Study: Project-based learning heavy on doing, weak on learning

Would-be paradigm shifters are excited about project-based learning (PBL), but it’s often heavy on doing and light on learning, argues Gisèle Huff, executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. “Whatever knowledge students may actually acquire seems incidental and not clearly assessed.

In addition, PBL “is not nearly as personalized as its adherents would have us believe,” writes Huff. When students work in groups, often with “little tracking of individual performance, some students naturally coast on the work of others.”

. . .  In Most Likely to Succeed, a film focused on the largely PBL-based High Tech High, one of the two main students takes over a project that he has obsessed over and then fails to complete it in time. Somewhere along the line, the classmates who were once part of his group disappear. They seemingly abdicated their roles, and it is not clear how they benefited from the experience or how they were able to demonstrate their achievements in order to be assessed. The featured student himself doesn’t even master the knowledge and skills critical to the project!

“PBL may work well for kids in boutique school settings” with highly qualified teachers, writes Huff. “But it offers scant hope of solving education problems on the scale that America needs.”

Getting Smart’s Tom Vander Ark, who’s It’s a Project-Based World, is a big PBL fan. He thinks “personalized project-based learning” will “build on ramps to the new economy.”

If students spent five hours every school day engaged in high quality project-based learning, they would put in more than 10,000 hours from kindergarten to graduation – they just might become an expert project manager.

He advocates Gold Standard PBL, which means students choose “challenging real-world problems” that “require demanding demonstration of key concepts and high quality public products after critique and revision.”

I think Huff would ask: How often can schools pull that off?

This post originally appeared here on

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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs

Joanne was born in Chicago and named after her grandfather, Joe Jacobs, who’d been a police reporter for the Omaha Bee-News. At the age of eight, she and her best friend became the creators and co-editors-in-chief of "The Wednesday Report" for four years. After years as a San Jose Mercury News columnist, Joanne started an education blog in 2001 and wrote "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds." She freelances for online sites, newspapers, magazines, foundations and think tanks. In addition to blogging at, Joanne writes Community College Spotlight at
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