August 9, 2020

Is project-based learning the penicillin or lava lamp of education?

A debate is how we civilly do war, and nowhere is gentle war more necessary than in the arena of educational thought.

Overrun by fads and fad-masters who confuse the ideological marketplace with pablum disguised as manna, the world of educational intellectuals leaves civilians more confused than smart when confronted with potential innovations like, for instance, Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Is PBL the biggest and most promising contribution to civilization since penicillin, or is it the lava lamp of education?

Pushed to answer I lean toward penicillin, especially as a formerly bored student who prefers to actively do rather than passively receive an education. But, I’m no expert and my anecdotes are useless for you.

Enter two people with cause and credibility to speak on the issue.

Peter Hyman and Daisy Chistodoulou have debated PBL at Debating Education, a series meant to provide the stage to bright minds to bring light to complex educational issues.

Peter Hyman is a school leader, author, and current leader of School 21, a project-based learning program in the UK. He Tweets from @PeterHyman21.

Daisy Christodoulou is a UK-based educator and Director of Education for No More Marking. She Tweets fromĀ @daisychristo and blogs at

Here’s a thumbnail of Peter’s opening statement:

“It’s important to start with what project-based learning really is because there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Let’s just be precise…it’s a series of rigorous and exacting processes. An essential question that drives through the project. A grounding text of a great piece of literature or art substantial and serious knowledge content multiple drafts of work practicing those skills and learning that knowledge so that there’s real craftsmanship involved. An end product of value so we lift students work out of the exercise book and give them something that transcends the classroom and has value in the world and an authentic audience where it can it can be shown critiqued and a student can be accountable of it though accountable for it in terms of delivery. PBL contains lectures and direct instruction, particularly at the beginning. PBL…isn’t about teachers giving up on teaching. It isn’t about some fluffy ideas of generic skills. It isn’t about saying skills are more important than knowledge. It’s not a belief that knowledge doesn’t matter because everyone can look things up on the Internet. It isn’t about putting many subjects together under one mushy topic. It isn’t about pretending children are experts when they clearly aren’t and it isn’t about making posters or using glitter although a little bit of glitter always helps the project.”

Here’s the main set up in Daisy’s opening statement:

“We know for our history that there have been examples of successful project-based schools but we also know that all the research analysis; that all the evidence of how we learn; that all of the evidence from systems who have tried to adopt this at scale show that project-based learning is not an effective way of learning.I’m going to tell you that the best way to prepare people is to be able to tackle real-world problems is actually for pupils to spend most of their time doing things that don’t look like such problems. Project-based learning confuses ends and means so I think using projects as ends is great but using them as means isn’t so. There are three main reasons why I think that projects are not the best means of learning: first learning is not the same as performing, second projects don’t allow you to get good feedback about how to improve…and third, projects are not nearly as motivating as some people claim.”

And now, watch the full debate:

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