Project based learning: Idealistic or realistic?

A common goal for educators across the US is for students to produce thoughtful, high quality work. Thanks to problem, or project, based learning (PBL), gone are the days where critique and revision are a private deal between student and teacher.

English and Kitsantas’ 2013 article, “Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning,” acts as a guide for teachers who are interested in the implementation of PBL, where student-centered learning is the main target. gives PBL two definitions, “”PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end,” and, “PBL is the ongoing act of learning about different subjects simultaneously. This is achieved by guiding students to identify, through research, a real-world problem (local to global) developing its solution using evidence to support the claim, and presenting the solution through a multimedia approach based in a set of 21st-century tools.”

First, I would like to give praise to the pedagogical approach of PBL. It “[supports] the development of important real-world skills such as solving complex problems, thinking critically, analyzing and evaluating information, working cooperatively, and communicating effectively.”

These skills encourage students to not only engage with their learning, but it aids students in developing skills in how to learn. This article also articulates the fact that for many students, both primary and secondary, PBL conflicts with the constantly practiced and “deeply ingrained” habits that they have developed throughout their years of schooling.

English and Kitsantas do explain that in order for students to comply with PBL, they must become active learners and develop self-regulated learning (SRL) skills.

Though PBL is a highly supported practice that certainly enriches classrooms, there are some elements of PBL that may require revision. The article, and supposedly PBL itself, do not specifically offer ideas regarding how exactly to achieve this reversal in students.

So, the question remains: how can teachers motivate their students to independently value the goals of PBL? Ideally, students enter kindergarten and are introduced to both PBL and SRL. They then continue on to first, second and third grade and are constantly exercising these skills all the way through twelfth grade.

Obviously, this is unrealistic. Not every district or teacher recognizes the advantages of PBL and is motivated to implement the approach in their classroom. What if Johnny’s family moves to a district where all of his peers have been involved with PBL and SRL for five years? Will Johnny fall behind because he has never experienced a PBL class? How will Johnny adapt to these new ways of learning and thinking? The unfortunate reality is that many students do not look at their work with intentions of improving it.

Too many schools adapt the concept that students do the work, they rely on the teacher to create the grade, and it ends up in a storage or recycling bin to be forgotten about. PBL entices students to “… [Improve] in their ability to identify what they need to know, set learning goals, and learn according to their own learning style and preference.” PBL also encourages students to make the most of their learning and to seek feedback from not only the teacher, but peers, as well.

Unfortunately, not all schools in the United States are willing to adapt their curriculums to align with PBL. Considerably, after Common Core infused itself into various schools throughout the US, teachers are perhaps wary of adopting PBL. However, if PBL can help students to achieve not only personal academic goals, but also meet the Common Core standards, then teachers should at least implement the bare minimum of PBL into their lessons.

Accordingly, English and Kitsantas, in regards to PBL, discuss the importance of a growth mindset type of environment where students exercise SRL. They note, “…students in classrooms where SRL-supportive practices were employed were able to generate their own strategies for solving problems, they more frequently viewed mistakes as a means of learning, and they more frequently indicated a preference for more challenging tasks…”.

Unlike many traditional classrooms, PBL places more emphasis on constructive, meaningful learning, rather than learning for the sole reason of obtaining a high mark.

The concept of SRL in PBL begs one more question: how does this pedagogical approach work in a special education classroom setting? Is SRL in PBL a good fit in a setting where students thrive on teacher and aide direction and structure? Elrod, Coleman, Shumpert and Medley divulge,

PBL fits well into the preservice training of special educators due to the relative ease with which it promotes clinical appraisal, a critical skill in the individualization of education for students with special learning needs…Thus., it is not unusual for preservice teachers, in evaluating their PBL experience, to indicate that they will find the process useful in multidisciplinary team approaches and in designing academic and behavior plans for individual students, both in inclusive and in special education classroom settings.

Although English and Kitsantas (2013) do not discuss the effect of PBL in special education, it is clear that PBL works well in both the inclusive, and special education classroom, too.

All in all, PBL seems to stand as an effective tool for teachers to motivate students to learn. PBL gives learning meaning where students may have not found meaning before. As far as SRL in PBL, by framing the classroom in regards to the proposed PBL model, “… SRL can be fostered in each phase of PBL.”

It is also important to note that PBL seems to be not a replacement of traditional learning, but a considerable enhancement of the learning that both teachers and students are already familiar with.


References used within this article

Elrod, F. G., Coleman, A. M., Shumpert, K. D., & Medley, M. B. (2005). The Use of Problem-Based Learning in Rural Special Education Preservice Training Programs. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 24(2), 28–31.

English, M. C., & Kitsantas, A. (2013). Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning7(2), 129–150.

Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2015, January 26). What the heck is project-based learning? Retrieved February 6, 2017, from Project-Based Learning,

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