What’s Keeping us From Doing PBL?

Mastering standards at a deeper level with project-based learning

John Dewey (1959), a great philosopher and educational theorist of the 1950s, had already warned us about the importance of an educational focus on the student rather than on the teacher. He argued that classroom methodologies should be reviewed since young people learn through experimentation. Dewey was not the only one to identify the problems of our usual educational methods, however, he was a pioneer in this area. Dewey expressed his view on the importance of valuing students’ critical thinking, as well as emphasizing the democratization of teaching as one of the main elements for the transformation of school life. He was concerned about questioning reality and knew that young people would only be prepared for the world if they were given an education in which the focus was on freedom of thought.

The dynamization of learning and the rethinking of a teacher’s role in the classroom is not new. Most educational theorists defend that knowledge must be created instead of simply transmitted. Knowledge has to be elaborated throughout a relationship with the students, stimulating their critical thinking and their autonomy during the entire process. It is not possible to speak of the democratization of teaching without rethinking the teacher’s practice, leaving aside its centrality in the traditional learning process, thus giving space to the student as the protagonist of the construction of knowledge.

Although thinkers such as Dewey remain in our collective consciousness as inspirers of today’s schools, our educational system remains static, especially when we refer to teaching methodologies. School remains far from the reality that most students face, and this difference grows every day due to rapidly changing technologies. With instant access to all information online, it becomes increasingly necessary to return to Dewey’s concept of movement in order to rethink the teacher’s role and teaching methodologies.

Based on Bloom’s taxonomy (1976), we can see that to achieve higher levels of abstraction and maturity, classroom procedures and methodologies should be adapted for such purposes. This was, indeed, one of the proposals for the creation of the cognitive taxonomy in 1948, to identify the different levels of cognition, from the lowest to the highest, and how to reach them. This is undoubtedly a challenge for most teachers, since educators want their students to achieve a level of maturity and knowledge often incompatible with their stated objectives and with their procedures, strategies, and content.

In a world where nothing is certain, where jobs can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, to teach our students how to think creatively and critically, instead of just memorizing and reproducing knowledge, seems like the right thing to do. Taking students out of their comfort zones to show them how to connect their school learning with real life situations will better prepare them for adulthood. Project-based learning (PBL), for example, engages students in real-life problems, which not only develops knowledge in a more complex way, but helps students develop 21st century skills such as emotional intelligence, communication skills, and complex thinking.

Not even the lack of technology is an obstacle to this type of learning methodology. In schools with few resources such as access to the Internet or laptops in the classroom, it is possible to create projects based on questionnaires and using newspapers and real-life situations. Working together and fostering creative moments such as sharing examples and sharing difficulties, are key to PBL’s success in schools.

If all these statements about the benefits are true, what prevents schools from promoting PBL methodology? Why do most classes remain traditional? Why can’t we actually turn classes into student-centered environments? The obstacle to this school transformation is simple to identify, yet incredibly difficult to overcome: curriculum design.

John Spencer (2018), in his article How Do You Teach to the Standards when Doing Project-Based Learning?, states that for project-based classes to be successful, teachers must adapt their assessments based on the standards described in the curriculum. If teachers connect the standards to the corresponding PBL approach, it will be easier to transform our teaching methodology more substantially.

Spencer has created a table that shows how to do this type of correlation (see figure 1). As the table shows, there will always be an overlap with projects. The important thing to keep in mind is that teachers should not create an additional project for the school year. They must, on the other hand, reorganize their plans to replace the expository classes and tests with project-based learning activities. As a consequence, students will learn during the project and not before. That is why the pedagogical team must be incredibly prepared for the task. If the project proposal is too loose, students will feel lost and may not achieve the skills teachers expect them to acquire. Having guidelines to help them manage their time will help students divide tasks across the group and deal with unexpected situations, thus improving their performance.

Figure 1
Connection of Standards to the PBL Framework

Model Flexibility of Standards The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience.
From “How do you teach to standards when doing project-based learning,” by J. Spencer, 2018.
Retrieved from http://www.spencerauthor.com/standards-and-pbl/. Reprinted with permission.

Will teachers be able to create PBL projects for all the standards required by the school? Unfortunately, no. Such inability does not lie in an incapacity to think creatively and propose a learner-centered approach to a specific subject or topic, but rather because process-based learning projects take time to develop. If the curriculum remains as extensive as today, teachers will not be able to develop long and complex projects that promote higher levels of cognition than a typical lecture, which only achieves memorization and comprehension.

In a lecture, the same ability could be achieved more quickly since teachers provide all the responses instead of giving the necessary time for students to build their own knowledge. This does not mean that lectures are not successful at helping students learn content. A teacher full of empathy, who motivates students with intriguing questions and an engaging and didactic explanation, will be able to make students leave the class satisfied. However, we must bear in mind that sitting at a table listening to a teacher for 50 minutes is not the same as a student being challenged to construct the same knowledge by herself, seeking information and later teaching what she has learned to her colleagues.

This kind of involvement develops a variety of skills, not only the understanding of certain content. The student will achieve greater critical thinking skills through the research she must do to find the information she needs; she will develop the ability to synthesize by merging and summarizing such information; she will increase her social-emotional skills by having to negotiate with her peers throughout the learning process and reflect retrospectively on what they could improve; she will also improve her organizational skills in developing all the steps involved in the project.

This description of the numerous skills developed when using project-based learning reinforces William Glasser’s theory of learning, which states that students forget what they have learned if they do not participate in the process of building knowledge in the classroom. For the author, the student in a traditional class is only able to retain 20% of what was said by the teacher. If listening is combined with visual aids, that retention increases to 50%. Through PBL methodologies, however, the student will retain 80% of the knowledge since he becomes the center of the learning process, even by helping compose his own grade, being able to reflect on his performance and the performance of the other members of his group. It also helps students understand the evaluation process that composes the final grade, which helps in their understanding that the final result was not given intuitively by their teacher, but rather conquered through their work during all stages of the project. Therefore, although it takes longer to plan and for the ultimate goal to be achieved, students in classes in which they are at the center of the methodological planning are more successful in absorbing knowledge and developing the skills and competencies needed for real-life situations. If we decide that this methodology is necessary to improve our schools, we need to reevaluate the content orientation of our curricular structure and principals should be the first ones to encourage teachers to take this next step.



Bloom, B. (1976). Taxonomy of educational objectives. The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. David Mckay Co. Inc.

Dewey, J. (1959). Reconstrução em filosofia. 2a. ed. São Paulo: Nacional. Tradução de António Pinto de Carvalho.

Spencer, J. (2018, February 9). How do you teach to standards when doing project-based learning? Retrieved from http://www.spencerauthor.com/standards-and-pbl/