What is the Difference Between Projects and Project Based Learning?

One area that I have tried to bring into my teaching practice more over the past four years, is Project Based Learning (PBL). When I  first started teaching, I thought that I had been doing “PBL” however I was not. Making connections with educators, attending conferences and reading books led me to realize that I had been having my students simply learn based on projects vs. engaging them in project-based learning. Each student completed the

 exact same task which led to the same end product. Students could collaborate with their peers and had some choices in what to create, but each project was narrowly focused on a specific end, before moving on to another theme. Now that I know the difference between what I had been doing and authentic PBL, I see the power in giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests.

To prepare for the future, we need to find better ways to create quality learning experiences for students, that go beyond a limited project and instead, have students work through a greater process as they learn that includes time for productive struggle, problem-solving, critical thinking, and reflection. I would recommend that anyone looking to start with PBL explore the resources available through PBL Works (Buck Institute of Education). They offer a lot of rubrics and other helpful materials to get started with PBL. Defined Learning has informative articles on project based learning available where educators share their own PBL experiences.

Getting started

We have different options for designing PBL experiences for students. In my classes, I chose to have my students work independently on an area they chose, but you can also have all students explore the same theme but create in a way that is authentic and meaningful to them. Providing these opportunities will lead to a better quality learning experience for students and empower students to drive their learning.

As we progressed each year, I wanted students to explore global issues and make connections with other classrooms and students around the world. To do this, we relied on some digital tools for communication and collaboration that took learning to a whole new level for them. As educators, we must encourage and inspire students to take some risks with learning and not be afraid to explore new ideas, to find problems to solve, and to step outside of their comfort zone. We can also model this by engaging in these learning activities with them too.  

I recommend for anyone wanting to bring in more globally themed topics with PBL, to learn about the United Nations Students Global Goals and spend time learning more about the “Teach SDGs.” I recommend also looking at the SDG resources on Defined Learning to learn more. Students became really invested in learning about so many issues around the world and then looking into their communities to see how they might address similar challenges that are faced. Students become more culturally aware and broaden their global understanding. As we continued to build our PBL work, I moved to designing an even better experience by implementing more high-quality PBL (HQPBL). I recommend checking into the criteria of the framework for designing HQPBL and then focus on one or several of the criteria, to make the transition. 

The criteria for high-quality PBL are:

1) Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment: Help students to learn deeply, build critical thinking skills, and strive for excellence. Students in my classes chose areas such as gender equality, poverty, health and wellbeing, equity, and quality education and tied these into our class content. When students presented, you could hear their passion for what they were learning about and how engaged they were in their work.

2) Authenticity: Students are more engaged in learning when it is personal and meaningful, and the more authentic connections they can make, the greater the learning will be for them. Giving students the chance to decide on an area of interest that may be personally relevant to them now, or something they hope to do in the  future will lead to higher student engagement and student-driven learning. 

3) Public Products: We need to help our students build a variety of skills, especially when it comes to creating and sharing their work. In PBL, the goal is to have student work publicly displayed and although in-class presentations can make us all nervous, students need opportunities to share their learning within and beyond the classroom walls. Many digital tools can be used for this as well, perhaps recording a podcast, or writing a blog, or recording a video.

4) Collaboration: One of the essential skills for now and the future is that of collaboration. When we can create opportunities for students to collaborate with classmates whether in person or connect asynchronously, we help them to build skills that will benefit them in the future, regardless of work that they do. Preparing for future work, many students may not even need to work in an office or specific building, with more jobs being done remotely around the world. Building these collaborative skills, in person and through technology, will be highly beneficial for students and our own work.

5) Project Management: Another aspect that will benefit students for the future is being able to work through an extensive project, the planning, the revision, the implementation, and the reflection. Working as part of a team, having a specific role, and building skills of communication are just a few of the benefits of using project management activities in the classroom. 

6) Reflection: For educators and students, reflection is a critical component of learning and life.  It is important to be intentional about looking back over our work and thinking about the challenges that were  faced, the process involved and brainstorming our next steps. In our classrooms, we should work on providing a comfortable space (physical classroom or digital) where students can reflect on their work, offer peer feedback and then use it in order to determine their next steps. We should always ask ourselves whether anything could have been done better, what could we change, or what next steps can we take. Developing skills of self-assessment and self-awareness are important for the future and for helping students to build confidence during the learning process.

Benefits of PBL

As educators, our goal is to provide more authentic ways for students to learn, to create more unique learning experiences where they can drive their learning. We can also help students to learn at a deeper level and enhance their understanding in line with Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design Framework. With methods like Project Based Learning or Design Thinking, or STEM curriculum, we will provide students with the best opportunities to prepare for the future. The type of work or specific jobs cannot be predicted, but we can help students to build skills that will enable them to adapt to the changing landscape of education, work and life. Getting started can be made easier by exploring the resources from Defined Learning such as webinars, white papers and 

About the Author: 

Rachelle Dene is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. She serves as the President of the ISTE Teacher Education Network. Author of ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” and “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” Rachelle Dene’s latest book is with ISTE “Chart A New Course is now available. Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915.



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