project-based learning

How to start a project-based-learning movement in your district

A former teacher and PBL expert shares what teachers and students need to make project-based learning work in the classroom

Throughout my entire career as a computer teacher, I have used project-based learning (PBL). I’ve had students as young as first grade working on projects using LCSI’s Microworlds, an authoring tool that enabled them to create animated stories, simulations, and games. My students have used HyperCard, Macromedia Director, FileMaker Pro, and Google Apps to work on some really amazing projects. The level of excitement, engagement, and interest that working on these projects engendered made it clear that PBL is probably the best way that students can learn.

My experience shows that students are highly engaged when they are working on a project that is interesting to them. However, I have discovered that students are also looking to be challenged. One of my students from a robotics class once said to me: “Your class is the only challenging class that I have in this school.” Additional experiences testing this notion proved it to be true: Students feel much better about themselves when teachers ask them to solve thought-provoking problems.

What is PBL?

PBL is not just another way of teaching; it is the method by which students learn to solve the problems they will tackle throughout their lives. In a research article about implementing PBL, Tara N. Tally shared the skills that students need to do PBL. These include communication, inquiry, collaboration, research, and activation of prior knowledge.

I agree with Tally and believe that PBL success depends on helping students develop those skills, so that when they need to tackle any problem, they know how to.

Some teachers believe that PBL is just about building something physical, such as a robot or an artifact. Many times, at the end of this process, students don’t understand how the artifact that they created works or what knowledge it is based on. That is why some research indicates that our key challenge in teaching PBL is focusing on identified learning outcomes rather than promoting “doing for the sake of doing.” Building something is a crucial part of PBL, but it should always be done with a focus on understanding the underlying concepts.

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