Project Based Learning: Let’s Say What we Mean and Mean What We Say

File:Project Based Activities in the Classroom of the Future.jpg (Creative Commons license)

Our education world is filled with terms that mean different things to different people. I’ve written before about the ambiguity of the terms formative assessment,  learning transfer, and brain-based learning/teaching. Any teacher with at least a few years experience can list education terms that are so ambiguous or are used in so many different ways that we have to be careful to define what we mean when we use those terms, especially when someone is advocating for a change in our classrooms. 

I’m currently working with people in my district on a “project based learning” (PBL) discussion, and I want to carefully define what we mean by this term before we start. This overall summary of PBL research by Jill Barshy highlights the importance of careful definitions in PBL. The post quotes a researcher trying to do a comprehensive review of PBL research, who concludes “… it has been difficult to assess whether there is good evidence for project-based learning because there’s so much confusion over what project-based learning is.” 

I suspect every teacher at every level uses something they may call a “project” to help students learn. They are one of the main tools we use to “hook” students and help them experience what it’s like to apply their knowledge and skills to answer a question or produce work that shows application of knowledge and skills to a “real world” issue. Here’s how one source (PBLWorks) defines Project based learning: 

“Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.(see also the “Gold Standard” PBL list from the same source) 

The “extended period of time” part of that definition is kind of vague, but the part of the definition that interests me most is the “gain knowledge and skills” part. Is it better if students get some direct instruction in the knowledge and skills they need BEFORE they try to complete a project? Or is it better if students dive right into a project and learn the knowledge and skills they need “on the fly” WHILE doing the project? 

I suspect the answer (like everything else in education) is “it depends on the context.” This blog post from the Learning Scientists tries to dig into the context of PBL projects and tackle our “should we teach the knowledge/skills before students start the project?” question head on:The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning (The Learning Scientists) In the post, Elham Arabi describes research investigating whether, “withholding the explicit instruction and allowing learners to discover by themselves enhance deep learning and increase transfer.” One important part of the conclusion from that blog post is the distinction between two terms: 

  • Discovery Learning: during a project, students are “left on their own to explore and discover ideas,” without direct instruction in knowledge or skills. Students have to discover the knowledge and skills they need on their own while doing the project. 
  • Guided Discovery: during a project, students “have access to prompts and domain knowledge from experts” (i.e. the teacher). Explicit instruction happens during the project to help students understand the knowledge and skills they need for the project. 

The experiments described in this blog post indicate that Guided Discovery is more effective than Discovery Learning, and that Guided Discovery may have advantages over explicit instruction because it may lead to students being able to transfer what they learn in the project to other applications because they understand the “deep structure” of a topic. 

These studies may help us think through the “knowledge/skills first, or knowledge skills during?” PBL question in my district. We will talk about the difference between Discovery Learning and Guided Discovery and what elements of Guided Discovery might be useful in our specific classroom contexts. 

2 thoughts on “Project Based Learning: Let’s Say What we Mean and Mean What We Say

  1. Nice Rob. I think research will clear this up eventually. Ashman found that by increasing the complexity of the content direct instruction was superior to the problem solving first condition:

    Could be that things that simple can start with some exploring and things that are more complex require a bit more support. Either way all this research typically has explanation phase right afterwards, and my experience is that teachers sometimes feel that they should NEVER give any sort of explanations unless they are one at a time during project time. Seems inefficient.

    1. Great discussion! I bet you’re right: more research will help clarify this relationship. I bet you’re on to something with simplicity/complexity. And it’s probably a sequence? Students need some content before they work on something (practice using the content), they figure something out, then they build on that to the next thing? Complexity gets broken down into a sequence, and there are sequences of “content instruction” and “now try using that content” built in there?

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