Projects Vs Project Based Learning: What is the difference?

At a conference recently I was asked to reflect on what I remember learning at school. These experiences could include subjects, topics, projects, specific content or skills. I must admit, I actually found this task quite challenging (which could be a reflection on my memory). However, I do have three vivid memories, that I could recall and each one was a project. The first was the wooden pencil box that I made in year 7. The second was the BBQ utensils that I made and marketed in year 8. The third was made in a year 10 commerce project where we marketed a new soft drink product. During a conversation with a colleague, I was challenged to look beyond recalling the product that I created, but to discuss the knowledge that I learnt. I found this extremely difficult and slightly distressing that I could not recall any specific knowledge from these engaging learning experiences that were etched in my memory. This experience highlighted a question that I constantly see experienced by many teachers in the infancy of their PBL journey – What is the difference between ‘doing projects’ and Project Based Learning?

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What is the difference between ‘doing projects’ and ‘Project Based Learning’?

On the surface there are some very distinct differences. Many PBL educators often use the metaphor that ‘doing projects is the dessert’ and ‘Project Based Learning is the main course’. My colleague Kurt Challinor (@kchalls) uses the Master Chef TV show to explain the difference by comparing the ‘Adriano Zumbo Croquembouche Tower’ as a project against the ‘Invention Test’ which is more like Project Based Learning.

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Furthermore, there are a number of resources available to help teachers differentiate, like the one below that compare and contrast the unique differences.

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Also, the New Tech Network presents a great sense maker that visually highlights the difference between a traditional taught unit of work with a culminating project (like I experienced as a student) vs the process of Project Based Learning.

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All of these resources make sense on the surface, however many teachers fail to recognise that Project Based Learning is a process of sustained and deep inquiry. Rooted in the cognitive architecture of how the brain works and how humans learn. Without fully understanding this process our greatest intentions often result in engaging learning experiences for students, where deep learning fails to prosper.

The PBL Black Box

The issue resides in what I refer to as the ‘PBL Black Box’. Like the black box flight recorder on an aeroplane, people understand the end product but not how it is generated. For example, they understand a project starts with the entry event and culminates with the end product. They are unsure what exactly happens in the middle of a project. Many believe that it is self-directed learning or inquiry, some believe it is student voice and choice or collaborative learning. But the mystery remains, what exactly occurs during the project process to ensure that students learn the required content and skills.

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 8.33.58 amThe answer is in understanding the relationship between the elements of the PBL instructional core.

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At the core of any project is the content. This is the non negotiable knowledge that students are expected to master by completing the project. By utilising the ‘need to know’ list this should drive the inquiry cycle to help students identify, acquire and receive feedback from the different learning experiences in the project. Outside the content core is the product, this relates to the skill sets that the students will acquire as a product of the PBL process. Often it will take more than one experience in PBL to develop these skill sets. Finally, the PBL process is what ensures that the content and product are developed and deepened for each student in their PBL experience. If fidelity to the process is not maintained by the teacher it will result in learning gaps within the content and product for each student. This issue is often masked by the increase of student engagement in a project. Engagement assists in the learning process, but is not the only factor in academic achievement.

Below is a diagram that outlines the framework behind the PBL process:

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1. The Project Launch

  • From the entry event students should be able to identify the content and skills that they need to acquire in order to complete the project. This is the first step in the inquiry process and is an ongoing measure used throughout the project to ensure that students are building upon their knowledge and skills.
  • The assessment rubric provides students with a snapshot of how they will receive feedback throughout the process to ensure that their end product meets the required criteria.

2. The Inquiry Cycle

  • The inquiry cycle is driven by the need to know list and requires appropriate scaffolded intervention by the teacher. Appropriate formative assessments are made regarding student progress and feedback is given.
  • This process will continue in order to help the students deepen their knowledge and skillsets within the project.

3. Differentiated Workshops

  • Throughout the project students and groups will progress at a different pace with content and skill acquisition. The use of differentiated workshops driven by the ‘Need to Know List’ and formative assessment helps ensure that all learning opportunities are maximised.
  • Appropriate feedback is given to students and the process is continued.
  • Note: Inquiry process is not a lockstep process and should be modified to meet the needs of the students and groups within the class.

4. End Product

  • Each group is working towards their end product or culminating event throughout the inquiry process.
  • Feedback given to students and groups is key to ensure that they are able to create a solution that responds to the entry event.

5. Evaluation

  • Evaluation should focus on student self evaluation regarding their content and skill development, peer evaluation regarding their collaboration and project evaluation to provide teachers with opportunities for future developments.


Why PBL gets a bad name?

The lack of process understanding by teachers when creating projects is often what gives PBL a bad name. The effective implementation of this process brings together a range of high impact teaching strategies and makes them authentic in the context of the classroom environment. The diagram below shows the high-impact, evidence-based teaching strategies identified by John Hattie.


Below is the PBL Funnel which shows how each of these strategies has a place within the PBL framework to provide a high impact on student learning and development of skillsets. A deep understanding of the PBL process affords teachers the opportunity to address each of these strategies in their ongoing practice.

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Next steps

Hopefully, this provides you with some coherence regarding the importance of the PBL process against the need to create just projects.  This process is something that will take time for staff to fully understand, however modelling is an excellent strategy to ensure that it can be sustained. Think about modelling the process in your staff meetings or professional development opportunities as an appropriate next step.

Good luck!

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