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Why Some PBL is Better Than No PBL

PBL is powerful and worth the time and patience it takes to become proficient

High School Students working as a Team.jpg

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a gold mine instructional strategy because it holds enormous potential when used in specific ways. The Buck Institute, known as the authority on PBL, has reviewed and conducted numerous studies on its positive impacts on students. PBL has the potential to: deepen engagement; raise student achievement (especially in social studies and science, and including in high-poverty, low-performing school districts); improve student decision-making; and build twenty-first century, career-relevant skills. 


PBL also has the potential to stress out teachers. In my experience, most teachers grasp the profound benefits and importance of PBL. And many also feel they lack the time to pull off PBL in a way that meets all of its requirements so that it can yield the most advantages to students.


Often, in the conversation around PBL, teachers feel too much pressure to make it “perfect.” This can cause many teachers to avoid PBL entirely. I understand this response; teachers have enough on their plates as it is to take on more ideas that overwhelm them. But to believe that PBL that isn’t “perfect” is a waste of teacher and student time is simply not a belief I agree with. 


It’s unrealistic for teachers to expect—or to be expected—to be PBL experts out the gates. Like all other instructional strategies, PBL takes practice, trial and error, and time for growth and improvement. While I agree that PBL is most effective when it incorporates all of its essential components, I also believe—and have seen—that PBL can still elicit many learning benefits for students even when it is not “perfect.” Not sure there is such a thing as “perfect” PBL! There is technical PBL that includes all of its required component parts; or there are teachers working up to technical PBL—taking risks, learning, growing, and enriching their students’ learning more and more along the way.


When I coach on PBL, I encourage teachers to start where they can and build up to including all of its component parts. I also emphasize that teachers should be given the room to practice PBL in steps and the time to grow into proficiency. If teachers cannot experiment or take risks as they learn PBL, they will not learn it. So long as our goal is to work towards a comfort utilizing all its components in one project, we are growing as educators and we are wasting no one’s time. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater by believing “perfect” PBL is the only way. Instead, let’s baby step our way into PBL proficiency.


What is PBL? An Overview


  1. First, a primer on PBL. PBL is a type of learning where students are immersed in authentic learning experiences that address real-world relevant issues. Students are given the room to experiment as they work collaboratively with classmates and community members to pursue knowledge, develop career-ready and SEL skills, and link their learning in school to different career paths.


Technical PBL is that which includes its nine required component parts. (Visit this post for a deeper dive into all nine components):

  1. Alignment to both skills and content

  2. Authenticity

  3. Thought-provoking problem or question

  4. Student voice

  5. Student choice

  6. Rubric

  7. Time for reflection of learning

  8. Feedback & revision

  9. Public audience


Small Stepping One’s Way to PBL Proficiency


Teachers often ask the difference between projects and PBL. Technically, PBL must include all nine components. Anything that doesn’t is, technically, a project. 


However, when I coach, I don’t split hairs over whether a teacher is or is not achieving technical PBL while they are learning and practicing. I care much more that they are given opportunities to experiment with all components—as many or as few at a time.


To that end, here’s an example of how teachers can take a simple project and add in components of PBL as they work towards incorporating all nine of them.


Project: Build a birdhouse


At a minimum, any project should align to content standards and require students to apply relevant skills. Let’s imagine a basic birdhouse building project that satisfies the following alignments:


Alignment to standards and skills:

Standard:  Use common hand tools (planer, pliers, wrench, hand saw, hammer and square) safely and properly.  

Skills utilized: (1) Students will use wood, nails, hammer and a saw to properly make a birdhouse.  (2) Students will demonstrate proper safety techniques while using tools. 



In its simplest form, students can build a birdhouse and turn them into teachers.


Adding components in steps: As teachers add in select components of PBL, I encourage them to reflect on how students are learning, not what they are learning. This allows teachers to think about how and where they can free students to lead their own learning, and how and where they can hand over work and thinking to students (as opposed to doing it on their behalf). I find that, in approaching PBL from this mindset, teachers can more readily identify opportunities to give responsibilities to students. When this happens, more components of PBL naturally come into play and students gain more and more of those rich learning benefits of PBL. 


Note that the following additions need only be added to the project in its simplest form. As teachers grow more comfortable and practiced, they are welcome to add more of these suggestions at once.


Add in authenticity and choice: Ask students to research different birds in your local ecosystem. Give students choice as to which bird they’d like to build a birdhouse for. Based on what they learn of their chosen bird’s habitats and patterns, students must determine the different needs their house must fulfill—e.g., size, color, shape, etc.—to be optimal for their chosen bird.


Add in feedback & revision: Before students build their bird houses, ask them to create a rendering either as a drawing or in software or an app. Discuss with them the decisions behind their rendering, challenging their thinking as appropriate. Provide students constructive feedback so that they can adapt their renderings before building the physical birdhouse.


Add in voice & public audience: At the conclusion of the project, students present their birdhouses to an audience. If it feels too daunting to start with an audience of community members/employees from local and relevant businesses, that is OK. Again, we are baby stepping into proficiency. I will often suggest that a teacher partner with another teacher also doing some version of PBL (even if it’s in a different content area) so that their students can present to the other class’s students. When presenting, students should be asked to share their thinking behind their birdhouse design and justify why they made the decisions they did. To bring more real-world authenticity to it, each presenting group should be asked at least one question; if audience members do not volunteer questions, teachers should ask one.


These are just some examples of how teachers can practice PBL in steps and a couple of components at a time. Doing so allows them to see what works, what doesn’t, where they are strong, where they need more guidance, what elicits the most learning from students, and what students do and do not respond to or find engaging. As teachers apply select PBL components to projects, they will grow comfortable with them. In time, applying all PBL components at once will feel approachable and achievable.


Want to know more about PBL? Visit this link, where I provide resources to support PBL components.


How can I help you? Please connect with me to share your own concerns or ask for assistance. We truly are all in this together.


Website: Reflective Learning, LLC

Twitter: @Sherrystclair

Facebook: Sherry St Clair

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