Frustrations of Project Based Learning

I took a summer online course on Project Based Learning in 2013. It was really helpful and taught by the wonderful Colleen McLain (@colleenmclain) via Intel's education initiative. The class helped me develop a project that seemed like a game-changer at the time and was, in reality, relatively successful. But that first project this school year was not the game-changer I was hoping for. As I delve deeper into becoming a project-based educator, I've learned many important lessons. Among those lessons:

Projects can be frustrating as hell.

I figured a good post for this week would be to discuss a few commonly-held beliefs about PBL that I have found to not always be true.

Myth 1: Projects are less work for the teacher

This might be a myth that is held more among non-teachers than it is by teachers. Most educators that I talk with about PBL readily admit that there is a ton of front-loaded work to prepare the project. Unlike a lesson or a discussion that can develop as you go and branch off in many different directions, projects tend to need a lot of structure and guidance. I have never been particularly keen on the use of rubrics for things like discussions - a 'successful' discussion looks very different for each student, some of whom will achieve 'success' simply by participating once.

For a project, though, there needs to be crystal clear guidelines for what product will satisfy as proficient, which makes a rubric and a bullet-proof plan vital. Walking the line between being clear and restrictive has been one of the great hurdles of transitioning to a project-based classroom A student can still be allowed and encouraged to be creative with making her product and to do something unique as long as it pings off of the baseline that is provided in the rubric. An example I like to give to students is the difference between a poem, a song and a short paper. I can show an example of each of the three being simplistic or complex. The fact that you wrote a poem does not inherently make a good project. It is the creativity and synthesis of skills and topics that are needed to write a relevant, quality poem that make it a good project.

Myth 2: Projects automatically equal higher-order thinking

Depth of Knowledge ranges from 1 (most basic) to 4 (most complex). The closer to DOK 4, the better.
I'm a big believer in teaching with Depth of Knowledge (DOK) in mind. When I think back to my favorite and best teachers, they are the ones that made me question and think. They are the ones that got under my skin to a point that I wanted to prove them wrong. Everyone has a story of a teacher like this who brilliantly tricked us into learning and thinking as much as we tried to avoid it.*

*Teachers. So manipulative. 
The Palace at Versailles. So. Many. Fountains.
And they weren't even turned on most of the time. 

So back to the myth. A project does not inherently, on its own, make a student think. Let me give you an example of one of the terrible projects I did earlier in the year that will never, ever be done in my class again in this way. It was a timeline project based around the French Revolution. I wanted students to think about the big picture story of the French Revolution; make connections between the ridiculously expensive Palace at Versailles built by Louis XIV and the debt that led to increased taxes, hunger, and eventually the French Revolution. I wanted students to see the ideals of the Enlightenment spark in Paris and spread throughout the world to create a world-changing storm that is arguably still going on today in places like Egypt, Libya and Ukraine.

What I got were the most basic, DOK 1, low-level thinking timelines one can imagine. They were completely un-creative. They were completely un-original. They were completely un-enthusiastic. All the wonderful sparks that we dream about when we imagine young people aggressively learning via a brand new project did not exist. It was like the anti-good-project. A lot of this was my fault. I was probably too detailed in what I asked for and not ambitious enough to ask for more than just the timeline. This created too restrictive of a structure. While structure in PBL is good and necessary, we as teachers have to be careful not to make our plans so detailed as to choke off creativity.

Myth 3: All students love projects

This is the one that really got to me this week. My government students are creating their second round of Public Service Announcements. The first set was over the legislative branch and covered issues like gerrymandering, money in politics and the Senate filibuster. You can watch them here:


They were good, not life-altering. The kids got into them, but were a bit confused and intimidated by the editing of the videos. The ideas were well-thought out, but not to a DOK level 4. The big complaint I got from viewers of the videos was that they were not informative enough for an audience unfamiliar with the topics being discussed to really get the videos. We took all that into consideration* as a class and decided to make another round of PSA videos on the Executive Branch, the unit we are currently working on.

*This is the most frustrating part of it all! I sat down with both of my government classes and debriefed the projects. We watched them all, talked about feedback I had received and feedback they had received, agreed on some of the basic issues...all that good teaching stuff. And then without my prompting the kids asked if we could try making another video for our next project now that they had learned from some mistakes! I mean, that is the request that a teacher dreams of! "Hey, Mr. Chambers. That was a cool activity and all, but I think we could have done it better. Now that we've learned a bit more, could we try it again?" YES, YES AND HELL YES! 

Then it all fell apart.

The crash happened when I assumed that when about a third of the class literally asked to try the project again in the next unit, the other two thirds of the class would jump on board and excitedly go for it again also. Unfortunately, not every student loves projects and not every student loves the idea of being pushed to improve upon a previous project. Repetition of a task is really important for learning a new skill* and repetition of activities is really important to allow time to analyze, reflect and refine. All those tasks - analyzing, reflection, refining - they all are closer to DOK 3 and 4 than they are to DOK 1 and 2, which if you'll look back to the chart you saw earlier, are the more difficult zones of thinking.

*Read "The Talent Code" by Daniel Coyle and follow him on twitter. Seriously great read.(@DanielCoyle)

News flash to myself: teenagers don't like to think hard. While I caught the interest of some students, and I'm excited about that, I forgot that I still needed to trick some other of them into thinking. The simple act of having a project was not, and I suspect never will be satisfactory enough to push students to think in and of itself. I need to continue to think of new ways to engage students rather than assume that what worked last time with student A will work this time with student B.

I will continue to try new and different projects, even with the frustrations that come with them. I believe in Project Based Learning because of the immense amount of research* that justifies its use. I also believe that true learning tends to feel and look messy. These projects, if nothing else, have checked that box. While I won't go so far as to say that data never lies, it does tend to show us trends that we, as educators, need to listen to carefully.

*This study references Outward Bound, a fantastic expeditionary learning program I was lucky enough to participate in while I attended William Jewell College. Learn more about it here

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