project based learning (pbl)


Project-based learning (PBL) is a “learning-by-doing approach” where students are actively participating in their own educational development. In a PBL classroom, you often find students solving problems, participating in simulations, conducting case studies and designing research projects based on different areas. This method encourages students to investigate real world issues and develop solutions that could inspire change in the world.

PBL is favored among educators because it encourages the curiosity of students. And why is that important? For starters, psychologists have found that “curious people report finding a greater sense of meaning in life.” Secondly, research shows that curious, motivated students become deep learners who master complex subjects and who develop a sense of fascination and meaning.

Sounds ideal, right?  Since PBL isn’t quite yet the standard in every classroom, many misconceptions about it exist. Below are some common questions and answers that we hope parents will find helpful.

My child won’t learn as much as they would in a traditional classroom.

One of the biggest misconceptions about PBL is that schools that implement it fail to cover core subject material for particular courses. And to some extent, yes, many PBL-based schools do sacrifice “core” traditional content coverage so that students can spend time engaging in applied, investigative learning.

But the sacrifice is worth it. Study after study show that passively learning content in a rote manner no longer proves sufficient to prepare students for success in today’s world, especially now that subject content is accessible via one quick click on the web; however, research shows that PBL helps equip students to troubleshoot in the “real world,” and will help develop fundamental skills “for living in a knowledge-based, highly technological society.”

While most would agree that the way we access information changes our educational landscape, some still question whether PBL will adequately “test” students. It is true that PBL is the opposite of standardized testing, but that is because PBL classrooms support scaffolding and aims for students to reach different levels of mastery for each project they undertake. As project work is typically presented to community members, including local experts who may have contributed to their learning, students become stakeholders in their own achievement and are motivated to produce projects that mean something.

Teachers won’t teach actual content.

Another misconception of PBL is that teachers will not adequately cover content or “teach,” and they don’t — not standing in the front of the classroom, at least. Since a PBL classroom looks vastly different than a lecture-driven classroom, they teach everywhere but the front of the classroom. Serving as an active participant rather than the sole instructor, teachers who practice project-based learning continually rotate around the classroom, offering constructive advice as students lead their own investigations and learning.

With ever-changing content, educators actually become the most critical resource to the student. The educator must help all students to develop a reliable research question, oversee design-cycle thinking, guide students toward relevant physical and digital resources, provide critical and constructive feedback and assess student level of mastery in building skills and understanding complex content. In presenting, students become teachers themselves. The old saying, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn,” is pretty much the PBL philosophy in a nutshell.  The teacher becomes a conductor of sorts, directing, inspiring, involving and fostering self-learners for the future.

My child won’t be prepared for university or for the future.

Unlike their grandparents, the chances of your child holding the same job at the same company for their entire adult life are very small and uncertainty and change are the only predictable factors of the future.

Irrespective of the direction technology leads us, futurists and neuroscientists believe that because of artificial intelligence, a student’s need to memorize “core content” will be futile. Instead, the top skill sets for the future require agency, adaptability, problem-solving, teamwork and communication– all prominent features of PBL. Educational technology is another important part of PBL which allows students to work with the very tools of the future while digital access sets the stage for examination and communication.

One area in which PBL students possess a competitive edge in the college application process over traditional applicants lies in the inherent strength of their digital portfolios. With the focus of learning centered around the completion of projects, graduates of schools that practice PBL leave equipped with a robust portfolio of real-world products documenting their ability to face big challenges and come up with big solutions. The conclusions of these projects showcase the student’s ability to solve real-world problems and the experience of presenting their results in front of their peers and experts will prove invaluable during the interview process.

So, are universities on board with all of this? 

PBL is making headway in universities as more and more are realizing that… it simply works. The bitter truth is that international universities are dissimilar in their admissions requirements, and traditional exams, SAT, ACT, IB, AP, are still typically required for entrance. Some parents question whether universities will even be relevant for their child in the future, while others believe AI will take over teaching altogether. Regardless, if you can’t beat it, meet it. Most PBL schools still offer exam and/or external program support to accommodate students whose aim is to attend one of the aforementioned universities with more stringent admissions requirements.

To PBL or not to PBL?

Jean Piaget* once said, “Education, for most people, means trying to lead the child to resemble the typical adult of his society… but for me and no one else, education means making creators… You have to make inventors, innovators–not conformists.” As parents, it’s time for us to get on Piaget’s page and aspire to make our children creators–their future depends on it.

*Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development and his theory of cognitive development.