a project and internship based high school model, for three years. We assessed our students three times each year through exhibitions, where each project was assessed through the lens of quantitative reasoning, empirical reasoning, social reasoning, and community value. Exhibitions were attended by faculty, family members, mentors, peers, and staff with each having a voice in the student’s comprehensive and holistic assessment, and more than assessment they were opportunities for couminity based reflection.

    Incomplete and ineffective projects produced plenty of learning through this model. How could I have delivered on time? How could I have kept my team together? What did I miscalculate or miscommunicate?

    Project based learning allows growth beyond the preconceived notions of the assessor, and teaches real world problem solving.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder about Big Picture schools and their commitment to project-based learning, particularly using exhibitions to assess quality of projects. Under Ted Sizer, The Coalition of Essential Schools included exhibitions as a way for teachers and students to assess and learn. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    At some level, doing must be based on knowing. This is easy to say and needs to be to tested as a generalization. I think that it is a mistaken idea for early childwood where knowing is far short of mastery and should remain so, allowing for skill and knowledge to emerge from refine ments in imaginative play. The writer also seems to assume that knowledge and skill must be acquired in advance of application to a project, because ” Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.”
    As a worker in the visual arts I can affirm that effective learning environments often arise from “not knowing” and “not having refined skills–habits of thought and action.” I think the writer”s preconceptions about the characteristics and merit of “project-based” learning are being illuminated, not critically examined. Projects do not have to be undertaken as collaborative or team ventures, or rehersals for roles in corporate eork environments Not every project undertaken under the auspices of a school has to be judged by acquisition of “core knowledge and skills,” as if what counts as “core knowledge and skills” is a settled matter. Should I mention all of the really tired rhetoric in this guest post is the reference to a Nation at Risk, and unwarranted claims positioned as if these justify some paradign shift to the kind of de-personalized learning ” at scale” afforded by technologies.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. The basic assumption of the writer–the piece is in Flypaper, a blog sponsored by the Fordham Institute–is that PBL is knowledge-lite. For decades, reformers have debated curriculum standards that were “rigorous”(e.g., knowledge heavy),and required much teacher direction in lessons. PBL, as Huff points out, jumps all around when it comes to deep understanding and broad grasp of knowledge. Kids lose out, she argues. This line of reasoning has a long history among reformers. Note that Fordham Institute has endorsed Common Core standards since they appeared in 2010. Doing PBL and integrating it with Common Core can be done, of course (and is done) but most teachers, constrained by heavy teaching load and daily demands may find it hard to do.

      • My feeling is that if a person or organization thinks there can possibly be a set of standards that all students should know, it’s not surprising when said person or organization is confused by project based learning.

        Project based learning done well assumes that middle aged folks today don’t know exactly what knowledge and skills will be valuable in twenty years, but we do know there will be problems to solve. So we scaffold kids in becoming dynamic problem solvers. Knowledge gains are challenging to assess system wide because the learning is diverse like the scholars. Kids acquire knowledge when it’s useful in solving a problem, which again is going to be awful confusing to an advocate of national learning targets.

        Don’t get me started on A Nation at Risk. Let’s leave that folly with Reaganomics where it belongs.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hello Larry, This is John Larmer at the Buck Institute for Education. Our ED Bob Lenz and I have written a blog post in EdWeek in response to Gisele Huff’s “PBL Needs More Learning” piece – would you like to re-post it?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for sending along the ed week piece that you and Bob wrote. Let me read Part 2 and I will let you know. As a historian of education, I do find it interesting that the issue of academic content, rigor, etc. arose during the years (1920s-1940s) that the “Project Method” was the dominant topic among educators implementing it in schools across the country. Remember the Eight Year Study? As you know, the 1950s and the turn toward math and science killed the Project Method, although by that time, it was a shell of what it was supposed to be.

      • Thanks Larry. I don’t know my education history well enough — but to what extent did the “Project Method” actually become widespread in U.S. education? Was it more of a hot topic among education theorists that only reached some classrooms, while most continued with traditional knowledge-transmission pedagogies?

      • larrycuban

        The Project Method was widespread among educational progressives of the day—professors, curriculum specialists, superintendents, etc. Among practitioners it was the reform that they implemented to varying degrees in schools and classrooms. What was implemented varied a great deal in classrooms. Basically, the dominant form of teaching was left intact although some progressive ideas were adopted in textbooks of the time and by many teachers such as different topics to teach in science and social studies, small group instruction, etc.

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