PBL vs Project Based Learning

When we talk about Project Based Learning, we mean the process by which students learn the content by doing a project. Students then share their application of their core content knowledge and skills via an authentic product. By focusing on PBL as the process of learning and the application of knowledge, students become more clear on the expectations for learning outcomes, which leads to higher quality products. But if too much of the focus is on the product itself, it can be a distraction from what the true intent of the project is… the learning!

I am fortunate to work at a school that has been doing wall-to-wall PBL for the last 21 years. In all of our meetings, our norms our conversations are around Projects. How to improve them, how to make them more authentic for students and to get more growth in student learning outcomes. We also believe in transparency. “What does it look like when it is going on in the classroom?” That’s a question that nearly 1500 visitors a year ask when they come through our school to observe Project Based Learning in action. We highlight the process of learning the content through the project rather than just making really nice products.

Over the last year there have been many trends that I have captured from our visitors. There are the usual questions teachers ask of our students and teachers:

“How do you handle a student who isn’t pulling their weight?” 

“How are you graded in your project?”

“How has Project Based Learning prepared you for college?”

When we start to get into “Product” Based Learning, we start to cause a drift and change the focus in student learning and the outcomes. The product becomes the focus and therefore can cause a distraction and lead to a lack of depth in the learning, which we all strive for as educators. Then as teachers we get pulled down the path of “well if students can tell you the Driving Question then they know what they are doing.” MAYBE, they may also just be doing what I call CBL (Compliance Based Learning).  

Take for example a junior at our school talking about her group’s project. “Not every project I have done has been successful, whether it was the way it was designed or that my team was unprepared in regards to our final product, but PBL has taught me that the most important part of any project, is whether or not I learned something. If I can present my learning at the end of a project, even if I had a sub-par product, that project would be seen as successful in the eyes of both myself and my teachers. Not every project results in a spectacular product, but a project that teaches a student something, for example a skill that they will use for the rest of their life, is what I call success and is exactly what we should be striving for in PBL.” 


When we as educators are clear on the distinguishing factor between project based learning vs PRODUCT based learning then our focus, our discussions, our data is focusing on how students are acquiring the knowledge students need to be successful in the product.  It also helps dispel so many of the myths of PBL, “I don’t have time for PBL because so much time is spend on developing the product that it takes away from the learning.” Or one of my favorites “embrace the messy middle!” When the focus is on defining success in the project that is centered on the acquisition of knowledge, there isn’t a “messy middle.” I know as a teacher, I don’t want a messy middle, I want a learning middle!

Once we are clear with our students that the focus in the project is on the core content knowledge and that the end of the project is showing their application of their knowledge through the product, I reduced all those other questions students always have:

“Whose group am I in?” “How do I get an individual grade when I am in a group?” etc. etc. etc.

Project CycleThis is a graphic we created and we use to help ensure that at each stage of learning it is connected to the transfer stage of learning. Even at the foundational knowledge of learning, students can connect the purpose of learning to the content to the application of their knowledge via a product. At each stage of learning students can connect their learning to how they might apply their learning in an authentic way.

Spoiler…when we focus the project as the mode of learning, then I DO have time for PBL!  It also demonstrates and models to students that it might not matter as much whose group you are in. It brings clarity to the students to what the expectations are for the project. It also allows me as a teacher to be more flexible in grouping, student voice and choice,  and opportunities to scaffold and differentiate for all the learners in the class. In this clarification and defining PBL it also helps dispel the myths that foundational knowledge and success skills need to be taught prior to the project. Lets honor that students need these foundational knowledge and skills to be present in the project and their end product. Students can gain the foundational knowledge in the early stage of the project, which also leads to more success as the learners are clearer on why they need their  foundational knowledge and how they are going to apply it to an authentic problem or challenge.

Project Based Learning is the learning of content through real world problems or contexts. Then students show their learning of the content in the application stage of the product. If your focus in the design and you define success in the project hinges on the product, or the developing of the product is causing a distraction to the learning, shift the focus. Drop the product, then during the presentation phase, have students share their learning, their growth around content and how what they have learned may be applied in different contexts.

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