Project-based learning needs more learning

Gisèle Huff

After almost eighteen years in the field of education, I have become convinced of the need to transform the way our children learn so that they can confront the unknowable challenges of the twenty-first century. I applaud any effort aimed at changing the mindset of those involved in the education system so that they can leave behind the traditional twentieth-century paradigm, which was (and in most places still is) an industrial model. Today’s enthusiasm for project-based learning (PBL) fits into the paradigm-shifting category, helpfully emphasizing that we learn best by doing. As a complete educational philosophy or strategy, however, it falls short on many fronts.

At some level, doing must be based on knowing. Yet in almost every PBL model that I’ve observed—Summit Public Schools being the main exception—little or nothing is said about the acquisition of knowledge. Instead, these models emphasize the completion of the project, and whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed. Of course, it’s true that knowledge alone is insufficient for today’s economy. Skills and dispositions must be developed in the learner for content to be relevant and engaging. But it is that “content” (a.k.a. knowledge) that students must master in order to apply it to hands-on projects. There is no need to sacrifice the rigor of content. Only its delivery and assessment must be changed to move from Carnegie units and seat time to competency-based learning.

The second problem with PBL as the main vehicle for students’ learning experience is that it is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe. One of the big problems that personalized learning seeks to solve is the “Swiss cheese” problem.  Because we all learn differently, moving along at a one-size-fits-all pace means that slower students are left with big gaps of knowledge and skills—gaps that will come back to haunt them later on. That is of particular concern when PBL occurs at the elementary level, when youngsters are building their knowledge base.

When PBL is deployed, knowledge acquisition is driven by the demands of a given project. The object may be “deeper learning,” but the outcome is definitely narrower, potentially excluding other critical knowledge and skills. This should be solvable, yet the PBL instructional models make no specific reference to mastery. In other words, students can complete a project without mastering the skills in that project or the knowledge underlying its successful completion. 

PBL also suffers from a significant “free rider” problem. Because most PBL schools have students work in groups and do little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others. In his five-minute “commencement speech” on the Getting Smart website, Tom Vander Ark encourages listeners to develop skills in team leadership and project management in order to succeed in the new economy. But each team has only one leader and one manager. Where does that leave the other members? In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project! While embracing failure is an important part of a robust learning system, such setbacks should be used to help students revisit and master the requisite competencies. Kids should be provided with more insights into why they failed and what to do about it, so as to increase their likelihood of future success. Failure of core knowledge and skills is not an option in any effective learning environment.

Finally, PBL relies heavily on highly qualified teachers, so much so that High Tech High now trains its own. That’s well and good for High Tech High, but it isn’t a satisfactory formula for mass adoption of PBL. American public education faces an immense human capital problem that we have not been able to resolve since “A Nation at Risk” sounded the alarm in 1983. We cannot rely on extraordinary people to deliver a twenty-first-century education to all our children; not enough such people exist. We have to deploy strategies that empower the learners and teachers as they are, where they are. In its current form, PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings. But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation.