Many distinctions exist between “doing projects” and true project-based learning. PBL isn’t a project tacked on to the end of a lesson or a lab replicating what others have already found. PBL uses inquiry surrounding an authentic problem to help students master content knowledge and 21st-century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity). With PBL, classrooms shift from teacher-directed to student-centered. Students engage in projects for an extended period of time and the majority of teacher instruction derives from student-generated “need to knows.”
Dr. John Thomas conducted a review of research on project-based learning in 2000. In his report, Thomas outlined five distinctions between project-based learning and project work.
1. PBL projects are central, not peripheral, to the curriculum
With PBL, projects become the curriculum. They serve as the central teaching strategy and guide student learning. PBL projects do not merely serve to illustrate material taught by another means.
2. PBL projects focus on questions or problems that “drive” students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.
PBL projects connect knowledge and activities to develop greater understanding. A good PBL project prompts activities, products and performances that collectively work together to develop new knowledge and skills in students.
3. Projects involve students in a constructive investigation.
All PBL activities work toward the transformation and construction of knowledge. The distinction is that if a project is not difficult for students and can be completed through the use of already-learned information, the project is simply an exercise, not PBL.
4. Projects are student-driven to a significant degree.
PBL projects do not culminate with a predetermined outcome or use set pathways. They are not teacher-led or scripted. Instead, students autonomously create a direction for their project that answers the driving question.
5. Projects are realistic, not school-like.
PBL projects are authentic. They use real-life challenges to develop student knowledge and skills. Projects incorporating academic challenges or simulated scenarios often lack the authentic problems, questions and solutions that elicit learning.
Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Report prepared for The Autodesk Foundation. Retrieved May 18, 2009 from http://www.bie.org/index.php/site/RE/pbl_research/29