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The Difference Between Project Based Learning and Doing Projects2 min read

Whenever I get to speak to teachers about project based learning, I always like to start off by talking about what project based learning is and what it isn’t. PBL is a buzzword that has gained popularity in the last decade, and you might think most people have a pretty strong idea about how to define it. But I’ve seen time and time again project based learning defined as book dioramas, baking soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, or dress up days. “Projects” are fun activities (for students) that come at the end of units, and are often things teachers have to make time for when they really don’t have time. 

Essentially, a lot of educators I get to talk to think projects are a waste of time. 

And I couldn’t agree more. Projects that come at the end of a unit are really just highly-involved assessments. They demonstrate what a student already learned rather than actually teach them anything. 

These are dessert projects: not necessary to the actual learning and sometimes better if left on the plate. 

And dessert projects are not real project based learning. True PBL happens when the project is there the whole time; when the learning only happens because of the project. The tasks and problems the project present require the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Because these skills and knowledge are acquired through hands-on, engaging experiences, it is not lost when the experience is over. 

Project based learning is the main course.

In this short video, I talk about dessert and main course projects, and give an example of one I’ve done many times in the classroom. 

Give it a watch and then leave a comment about the best main course project you have ever done or seen. If you’ve experienced a main course project before, chances are you did not forget it. That’s by design! 

And for more on main course vs. dessert projects, check out this article by PBLWorks.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.