PBL: Not What You Think It Is

Over the past several years, “PBL” has really caught fire as a buzzword in schools. First of all, what is PBL? That’s a tricky question to answer, because there are actually two commonly-accepted and widespread uses of the acronym in education:

  1. Problem-Based Learning
  2. Project-Based Learning
They are slightly different: problem-based learning focuses on using various activities with an end-goal of solving a relevant “real world” problem, whereas project-based learning goes a step beyond and essentially insists that authentic skills and tasks are done to either solve a problem or create a useful product. Either way, the basic premise is the same: we don’t want our students to be getting knowledge just for the sake of having knowledge. The whole idea is to use those standards-based  skills in meaningful ways that can solve problems.

Just “doing a project” or “solving a problem” is not enough to count as PBL.  A key component is that the problems — and the types of solutions students create — should be authentic. In other words, they should mimic the types of tasks people do in careers, outside of the classroom walls.

This concept is not new. In fact, it was proposed a century ago:

…there should be a natural connection of the everyday life of the child with the business environment about him… The child should study his commercial arithmetic and geography, not as isolated things by themselves, but in their reference to his social environment. The youth needs to become acquainted with the bank as a factor in modern life, with what it does, and how it does it — and then relevant arithmetical processes would have some meaning– quite in contradistinction to the time-absorbing and mind-killing examples in percentage, partial payments, etc., found in all our arithmetics. — John Dewey, The School and Society

I’m a big proponent of PBL and always have been, but it is such a popular buzzword these days that I think a lot of people are throwing it around and claiming to be PBL without even really understanding what it means.

Here are some examples:

  • Question-and-answer worksheets: Worksheets, pretty much by definition, are not “projects.” While they may be useful as tools to guide students in research and planning phases of projects, the fact remains that research and planning itself is only one small (but critical) component of PBL.  By itself, it is neither problem-based learning nor project-based learning. Even if the problems on the page are disguised as “real-world” tasks, this makes them no different than old-fashioned “word problems.
  • Online scavenger hunts: Scavenger hunts can be useful to practice locating information using various digital media.  But what problem is solved by merely finding information? Finding information doesn’t solve problems — using the information in certain ways does.  This is why you will not find any job description that includes “scavenger hunts” — online or otherwise — in its list of duties and responsibilities. Although learning how to find information is important, the focus of PBL would be the next step: how to use that information to create a useful product or solve a problem.
  • Real-world scavenger hunts: Just like online scavenger hunts, I know of very few jobs where there is any relevance in simply “going out and finding things” (repo man, maybe?)  There are several ostensible lessons which involve finding shapes, colors, etc., and while those types of activities (not projects) may reinforce identification or classification of certain concepts, it doesn’t represent an authentic, relevant task or problem we would solve in the real world.  The only way such an activity could be an authentic PBL task would be to extend it into, say, a scientific study to solve a problem — finding populations of plants or animals, for example, and using that data to draw conclusions or propose solutions to existing problems (such as environmental impacts).
  • Pirate-themed treasure hunts??  This is billed as “project based”, but I’m not sure (a) whether pirates even really did this type of activity in their daily routines; (b) why using the activities of cut-throat brigands and thieves constitutes a “real-world” or relevant skill to be practiced via a project. Is “pirate” really a viable career path for our students?!
  • Using technology for note-taking or acquiring knowledge.  In this video example, the claim is made that, since students are using technology tools (iPads) to help them gain knowledge via concept maps and personal organization tools, it counts as PBL. False. Acquiring knowledge, keeping notes, and organizing ideas may all be useful skills and activities, and they are certainly requisite parts of PBL.  But doing these tasks, alone, does not create a product or solve a problem.  Furthermore, when technology is used, it is best to expose students to the actual technology tools being used in the authentic context by actual practitioners in that field — if you look at what people use in the real world for their jobs, it’s not iPads.
So, to all of you describing your lessons and activities as “PBL” just because it’s a trendy buzzword and you think it sounds good, I suggest you critically evaluate whether those activities address real-world problems or create authentic products using actual techniques and tools of the trade.


To learn more about Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning, try these resources:

Comments are closed.