The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

Recently, I have published posts on Project-based Learning. A student and foundation official  have raised questions with and about PBL as an appropriate instructional approach. As this instructional reform, once the darling of early and mid-20th century Progressives, has surged again in practitioner and researcher circles, criticism of its implementation and use needs to be aired. For this post, I turn to John Larmer, a champion of PBL, who believes deeply in the instructional approach but shows concern over its potential faddishness and too easy acceptance. Former high school teacher of social studies and English, Larmer is Editor in Chief of publications at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). He writes often about Project-Based Learning. This post originally appeared March 21, 2016

As readers of this blog well know, Project Based Learning is a hot topic in education these days. The progressive teaching method is being touted as one of the best ways to engage 21st-century students and develop a deeper understanding of content as well as build success skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-management.

At the Buck Institute for Education, we think PBL is even more than that; it can be absolutely transformative for students who experience enough high-quality PBL in their K-12 years. They gain not only understanding and success skills but also confidence in their ability as independent learners and a greater sense of their own efficacy and power.

PBL is transformative for teachers and schools, too, as they create real-world connections to learning, change school culture, and guide students to successfully complete high-quality projects. And teachers who use PBL regularly can experience  “the joy of teaching,” which they may not – make that likely will not – in a test-prep, drill-and-kill environment.

You’ll notice I use the term “high-quality” twice in the above, which points to a real concern we have at BIE. We don’t want PBL to become yesterday’s news, another education fad for which much is promised and little delivered. This is why BIE developed and promotes the Gold Standard PBL model: to help ensure PBL’s place as a permanent, regular feature of 21st century education for all students.

If it’s not done well, I see PBL facing three dangers:

1. Unprepared Teachers & Lack of Support
Teachers who are not prepared to design and implement projects effectively will see lackluster student performance and face daunting classroom management challenges. Shifting from traditional practice to PBL is not a simple matter of adding another tool to a teacher’s toolbox. PBL is not just another way to “cover standards” that’s a little more engaging for students. PBL represents a different philosophy about what and how students should learn in school, and many teachers and school leaders do not yet realize its implications. It was born in the progressive education movement associated with John Dewey, with more recent ties to constructivism and the work of Jean Piaget. Adding to this situation is the fact that most teachers teach the way they were taught, and did not experience PBL when they were students – so they don’t have a vision for what it can be.

Schools and districts need to provide teachers with opportunites for extensive and ongoing professional development, from workshops provided by experts (like BIE’s) to follow-up coaching, to work in their professional learning communities. Policies around grading, pacing guides, benchmark assessments, and more will need to be re-examined. It also means having longer class periods or blocks of time for project work, and rearranging how students are assigned to classrooms to allow for shared students for secondary-level multi-subject projects. And – I can’t stress this enough – teachers will need LOTS of time to plan projects and reflect on their practice. This means changing school schedules to create collaborative planning time, re-purposing staff meetings, perhaps providing (paid) time in the summer, and finding other creative solutions. All of this is a tall order, I realize, but these are the kinds of changes it will take for PBL to stick.

2. PBL-Lite
Many teachers and schools will create (or purchase from commercial vendors) lessons or activities that are called “project-based” and think they’re checking the box that says “we do PBL” – but find little change in student engagement or achievement, and certainly not a transformation. I’ve been seeing curriculum materials offered online and in catalogs that tout “inquiry” and “hands-on learning” that, while better than many traditional materials, are not really authentic and do not go very deep; they do not have the power of Gold Standard PBL. (For example, I’ve seen social studies “projects” from publishers that have kids writing pretend letters to government officials – instead of actually taking action to address a real-world issue – and math “projects” where students go through a set of worksheets to imagine themselves running a small business, instead of actually creating a business or at least an authentic proposal for one.)

With materials that are PBL-lite, we might see some gains in student engagement, and perhaps to some extent deeper learning; many of these materials are in fact better than the traditional alternatives for teaching the content. But the effects will be limited.

3. PBL Only for Special Occasions or Some Students
PBL might be relegated to special niches, instead of being used as a primary vehicle for teaching the curriculum – or being provided equitably for all students. I’ve heard about really cool projects that were done in “genius hours” or “maker spaces” or Gifted and Talented programs, or by A.P. students in May after the exams are over… but most students in the “regular program” did not experience PBL. Or schools might do powerful school-wide projects that do involve all students once a year or so, but the teaching of traditional academic subject matter remains unchanged. If this happens, the promise of PBL to build deeper understanding, build 21st century success skills, and transform the lives of all students, especially those furthest from educational opportunity, will remain unfulfilled.


Filed under how teachers teach

14 responses to “The Perils of PBL’s Popularity (John Larmer)

  1. Hi, Thanks for this. Are you saying (first sentence) that project-based and problem-based learning are the same or is that a typo? They are different.

    • larrycuban

      Mary, many thanks for catching the typo. You are correct, of course, that project- and problem-based learning are different.

  2. Alice in PA

    I think these points are valid for any significant change to teaching and learning. Throughout my career I have seen the “lite” versions of many ideas that held promise and then faded away very quickly because there was no foundational deep understanding of the change and no support during and after implementation.

  3. I have yet to see deep support for public school teachers for curriculum planning and collaboration. There are too many students, too many classes, too many demands, and not enough time, pay or professional development. I am a progressive educator who received excellent training under Rachel Lotan and Linda Darling-Hammond in the Stanford Teacher Education Program, but after 14 years of teaching, I still struggle to make it all work. I use PBL “lite”, as many teachers do. I wish I had the time, energy and student load to do more. But my “more” these days includes organizing a field trip to get poor students eyeglasses, supporting new teachers in my department, advocating for students to get the classes that they need, advising a club, etc. Until American public school teachers are afforded the time, money, professional development and support, I believe we will never realize any educational model and embrace it more than a “fad”. At the end of the day, teachers are also human- we need time to be healthy and have families outside of our work. Many confuse us for saints; others confuse us for Walmart workers. We should be neither. We are professionals who deserve professional pay and work/life balance.

    • And I should add that I meant no offense to Walmart workers. They deserve a living wage, benefits, and consistent full time work schedules.

    • larrycuban

      You point out very well how the deep structures of schooling such as teacher load,class size, and high school organization severely constrain even the most energetic and committed teacher in putting problem-based learning into practice. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  4. Laura H. Chapman

    This strikes me as wishful thinking as long as schools are rated by student performance on standardized tests and variants such as student learning objectives. I am not amused by the jargon in the link, especially the 21st skills meme, promoted by lobbyist for the tech industry, Ken Kay, who twice tried to have federal legislation written to provide funds for his hodgepodge list of skills. Most of those skills are not specific to the 21st century or, in Kay’s promotions, informed by research. The effort to represent these ideas as a “gold standard” for education strikes me as unwarranted hype.

  5. I do think an important element is missing, it depends on both the prior knowledge of the pupils and the subject. In Visible Learning Hattie describes how PBL is not effective at all for learning something completely new, while it can become highly effective when sufficient knowledge is present.

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