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It’s Not the Project, It’s the Problem

Problem-based learning provides students opportunities to engage more deeply

By Marc A. Natanagara, Ed.D.

As seen in schools:

During a study of 15th-century explorers, a student builds a ship out of popsicle sticks.

• An ELA teacher asks students to create a board game in groups of three based on their notes on Huckleberry Finn.

• A fourth-grade class is given the option to assemble a Powerpoint presentation for younger children to explain a plant growth lab they’ve just completed.

• Biology students are tasked with constructing a scale model of an animal cell (not for the first or last time).

These examples fall squarely under what has been called “Project Based Learning,” or PBL. The popular belief over the last two decades is that PBL is more rigorous and engaging than traditional learning because it is hands on and multisensory (or, at least, multimedia). In actual practice, it often is not. Students can still copy material directly from the internet, their text, or notes, or get mom and dad to do their project, with little thought extended beyond the day’s lesson.

The classic craft stick capapult

Though the tasks above have the potential to be interesting, provide choice, and spark creativity, all represent missed opportunities. The mere act of creating a model, game, or presentation is no assurance that any deeper analysis or synthesis of the knowledge, skills, or understanding of core content has taken place.

The term “project” itself may be the fundamental shortcoming. Words that have a complex meaning are often oversimplified when applied to schools (like authentic, engagement, and assessment). We may believe that students are doing more than they really are when, in fact, the project ends up essentially a report or speech in physical form. This is like buying a $3000 interactive whiteboard and using it no differently than a blackboard or screen. Like technology, projects should not just make us act differently; they should foster new ways of thinking.

Devoted proponents of Project Based Learning point out that other critical elements are necessary to imbue these activities with greater rigor and meaning, like open-ended questioning, innovation, formal feedback and so-called 21st-century skills. However, nearly all elements are initiated by and heavily dependent on the teacher. The evolutionary leap is to switch the locus of control to students.

Over the past five years, a few schools and universities have evolved to using a Problem-Based Learning approach (which we’ll abbreviate — poorly– as PbBL). This method begins with a discussion of a real-world issue and ends with a potentially viable solution developed through a flexible process that includes testing, iteration, research, data collection and analysis, context and collaboration. Where PBL typically involves the teacher assigning a problem to be explored by her or his students, PbBL begins with and identifies as its core premise the process of students identifying the problem. The great surprise is that they often do so in ways the teacher never imagined.

In the 2016 summer camp “iSTEAM Dream Team” created by a teacher and administrator and funded by a $100,000 NJ Department of Education innovateNJ grant, 73 middle school students tackled a different local or global issue during each of six weeks. By Friday, through field experiences, mentor meetings, research, and, above all, interactions with each other, they had developed diverse, creative, complex, expressive and realistic solutions to issues like immigration, equity, food policy and emergency preparedness. Guests who were experts in their field — educators, engineers, scientists, business people, politicians, artists — marveled at the ingenuity and commitment of our advanced enrichment students; this is, in fact, what they became when immersed in assignments that were challenging and had personal meaning — even though the camp targeted students eligible for Title I basic skills.

Students chose to design a shoreline for conservation, soon to be tested against erosion.

Problem Based Learning has roots in constructivism and is a cousin to engineering design, STEAM integration, inquiry-based learning, and multisensory and multiple intelligences pedagogy. Constructivism, misunderstood as simply about getting kids to build, is rooted in the idea that students are active learners who construct their own meaning based on personal beliefs, interests, and prior experiences. Such a mindset behooves us to individualize learning; if every student brings different tools to bear and has different goals and needs, how can teaching be one size fits all?

Three of the inspirations for a shift toward PbBL have been:

1. a greater demand in industry for flexible, self-starting, and creative problem solvers

2. new standards in science, careers, and technology that have innovation at their core and that reference other standards (a more integrated approach also supports success on high stakes testing)

3. the cultural revolution known as the Maker Movement, which represents a grassroots synthesis of arts, crafts, tech, hacking, and much more

Students should experience this model if for no other reason, then that it represents the world they will be a part of. It also happens to be a lot of fun.

Students built scaled weather-proof structures, then helped develop endurance apparati to test them (here, an earthquake simulator).

How can we assure that an activity is problem and not just project based? We can ask ourselves:

• What important real world issue and context exists in this situation that students can relate to? How can I share the issue without defining the problem for them?

• How is assigning this design challenge any better than another or more traditional assignment? (Think Bloom’s Taxonomy.)

• What essential question (to use the Understanding by Design term) can the process and result of the design challenge answer?

• Is my task design likely to result in very different answers and approaches from students?

• Have I defined success through a rubric or checklist that is applicable to a variety of student solutions and addresses critical analysis and inquiry, rather than just product and procedure?

Based on these questions, here is an example of how one of the projects described in the beginning of this article could be reborn as Problem Based Learning:

Modeling Life

  1. Give a brief introduction of the concept that a cell is, in many ways, a self-contained functioning unit and (thus) the basic building block of all life on earth.
  2. Facilitate a brainstorming session on what living things need, and connect those ideas to what a self-contained apparatus (like a robot) might need.
  3. Students research organelles and match one to one of those needs. Then they define the problem as they see it.

Example: How can a central processor (aka the nucleus) get its message to its constituent parts?

Example: How can a wall or skin (aka the cell membrane) allow materials to selectively pass through it?

D. Students are tasked to design a prototype apparatus to mimic the function and solve the problem. The rubric is discussed that includes scoring elements for innovation, use of materials, functionality, accuracy (compared to real cells), and quality of research.

E. Synthesis and analysis of the process: present, solicit group feedback, and reflect.

1. How, and how well, did you address your identified problem? (Let the class challenge and critique, with guidelines for doing so.)

2. How did you come to this solution?

3. Why did you choose the materials? How did your materials align with your solution?

4. What additional skills or information did you need to create your prototype? How did you get them?

5. How does your solution compare to others? What might you learn from others?

6. How might your solution fit in with others to make a fully functioning unit? (Have students figure out how to bring them together to create a huge, functioning, collaborative class cell model!)


• Mentors and other facilitators (including the teacher) should not provide ready answers but ask questions to prompt students to think critically about their build and process.

• Do not originally get bogged down in terminology, though feel free to use it and let them look it up as needed. Students will learn terms organically as they research and design.

• Use “learning on demand” by connecting students to each other and other appropriate resources.

Like so much in education, adjusting to Problem Based Learning is a shift that requires an upfront investment, but one that will reap many rewards as students become better at thinking on their own and with an innovation mindset. Teachers will also find it more interesting for themselves and will grow as professionals as they find students stretching their ideas past their original concept of the project. That’s a win-win!

Further Reading
  1. The Learning Accelerator – InnovateNJ: Gaining Momentum
  2. EMS1.com – Why EMS educators need to use problem-based learning
  3. The Daily Sentinel – In Montrose, problems are just learning opportunities
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