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Project vs. PBL

Project Based Learning (PBL) has been a hot topic in education in recent years. I have seen projects where students build something like a community garden while they read, write, and do some math to get there. I always thought that these were for the “TV teachers” - the ones that are on social media or on the news or get movies made about them, not for us “common folk.” I have always loved the idea, however, it seemed daunting to plan something so extravagant and I questioned if it could even be used in upper level math. Then I was hired by a project based learning school.

In partnership with New Tech Network, which is a project based learning company, I was apart of the founding teachers who opened a comprehensive high school that focuses on project based learning in every content area in the 2020 - 2021 school year. I learned from a firehose that first year about how to make PBL work in a secondary math class. Since starting the PBL process, I am never going back to “traditional” teaching. My goal is to ease you into to PBL. I am going to start by introducing the myths and components of PBL and in future posts, discuss how to get started and share some ideas for PBL units.

Project or PBL - What's the difference?

There is a major difference between “doing a project” and “project based learning”. Oftentimes when students do a project, they learn and show mastery of content standards, then apply what they already know to a real world situation. I like to call projects “Performance Assessments.” Students learn the content devoid of any real world connection, but then we assess their understanding in how they apply the skills to a real world scenario.

In project based learning, students are mastering content standards and working within a real world context concurrently. A real world scenario and connection is presented as a problem in which they need new content skills to solve.

There is nothing wrong with the traditional model of “doing a project.” However, since committing to the PBL journey, I have seen huge improvements in student engagement and work quality by introducing a central problem and aiming instruction around the tools and skills necessary to solve that problem. Students are learning the math content I am required to teach, but have an immediate connection to where it can apply outside of the classroom. Many of my former students remembered the projects we did, not necessarily the math behind the project, but they had positive associations with the projects and math. That is a win in my book.

While some PBLs can take anywhere from 2 days - 4 weeks depending on the topics and scale of the project. Many of my projects often take no longer than one week, with many only lasting several days. Planning projects in a math classroom have some pros and cons. On the bright side, students get introduced to new topics and projects frequently. On the down side, as a teacher projects take a lot of prep time upfront and could take time to grade products depending on how many components of the project you are grading. I will share my ideas on how to keep the amount of grading to a minimum for projects in later posts.

PBLs are definitely inquiry inspired. When launching a project, students will have time to look at the information provided and determine what they already know and what questions they will need answered to fulfill the project requirements. Once students have generated questions they need answered in order to solve the problem, instruction is tailored to those questions. As a teacher, I get to decide how students learn specific skills and concepts. Sometimes it is with direct instruction, sometimes it is with a discovery lesson, sometimes it is through a guided collaborative activity. This is my favorite part of PBL - ALL instructional practices and strategies will work. The goal is for students to learn and understand the new concepts and skills needed to solve the central problem - it doesn’t matter how they are learned. The same goes with assessments. Any assessment format will work. Assessments are just ways of students showing what they know - it could be with content related questions or a product in relation to a project. Many times I assess students with traditional tests AND through a product in relation to the project. Bottom line - good instructional practices are good instructional practices. PBL is a framework for making a problem central to learning new skills and concepts.


All PBLs have the following components. I am going to briefly describe each here and in later posts I will go into depth about how to plan them, grade them, and what distinguishes the good and great PBL units.

  • Entry Event

This is the hook to get students engaged in the context of the problem. Some fun entry events I have used are videos, a letter or email written to the students asking for their help, and having students explore an online source.

  • Driving Question

This is the question students will be able to answer by the end of the project. I generally frame this question to connect the content with the situation. For example, one of my driving questions for a project is, “How can we use triangles and trigonometry to design a ropes course?”

  • Problem Statement

This statement tells students who they are, what they will do, and why they are doing it in relation to the real world context of the project. I like to use the frame, “You are ___ who will ____ so that ____.”

  • Knows & Need to Knows

This is an instructional strategy that allows students to collaborate with peers and describe what they already know about the situation and what questions they need answered in order to answer the driving question and fulfill all project requirements. The list of Need to Know questions will drive the instruction.

  • Instruction

The who, what, when, where, why and how of the project. This is where you will teach the content related standards using any instructional strategy.

  • Benchmarks

Benchmarks are simply checkpoints for understanding. Where are students in their understanding of ___? Where are students in their completion of ____? These could be more formal quizzes or informal check-ins.

  • Product and/or Presentation

Every project needs to include a product (it’s the “so that” portion of the problem statement). Some products I have used in the past were slideshows, pitches, commercials, show and tell presentations, news articles, posters, and postcards, the possibilities are endless here.


I may not ever be a TV teacher, but I do know that PBL has been an amazing way for me to help connect kids with math in an authentic way and for students to work on becoming better mathematicians, students, and humans. I hope you join me on this journey of incorporating PBL into your instruction practices.


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