That Isn’t Project-Based Learning

By Vanessa Jencks, March 8, 2022

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Out of the following scenarios, which is genuinely project-based learning (PBL)? 

  • A student must create a website about her favorite aquatic species found within the waters of Hainan.

  • Students test different potted vegetables to see which conditions cause the best yield as apart of a structured science experiment.

  • A teacher asks her class how students can help address the problem of bullying within their own school, helping the bully and the bullied. 

If you’re not sure which to pick, you are among a group of schools, teachers and parents unsure about how to identify and create meaningful PBL experiences.

We asked Hong-Kong-based co-Learning Experience Designer and former High Tech High educator, Kyle Wagner, to explain to our readers what makes PBL unique. Wagner has made it his professional mission to help walk alongside over a thousand educators around the globe to take the theory of PBL into the classroom. By the end of this article, readers should be able review the first three scenarios and distinguish which is a first step for PBL.

21st-Century-HK.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

“There are three major differences between simply a project you take on and PBL,” Wagner explains. These three things all link together, and can be summarized as real audience, continued reflection, and agency and purpose. 

“One of the greatest components of PBL is that you have a real audience to share with, beyond just the teacher.” A real audience will lead to real world reactions, with small success or failures pointing to the student’s work needing to be adjusted to keep moving toward success. That can’t be quantified by a grade and is closer to what students will experience beyond school and in their careers and lives after being students. 

“Really good project-based experience is going to live on forever, and it's going to be something that [students] keep consistent feedback and reflection on throughout the whole process.” Wagner points out that real world projects require multiple drafts and multiple iterations to solve a problem. PBL doesn’t result in one type of project for learning, nor is it to reflect learning that’s already taken place, to prove that a student learned something. “Project-based experience is something that's deeper. It's something that's not just a one set outcome that everyone's going to all do together. It's something that is guided by a process and a question.” 

IMG_7276.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

Teachers giving students a project to make a book about their summer vacations would not be an example of PBL. Wagner juxtaposes this with clear examples. “If the question is, ‘How can we build a love of travel in our community through digital media?’ then you're going to get a lot more deviation and divergence of what students might produce.”

Through guidance, students will produce meaningful answers in response. “Yes, some students might produce a book, but others might produce a video that they want to share. Some might produce an event in which they're sharing all the places in the community to potentially visit and how to make the most out of a summer vacation.” Student choice or agency in determining both the medium and the answer separates projects from project-based learning.

“Perhaps some are working with a travel agency, and the travel agency is struggling in becoming relevant. Or they're putting up a blog of all their travels. There are multiple different products because there was a question that was open enough, but focused enough to be about summer travel, to offer students multiple ways in which they answer that.” Wagner adds “What’s most important about PBL is not the project itself, but the learning that takes place because of it.” 

Leading-Workshop.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

Wagner describes his professional development work as a “privilege of serving thinking schools and educators and designing more socially, globally, emotionally aware citizens. The professional development Wagner provides is different in that it is immersive for the educator, taking theory into actual practice as they design PBL experiences together to implement. It also requires the teacher to take on the role of a student in going through a PBL experience so that they also can understand the problems students will face. 

Unlike many trainings provided to teachers that are a kind of “fire hose of different strategies,” Wagner walks with educators through a long-term relationship he describes as a “full transformation” that will take commitment and work from the school and teacher. “There are always dilemmas that come up. Whether that's connecting better to the community or asking questions about integrating standards and curriculum, assessing a complex way of learning or encouraging parent engagement.” Through Wagner’s platform, he connects educators with others across the globe to help them wade through these dilemmas. 

Wagner cautions schools to say they’re about PBL unless they’re all in. “If the school wants it to be the primary vehicle of learning, it can't be something just done on the side.” If you’d like to learn more about how to implement PBL or find out about Wagner’s offerings, head to transformschool.com or email him at kylewagner@transformschool.com.  

IMG_7284-copy.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner


[Cover image via Kyle Wagner]


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