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What is Project Based Learning?

If you have been around the education world for a few years you’ve probably head a new term – Project Based Learning or PBL for short.  But exactly what is project based learning?  How can it be used in the classroom?  Those are the questions I am going to be answering.

what is project based learning

So what is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning is an instructional method where students learn through doing.  It is a student-centered approach that gives students a “problem” or “challenge” without previously teaching the skill or concepts.  The idea is that students, through research, trial & error and hands-on activity will learn the target skills and concepts by doing.

project based learning activity

There is no lecture, one week unit, or teacher directed discussion.  There is no stating the objective, teacher input, guided practice, reteaching and independent practice. It’s almost like throwing out most of what you learned in school about how to prepare a good lesson.

Instead, the focus is on putting the students in a real world situation where they are engaged to problem solve.  Through the problem solving they learn, they practice and review previously learned skills, they think critically, they learn to collaborate and communicate.  It’s learning in its rawest and most natural form.

students investigating for PBL project natural learning

Real World Learning

Project based learning is not a new concept – although the buzz words make us think it is. Take a look back with me.  In the year 1748, a young 16 year old boy named George Washington left his family to begin his career as a land surveyor.  Armed with his tools he went on a month long trip across the Blue Ridge mountains to survey land with George William Fairfax.  But what made this young boy qualified for such an expedition.  Well, project based learning did.  George Washington’s interest in surveying began after inheriting a farm from his father and finding the surveying tools inside the old storehouse.  Armed with the tools and a geometry book he set off to figure out how to survey. One of his first maps included The Turnip Garden Belonging to Lawrence Washington at Mount Vernon.  What?  A Turnip Garden map?  Yep – project based learning!

george washington and project based learning

Project Based Learning is real world learning – learning by doing.  A good PBL project poses a real world problem or complex question to the students.  Because of the real word connection students are often highly engaged because they clearly see the application to real life.

Projects vs. Project Based Learning

Projects have been a staple activity in classrooms around the world for many years.  But a project is not the same as project based learning.  Students complete a project AFTER they have learned new information.  The project is the application phase of a traditional lesson or unit.  Students are not seeking out new information, but merely putting what they learned into a fun and creative package.

students working on robotics pbl project

On the other hand, project based learning is not done after the learning – it IS the learning!  Since project based learning is the learning process these activities are not completed in one day or one lesson.  To the contrary, it will take time for students to really dig in to a PBL project.  Of course they will vary in time depending on the complexity of the problem, but a week, a month, even a semester are not uncommon time frames for a PBL project.

Using PBL in the Classroom

A great way to use PBL in the classroom is to use it in place of a traditional unit you would teach.  You can find project based learning activities that focus on a wide variety of skills, topics and concepts.  For example, let’s say that you wanted to use project based learning activity to work on persuasive writing.  You and your students might try this activity where students will plan their own road trip and then persuade others to visit the same destination.

road trip project based learning PBL project

Along the way to their persuasive writing, students are going to work on so many other things too.  Here’s just a short list of skills and concepts students will be using in this project:

  • U.S. Geography
  • Research (includes Reading and Reading comprehension)
  • Expository Writing (Information and Facts)
  • Narrative Writing
  • Money Math
  • Time
  • Art
  • Creative Thinking / Problem Solving
  • Collaboration if done in groups
  • Oral and Written Communication Skills

I’m sure there are more – but wow!  When you look at the skills that will go into this project its easy to see that you could legitimately take time from your social studies, math, writing and reading blocks in order to build this into your day.

project based learning final products

The added bonus of project based learning activities is student engagement.  We all know that when students are engaged and take ownership in an activity the learning exponentially increases.

I don’t have time for project based learning – do I?

Let’s just start with the grim facts – the teaching schedule teachers have these days is nothing short of demanding.  The pace matches that of NASCAR and the opportunity for “extra” is just not there.  But students can learn grade level standards through project based learning.  Instead of being teacher directed, we find those teaching moments as they appear in the project.  You might also find that students who already know a skill jump in to teach others.  Skills and concepts will be learned just not in the traditional way.  It is important to make sure that the project you choose lines up with the learning objectives you have for the students.

students working together on project based learning activity

Not sure you are ready to let PBL take over? Try PBL after testing at the end of the school year.  Once the test is done we all breathe a sigh of relief and the stress level of the demand and schedule is lifted.  This is a great time to put PBL into action.  Another great way to weave PBL into the schedule is to pick a specific day – like PBL Fridays.  If Friday is typically test day, why not get those done in the morning and have a fun and learning filled afternoon with the PBL project.  A little creative thinking and you can fit it in!

One more idea is to connect a PBL activity with a holiday.  You know those weeks or days when it seems like nothing productive gets done because everyone is so focused on a holiday.  Great!  Join in the engagement (after all they are already focused on it) and add some PBL learning to the mix!

Getting Started with PBL

Looking for that perfect project to use with your classroom?  I’ve got you covered with fun and engaging PBL projects that were designed for 3rd through 6th grades.  These projects are NO PREP for the teacher and included everything the students need except the research.

After you choose the project, read through the goals and the many activities.  You can do all of the activities or pick and choose what will guide your class to the learning goals you have.  Then copy what you need and off you go!  The hardest part of PBL is staying out of the way so that the students are in the driver’s seat of the learning process.

The second hardest thing – choosing which project to do!  Here’s some of my favorites.

create a restaurant project based learning activty

national park project based learning activity for grades 3 - 6

science and space project based learning activity for upper elementary

You can find all of my Project Based Learning activities, including the holiday themed ones, in my store at Teachers Pay Teachers.

You can also find more detailed information about some of these activities here on the blog.  Check out these blog posts for more great PBL activities.

Are you in a technology driven school or district?  Have a 1:1 classroom?  You can now find all of my PBL Projects in a digital format too!

Pin it Now & Save it for Later!

Right now might not be the best time to start Project Based Learning.  Pin this to your favorite classroom Pinterest board so that you can come back when the time is right!

What is Project Based Learning a PBL overview with examples

Amy Hughes

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I'm Shelly Rees of Appletastic Learning. First and foremost, I'm a mom of 4 boys, wife of 25 years to Aric, and Wyoming girl at heart. I love being creative, making resources for teachers, baking cookies, Diet Coke, teaching, public speaking, and spreading kindness wherever I can. After teaching in the upper elementary grades for over 23 years, I retired early and focused on creating and helping teachers around the world with my teaching ideas and resources. I also serve as a mentor to hundreds of teacherpreneurs and help them get focused on growing their own successful businesses. With 100% honesty, I LOVE my life! Thanks for visiting! I hope you'll stay awhile and come back often. Read More

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