What is Project-Based Learning?

Trent DeJongInnovationLeave a Comment

When one of my kids came home on a Friday and declared, “I have to finish my project this weekend,”  I was filled with dread. Weekend plans would have to be abandoned so I could try to achieve the impossible: learning the material the project was supposed to demonstrate, balancing my child’s expectations with reality, understanding the standards against which the project would be evaluated, avoiding tears of frustration and ensuring that the child’s experience of working with Dad became a cherished memory.

If your experience is anything like mine, you might not be too excited with a pedagogy that has the word “project” in the title. The good news is, Project-Based Learning (PBL) is not anything like the projects of old.

For one thing, PBL requires teacher guidance and team collaboration, so very little project work is done at home—in this alone, parents may sing the praises of PBL.

But that’s just the beginning of the differences.

Traditional projects often end up in a garbage can, but a PBL product can last for years, even generations, and can have a significant impact—sometimes on the other side of the world.

In the olden days, projects happened after the “real” learning occurred. Today, projects aren’t just an extension or demonstration of previous learning; they are the means by which students acquire knowledge and develop important understandings and success skills.

Before, the scope of a project was limited to a specific area of knowledge, but today they are based upon an open-ended Challenging Problem or Question that propels learning in all sorts of directions—much of which can be a surprise even to the teacher.

A Biology 11 and senior Foods class took on this challenge: How can we help the people in our school community understand the impact of their purchases on the world’s oceans?

In order to answer this question, students were engaged in an in-depth and Sustained Inquiry though which they asked questions and, using a wide variety of resources, developed answers. One pair of students went into the city and interviewed an internationally renowned sushi chef, Hidekazu Tojo. Others were in meaningful contact with the Vancouver Aquarium and worked with their conservation program, Ocean Wise.

The students divided into teams and, after some general research, decided which specific topics their group would tackle. In PBL, students have a lot of Voice and Choice. Although student choice is still done within pre-approved guidelines, teachers are often surprised and delighted by the choices the students make.

Authenticity is another feature of our projects. We eat a lot of seafood in our part of the world and students are well aware that the oceans are under stress. Looking at how we can be better stewards of our oceans in the seafood aisle of the grocery store targets a real need. Authenticity can also be a part of these projects when they closely resemble work done by adults, even using the same tools and practices as professionals. In PBL, the line between school and the “real world” is continuously blurred.

In PBL, students don’t simply work on their projects and turn them in on a due date. Students receive feedback from others, long before the final product. We have found that some of the best feedback they can get is from their classmates. This valuable feedback leads to greater learning, and better products. This sort of Critique and Revision, and the culture it engenders, is transforming our classrooms. In PBL we also take time for Reflection. Students reflect on their learning, on their strengths and weaknesses, on their collaboration with others and on how they will approach future work similarly or differently. This sort of assessment used to be the purview of the teacher, but it’s so much more effective when students take responsibility for their own learning.

New projects are not “turned in” but culminate in a Public Product that is experienced by an audience beyond their classmates and teacher. This public audience is far more motivating for students than the audience of one, the classroom teacher, and it generates much higher quality work from more students, and therefore a deeper learning experience. The Foods and Biology class collaborated to put on a dinner where they served paying guests the fruits of their research. Patrons enjoyed a fabulous 5 course meal of sustainable seafood, but between the courses students informed diners as to how their choices could impact the world’s oceans. The meal was amazing, but more importantly, this project will forever change how I purchase crab, salmon and tuna.

Project-Based Learning targets Key Knowledge, Understanding and Skills. It does so with Challenging Problem or Question, Student Voice and Choice, Authenticity, Critique and Revision, Reflection, Sustained Inquiry and a Public Product. These are the essential elements of Project-Based Learning.

As a parent, I did not like projects. As a teacher, I didn’t like them either. But I’m very excited about the Project-Based Learning, because these projects help students become more independent, persistent, collaborative, and productive, all skills that students will need in the future, be it college or the workplace.

This is the first of four blog posts on Project-Based Learning. Stay tuned for the following blogs posts in this series:

What is Project-Based Learning?

  • Project-Based Learning is an authentic and extended process of inquiry where students engage academic content, often collaboratively, and share their learning with an audience.

What is the PBL Residency?

  • The PBL Residency will challenge teaching professionals to re-imagine learning and teaching in Christian Schools. Attendees will explore the many aspects of PBL as they create, critique and work collaboratively to produce a PBL experience for use in their own classrooms.

When and Where?

  • August 21-25, 2017
  • Abbotsford Christian School, British Columbia, Canada

Contact Details:


  • Trent DeJong

    Trent DeJong has been a classroom teacher for over 30 years (grades 4-12). He has a Masters in Interdisciplinary Humanities (Literature, Philosophy, History). He is the head coach for the PBL Residency. Trent’s blog: www.trentdejong.com Twitter: @dryb0nz

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