What Is So Great about Project Based Learning?

Project based learning.  We talk a lot about it.  Some educators say that students using project based learning outperform those who are taught by the standard (horribly boring) lecture method.  I am one of those, but what is so great about project based learning anyway?

To answer this question, let’s look beyond grades and tests.  Today, we’ll look at three things students learn through project-based learning that are not purely academic (by which I mean not measurable on standardized tests).


1.  Project based learning stimulates curiosity.

This is actually built in to PBL.  Most projects are based on a question that is the goal of the project.  Answering this question stimulates curiosity. Simple.
In projects, students are not told what to do, but they explore the topic themselves.  Let’s look at an example.  When a student gets an project assignment to, for example, write a diary entry from a historical person, she or he has to think to decide what to write.

They have to research and, naturally, based on that research, they choose what they like and use it in their project.  In other words, curiosity is a fundamental part of most project-based learning.

For example, you give the kids a question like this: What would a person in this story (or historical era if you are teaching history) write in their diary?

The student’s curiosity will steer them.

He or she or he decides how to write their historical diary–do they write in a formal tone of voice, a low-brow type of voice, a hokey redneck voice–they choose.

This uses creativity, again stimulating curiosity.  Stimulating curiosity is important, and it can be done.

Paul Tough, in an interview with NPR said this:

“Right now we’ve got an education system that really doesn’t pay attention to [noncognitive] skills at all. … I think schools just aren’t set up right now to try to develop things like grit, and perseverance and curiosity.”

Well, Mr. Tough, you are wrong.  Yes, developing curiosity is important, but you are wrong about the “at all” in your statement.  Project based learning will develop curiosity in kids, provided, of course, that it is done well.

2.  Project based learning improves teamwork.team_sketch_erich_schube_02

Many projects are done in groups.

Students are put together with others that have differing abilities, skills, and backgrounds.

This diverse group has to help each other to accomplish the goal of the assignment, and the groups that do well on projects are those that, surprise, have the best teamwork.

The members of the group are often not close friends.  However, they have to learn to work together and get the task done, and if they want a good score, done well.

In short, good teamwork is essential to a good project in project based learning, just as it is in most aspects of real life.

How important is teamwork?

According to the University of Kent, teamwork is the second most important skill that employers are looking for.  This is based on surveys “undertaken by Microsoft, Target Jobs, the BBC, Prospects, NACE and AGR and other organisations.”

A study printed in USA Today said the same thing:

Today’s workers must be able “to work on a team as well as on your own.  Every employer emphasizes this because today everyone works in teams.”


3.  Project based learning builds communication skills.File:020118-N-6520M-011.JPG Semaphore Flags.jpg

Most projects require some kind of communication–some examples are speeches, presentations, research papers, and essays.

Non-traditional types, for example, a prezi presentation, requires verbal and non-verbal communication skills as well as the ability to organize content to improve communication.

In particular, public speaking deserves a special mention.  This is because so many people are so scared of it, and sad to say, so damn bad at it.

Some of my favorite projects as a teacher are speeches and presentations.

I have my students do many speeches and when they are good at doing these, they do group presentations (which are much more fun).  A student that can get up and deliver a good speech and has learned to use her or his voice well, use body language, and can speak with confidence has learned something far more valuable than the subject matter.

Likewise, group oral presentations are hard, but the students enjoy them.

Students learn teamwork and leadership of course, but they also learn to communicate with each other and to the audience.  This will be one of the most useful things that they use after graduation.

Not surprisingly, communication was chosen as the most important skill by employers in the University of Kent

study as well as the BBC, and many other career sites.

Guess why they think so.

People fear speaking in public as much as they fear death.
People fear speaking in public as much as they fear death.

To end, Those are just three of the many skills that are developed in project-based learning.

As more schools use project-based learning and as it gets more developed and, hopefully, takes on a more practical aspect, we will see more and more real life skills developed in our young people.

I look forward to it.