This is What Project Based Learning Really Is7 min read

One of the primary goals of any educator is to boost student engagement and ensure that what they are learning sticks. That’s what we want we want: memorable learning experiences for our students. Not the kind of learning that is only good for a test and then is discarded soon after it is taken. But the kind that can be drawn from and used for the rest of their lives. Project Based Learning does this really well. It engages students in a way that rote memorization, hands-off, teacher-driven learning does not.

However, let’s get the cat out of the bag right away: the term ‘Project Based Learning’ can carry some baggage. Every teacher has tried projects that have failed miserably. And everybody has either been students themselves in projects where they did all of the work and everyone else slacked while still getting the same grade and credit, or they didn’t do any of the work, forcing everyone else to carry their weight. Or, to many, Project Based Learning is just another fad making its way through the world of education that is supposed to replace any existing teaching techniques and best practices.  

Project Based Learning does not replace traditional best practice teaching

Whatever the reason is, a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths for projects. I get that. However, often what we associate with projects is not actually Project Based Learning. At its core, Project Based Learning is not what we’ve mostly experienced in the past and it’s not even a brand new process that has to replace everything we’ve already learned and done well in our classrooms. We don’t have to get rid of effective grammar lessons. We don’t have to replace all of the useful worksheets or activities that we have to teach the Pythagorean Theorem or whatever it is that we teach. We don’t have eliminate all of what we already do well as educators.

Instead, Project Based Learning gives purpose and authenticity to the work students are doing. It is about giving students real problems to solve that require learning specific content and skills in order to solve them. They are no longer just learning content from whatever subject area or whatever grade level for the sake of learning that content. It’s no longer just for grades, or for making parents happy, or making the teacher happy, or just even getting to the next level. It’s about engaging in problem that actually matter to students.

This is why we don’t have to replace what we’re already doing well to do Project Based Learning. Instead, we’re just enhancing that work. We’re giving authenticity to it. Here’s an example. As a history and English teacher, I needed to do a unit on World War 2. My students needed to learn the history as well as read books and write about it. Typical schoolwork. However, to give authenticity to the project and make it about more than school, students were introduced to local World War 2 veterans who never had their stories recorded before. Essentially, if my students didn’t do something, the lessons from these veteran’s lives would die with them.

Give authenticity to schoolwork

So while my students were learning history, writing papers, and reading books, they were interviewing veterans and then creating documentaries about them, writing their biographies, and creating artwork based on their lives. This was all with the goal of creating a big public event to showcase their work in front of the community, including the veterans and their families.

In the films students were creating, I required that they write subtitles to make sure that everybody in the crowd could understand what the veterans were saying. In the first year we did this project, I didn’t think to proofread the subtitles before the event, and that was a huge mistake. While the event went great overall, the subtitles were a disaster. Veteran’s names were misspelled, kids wrote the word ‘I’ in lower case, the word ‘You’ was often with just the letter U, and there wasn’t a sign of a period or comma anywhere. I was mortified. And when the event was over, a veteran came up to me and said, “Thanks so much for this event, but man you need to teach those kids how to spell.”

Even though the films turned out great and we were able to honor the veterans, there was this huge distraction happening. As a teacher I thought to myself, “What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen next year?” So the next time we did this project, I made sure my students put in subtitles, but I also did a whole grammar and spelling unit during the project. I’ve always found that the best way to teach grammar, at least in my own experience, is to stand in front of a white board and demonstrate strong grammar, and then have my students practice, and then I demonstrate again, and more practice, and sometimes I even bust out an old worksheet so they could have some repetition.

This is very traditional schoolwork using traditional, best practice, teaching techniques.

Except now there’s a clear and defined purpose for this often tedious work. I can say to my students, “You’re not just learning grammar because I said so, you’re learning grammar so we don’t distract the audience at the WW2 event from your message. Proper grammar and spelling is essential if we really want to honor these veterans.” Sure there were still grammar quizzes and grades, but these were no longer the primary motivator.

Sure there were still grammar quizzes and grades, but these were no longer the primary motivator.  

Having purpose leads to student engagement

This is what Project Based Learning is. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of the techniques that we know already work well. It’s not replacing our teaching methods; it’s giving purpose to them. We don’t necessarily have to throw out every single textbook if there’s a section that you really love to teach from. With Project Based Learning, we’re just giving a purpose behind learning whatever that subject matter is. Because there is now purpose, students are more engaged, the learning is memorable, and they are getting to exercise and develop essential skills they would not have developed otherwise.

And if you don’t like the term Project Based Learning for whatever reason, just get rid of it. Call it authentic learning, or just say you are intentionally giving meaning to the work that students are doing. Call it purpose based learning or epic learning.  Whatever you call it, know that at the heart of Project Based Learning is giving authenticity and purpose to the work that students do so that we can boost their engagement and get them more engaged in what’s happening in the classroom.

Learn how to do authentic Project Based Learning with The Epic Classroom book.

Trevor Muir

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