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7 Misconceptions About Project-Based Learning

Project Based Learning

December 11, 2018

In recent years, project-based learning (PBL) has become a huge buzzword. Although the methodology has been evolving since the 1960s, genuine project-based learning programs today are student-focused, engaging, and inquiry-based. They directly respond to community needs, prepare students for life after graduation, and address relevant concerns as students work towards the solution of an actual problem. While there are many benefits to project-based learning, there are several misconceptions about it that we want to clear up. Here are seven common misconceptions about project-based learning:

1. "It doesn't have anything to do with real life."

Project-based learning is specifically designed to address real-world problems. The defining feature of a powerful project-based learning experience is there's a specific question which teams of students address during a designated time-frame. In non-traditional or alternative high schools whose curricula are built around project-based learning, the time-frame of the project could extend throughout the duration of the school term. In many instances, this larger question will be addressed across the curriculum with assignments in each discipline geared towards developing the exact abilities needed to solve the problem. Have you ever wondered about the state of the world's oceans today and how to combat ocean pollution? Have you thought about what it takes to land a rover on Mars? These are just a few examples of real-world problems which students tackle when they engage in project-based learning. 

2. "It's just building stuff."

Half a century ago when project-based learning methodologies were first being developed, students built what they and their teachers called projects. They built a diorama, they made a poster, or they constructed a volcano or pyramid. But merely building something isn't necessarily a part of project-based learning by today's standards. The activity would have to address s specific open-ended question which is key to the student's involvement, decision-making, and self-expression (otherwise known as engagement, choice, and voice). In many programs, the question would be introduced in science class, for example, while the student's other courses such as mathematics and English would offer relevant assignments allowing them to develop the skills to solve the problem and defend their solution in writing or in an oral presentation. Along the way to answering the larger question, of course, a student may actually opt to build that proverbial pyramid/volcano/diorama, make a poster, or write a paper - if it fits for their project.

3. "Project-based learning doesn't provide enough academic skills."

In the past, some students, parents, and instructors have stated that what they called project-based learning wasn't providing students with sufficient academic skills. Currently, the best project-based learning programs, according to today's standards, meet explicit educational requirements and provide the necessary academic skills students need in order to answer the bigger question. Accredited project-learning-based schools are informed by Core State Standards for English and Mathematics. And their science and technology programs are guided by criteria such as Next Generation Science Standards.

4. "Students don't have a say in the project choices."

An excellent project-based learning program will provide teams of students with a variety of choices for assignments based upon their interests and learning styles. As John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller describe in their article, "Seven Essentials to Project-Based Learning," options could include creating a YouTube video, a PowerPoint presentation, web pages, public service announcements, letters to the government, and other products or "artifacts".

5. "It won't teach essential life skills."

On the contrary, project-based learning teaches essential skills that students will need after graduating -- and the students are very much involved in identifying what those skills are. Along with completing assignments which bring students closer to answering the driving question, students learn the necessary tech, communication, and time-management skills which they'll need to employ along the way. Time may be set aside for the class to participate in activities that hone their organizational skills, for example, so that they can better manage their time when working on  long-term assignments that address the major problem they need to solve. 

6. "There's no real guidance."

Two very specific types of guidance are the hallmark of an empowering learning program. First, as students work together to find the answer to the larger question through completing these smaller assignments (frequently in short time frames or sprints), much of the teacher's guidance lies in the careful preparation of the learning environment and the gathering of resources which the class will use.

Second, high-quality project-based learning programs bring in community experts -- either as special guests, regularly scheduled mentors, or both -- from relevant fields. These experts have a shared vocabulary, a common goal, and a mutual understanding of the assignment as they guide students on how to arrive at a solution to the program's proposed problem. And most of all, these mentors show the students how to make their process work through employing the very tools and methods they themselves use everyday. 

7. "It's just busy work."

This is one last myth which is as far from the reality of effective and empowering project-learning experiences as you can get. A throwback from the times when teachers assigned "projects" without the strong foundation that a sophisticated learning-based program has nowadays, this myth holds that most of the activities merely keep students involved in doing something that looks productive. The truth is, project-based learning programs and their supporting curricula are designed specifically so that the student's learning process evolves effectively. Activities are carefully structured so that they are student-led, giving the learner opportunities to make major decisions about how they learn, what projects they choose, and what skills they need to succeed.

Empower Community High School is a PBL high school designed by the community and for the community. Its curriculum emphasizes student-led project-based learning which allows young people to develop the necessary competencies in order to solve real-world problems both locally and globally. If you have any questions about how project-based learning can have a powerful and lasting impact on students' lives, please contact us.

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