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December 1, 2009


PBL – the New Worksheet

by Peter Skillen

Project-based learning (PBL) is happening in classrooms all over the world.  Sort of.  I see a lot of kids ‘doing projects’.  Teachers design them.  Teachers create checklists of the process.  Teachers give timelines and ‘check in’ points. The kids immediately Google the topic, grab the information, reword it, toss in some stolen graphics and push forward to ‘get it done’.  The focus, for the student, often really becomes ‘getting it done’.

I see project assignments for kids who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) where the work is incredibly ‘chunked’ and scaffolded.  These assignments are often more scripted with lists of things to do accompanied by check boxes to ‘help’ the students stay on track.

Oh, I know, that is the extreme scenario! Cut me some slack…just describing the extreme to make a point! 🙂

And please don’t get me wrong. ‘Chunking’ and ‘scaffolding’ are exceptionally useful techniques…and, I love effective PBL, but, I have issues with projects becoming worksheets.  I have seen this pattern before.  (One of the great, and lousy things, about getting older!  LOL)

It reminds me of the days of ‘learning centres’ back in the seventies when the idea was that kids would move to various centres in the classroom to engage in constructive learning activities.  Conceptually great.  Implementation poor…generally speaking.  Kids were often seen rotating from one centre to the other after a prescribed amount of time doing, what often appeared to be ‘worksheet type’ activities – SRA Reading lab, penmanship (printing or writing), math dittos – and, oh yes, the occasional ‘listening centre’.


I think that the basic issue here is one of inherent belief structure of the educators and the system in which they are immersed.  When new educational practices are ‘rolled out’ in school systems, some time is spent on the overall philosophy and much time is spent on the pragmatic implementation in the classrooms.  The former is often ‘watered down’ and the latter is often prescriptive and scripted.  This leads to a ‘conceptual drift’.  The original idea, in this case ‘project based learning’, loses the philosophical essence in favour of following the prescription.  What was originally a powerful, deep, philosophically bound approach has drifted to some skeleton of itself.



Please check out this page outlining effective PBL.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dec 1 2009

    I think one of the signs of PBL gone bad depends on the answer to this question:
    Do the students’ final products all look the same? Whether it be taken literally as in the “look” of the product or more figuratively as in the same conclusion.

  2. pskillen
    Dec 1 2009

    I think you are right. I remember visiting a ‘model school’ in the golden days of Logo, and each student was actually creating a project from the same sheet. I don’t mind this in the instructional phase, but it seemed a bit crazy as a ‘project’.

    Also, if students are reaching the ‘same conclusion’, then I agree, there has been something askew with the depth and ownership of the ‘driving question’ that guided the project.

  3. Dec 4 2009

    Sadly, I don’t think you’re outlining an extreme case at all in your description of pbl that you outline in your post! I’ve observed that many projects are highly structured by teachers to match curriculum expectations and then disguised as supposedly ‘student centred’ projects.

    Then, when students don’t buy-in because they don’t have the personal interest that builds commitment to true inquiry-based approaches, my experience is that teachers say that pbl doesn’t work. As you mention, this is most likely a result of not understanding the philosophical underpinning of the approach…interesting to hear this week that the Literacy Gains group from the Ministry is working on CBAM! Hopefully this means that are thinking about implementation that reduces conceptual shift! 🙂 More on CBAM:

  4. Dec 17 2009

    I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading, writing, traveling and speaking about project-based learning. First of all, most educators can’t define “project.” It’s not anything a kid does when the teacher isn’t looking.

    Here are some resources your readers might find useful: – Webinar I recently led for Discovery about PBL – New documentary about creativity and learning – Two reproducible handouts on “good” projects – Books for creative educators compiled by the Constructivist Consortium

  5. Dec 17 2009

    The problem is the teachers are asking the wrong questions – questions with known answers, not questions that require thought. That is not PBL – that’s seek and regurgitate. Students should not be following formulae but should be learning a variety of strategies to help them independently organize and carry through a thoughtful project (hopefully self-selected).

    • pskillen
      Dec 17 2009

      Hey Susan,
      Although I like pbl that starts with kids’ questions, I do believe that there is a time to model GREAT question development for kids. It seems somewhat natural – but, I think that there is sometimes a need to help them to develop ‘driving questions’. As you say, those are not the questions that require ‘knowledge-telling’ after a bit of ‘research’.

      Characteristics of Driving Questions (Krajcik – link below)
      * Frames the curricular unit
      * Worthwhile
      * Contains rich concepts/principles
      * Promotes higher order thinking
      * Related to what scientists really do
      * Complex enough to be broken down into smaller questions
      * Helps link concepts/principles across disciplines
      * Feasible
      * Students can design and perform investigations to answer question
      * Appropriate time frame
      * Materials readily available
      * Contextualized
      * Anchored in the lives of learners
      * Related to real-world problems
      * Meaningful
      * Interesting to learners
      * Relevant to learners own lives
      * Ill-structured/Open-ended
      * Divergent
      * No straight forward answer
      * Complex

  6. Dec 17 2009

    The best PBL isn’t rooted in teacher questions, but in the questions of the learners.

  7. Dec 18 2009

    Of course you have to help students learn to develop deep questions. We do that by modeling those questions in our classrooms. Too many questions in classrooms are those for which the teacher already knows the answer. Teachers should be helping students pursue their own questions so they understand that learning to question is what leads to potential answers. Learning to ask (for both teacher and student) essential questions is the hardest part of inquiry.

    • pskillen
      Dec 18 2009

      Hey Susan,

      I hope you didn’t think I was being critical of your comments! I agree TOTALLY with you on this. Thank you for your well-considered responses. I sure hope you can come to ECOO next November. And present too!

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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