Teaching

Experts Warn of PBL Pitfalls

By Bess Keller — September 18, 2007 2 min read

No one claims it’s an easy way to teach, but proponents of project-based learning say it is far ahead of other approaches in motivating students and helping them thoroughly learn more of what counts.

But critics and advocates alike warn that enthusiasm for PBL can go too far—producing parodies of effective projects, failing to play to individual teachers’ strengths, and wasting precious class time.

Ben Daley, the chief academic officer of the High Tech High charter school network based in San Diego, is deeply committed to PBL. Still, he lets his new teachers start slow. “I tell them to just do what they know to do really well at first,” he said. “If they go crazy with a big ambitious project and [do] not accomplish much, what good is that?”

See Also

Return to the main story,

No Easy Project

Israeli experts friendly to project-based learning suggested on a recent visit to a High Tech High campus that the schools might have become too good at squeezing out classroom talk by teachers. Lecture-style instruction, they argued, can include narratives that stick with students just as well as hands-on experience.

Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, said the criticism points up a common misunderstanding of constructivism, the well-established theory that learners make knowledge and are not just recipients of it.

“One of the big mistakes people make when they think about constructivism and trying to apply it to the classroom is the idea that learning has to be active, by which is meant physically active,” he said. Rather, it’s mental activity that counts.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., who has written often on the importance of an explicit, well-crafted curriculum, said care is needed to ensure projects are not sidetracked by faith that children will learn good stuff as long as they’re engaged in doing.

“There’s no substitute for watching plants grow,” if you are learning about plants, he said. But, he argued, too many activities turn out to be tangential.

Mr. Hirsch and others say, too, that PBL can present huge “opportunity costs” in the classroom, because other methods can induce understanding in less time. For disadvantaged students, who have fewer opportunities to learn academic content outside of school, that’s a particular problem, according to Mr. Hirsch.

Mr. Willingham said cognitive science so far does not give PBL the decisive edge over other teaching methods that some of its advocates say that it has. Teacher talk and demonstration, cooperative learning, and case studies—all might be effective and, indeed, all could play a role in project-based learning, he said.

“I don’t think any method is obviously superior to any other,” he said. “I’d take any method done well over any method done in a mediocre way.”

Related Tags:

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Opinion Q&A Collections: Cooperative & Collaborative Learning
Ten years of links containing advice from 50 teachers on how to incorporate cooperative and collaborative learning in the classroom.
2 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion Four Favorite Physical Education Instructional Strategies—Recommended by Teachers!
Differentiated instruction is among the favorite strategies three educators employ in teaching physical education.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion Q&A Collections: Implementing the Common Core
Ten years of posts sharing lots of advice and experiences related to applying the Common Core State Standards.
4 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Teaching Opinion Q&A Collections: Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning
Links to 10 years of posts on helping to create the conditions where student intrinsic motivation can thrive.
20 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty