As a learner-centered practitioner, I know I don’t have to convince you that project-based learning is the #1 way to grow critical thinkers, and 21st century problem-solvers.

But I reckon you’ve probably had to convince your colleagues, parents, admininstration. Or most likely- all of the above.

Do you find they have a lot of misconceptions? 

“Project-Based Learning is too fluffy; there’s no rigor.”
“Project-Based Learning might be good for ‘gifted’ kids, but we have too many kids who lack the basic skills.”
“Projects might be fun, but I’ve got standards to teach, there’s no time for projects.”
“Projects are messy and chaotic, kids won’t learn anything.”


Next time, instead of trying to refute each misconception, use the bowling metaphor above to calmly demonstrate the ?magic that is HIGH- QUALITY PBL:

  • Start with the Pins/Outcomes: The 10 pins represent the complex outcomes and understandings students can only reach when engaging in meaningful, rigorous and authentic projects. I’ve seen students work with real engineers to help re-enforce the hill behind their school, and protect it from erosion. This project wasn’t ‘fluffy.’ Through the project, they had to learn structural engineering, college level environmental science, formal writing, the design process, soil science, and seismology. And while traditional learning might knock down a few pins/learning targets with discreet, teacher centered outcomes; project-based learning knocks down all 10 with complex, cross-disciplinary outcomes. High quality project-based learning IS rigorous.
  • Lay the Bumpers/ParametersContrary to popular belief, project-based learning is also HIGHLY structured- that structure is just invisible. Similar to the ‘bumpers’ pictured in the bowling lane above, there are parameters/structures built into projects that support students in reaching project goals. These include timelines, benchmarks, skills development, and scaffolds to reach the learning outcomes. Projects demand check-ins, activities and workshops that help students go DEEPER into learning with each successive draft they create. And unlike traditional learning, each scaffold points in the direction of a cohesive outcome. (Here is a great podcast episode that discusses building project parameters.)
  • Draw a Starting Line/Driving Question: Lots of people assume that project-based learning = 30 students going in 30 different directions. And while great projects do differentiate according to student interest, there’s usually a cohesive starting point. In the bowling alley, that’s a black line; in a project, it’s the driving question. What makes a hero? How do we demystify vaccines to help people make informed decisions about their health? How do we use principles of entrpreneurship to meet a community need? These questions can’t be answered in a quick Google Search or short one-off activity. Instead, they demand the building of new knowledge and skills through long-term sustained inquiry.
  • Choose the Ball/Product: No two bowling balls are the same. Finger holes differ in size and position; weights fluctuate from light to heavy;  contours alter the surface from bumpy to deceptively smooth. Similarly, no two students are the same. Unlike traditional learning with one tool for learning, project-based experiences allow for tools that can be personalized for students of all shapes and sizes. This includes differentiated texts, tech, materials/resources, and custom lessons based on the needs and interests of the student, and the direction they wish to go. And just as it takes time for a bowler to find the perfect ball, the final product students develop- whether that’s a video, podcast, website, innovation, proposal, or documentary series, is the result of multiple attempts, iterations and feedback.

What other misconceptions do your hear around PBL? How might you use the visual above to clear them up?