PBL – Project Based Learning

My conversations with regards to PBL have increased in the last few months and typically, I would refer BIE.ORG. They publish a fantastic handbook and well worth the money you pay for it.   Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as an IT professional for years working in software development projects with roles ranging from developer, analyst/designer, project team leader.  I also worked as a consultant for IT process management, project management and program management – in various industries: Banking and Finance, Manufacturing, Foreign Exchange and Medical insurance.  Application projects ranged from transactional systems through to Global Data Warehousing and Strategic Reporting (think data mining)…..I have no gaming industry experience.

Still reading? Great. Apologies for it sounding like a bio – not too keen to head back to IT at this point anyway.


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I have years and years of IT project work and have benefitted from skills I learned applied to the teaching profession.  I’m thinking of distilling some of this + some new things I learned and attempt to write a series of PBL-related posts.  Hopefully, it will be of some use to somebody out there.

Projects – Defined

There are many official definitions but I go by this: projects are purpose-driven work, of a desired quality, and requiring resources (time, effort, tools, money).  Purpose can be to address requirements, problems, opportunities or all of the above.  Typical constraints are with regards to time and money although I heard that in Engineering projects, quality is paramount, i.e. the main constraint.

A project manager should manage the scope (what needs to be done), time (schedule), budget (money), people (project team and stakeholders) and quality.   It is not surprising why project managers demand the pay they do – good ones anticipate problems and address accordingly (Risk and Issue Management).

Project Approaches

process or productThere are many but I think the 2 main categories are process-focus and product-focus.

The philosophy behind process-focus is the implementation of best practices; there is no need to re-invent the wheel.  Innovation is not ruled out.  Rather, the idea is to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and if the process can be improved, then feed back into the system.  Best practices evolve.  I daresay that CMM-compliant projects would have a process-focus.  In simple terms, process-focus will start with the Work Breakdown Structure or WBS (what tasks are to be done by whom, using what tools).

Product-focus starts with identifying what products (outcomes) need to be delivered; hence the term deliverables.  Best one I’ve come across with in real life is from PRINCE2 – Product-Based Planning to create the Product Breakdown Structure or PBS and Product Flow.  BIE.ORG has a more product-focus particularly for PBLs used for assessment.

In both approaches there are processes and products; the difference is how you plan your projects. Do you plan based on given steps or desired outcomes?


PBLs can either have process-focus or product-focus.  I would recommend that students be exposed to both; both exist in real life, after all.

Process-focus PBL is a good start for teachers and particularly students new to project work.  Essentially, they just need to follow the given steps.  In theory, if they don’t need to think of what needs to be done constantly, they are more free to be creative and/or improve the quality of their outcomes.  When I did a year 9 movie-making PBL unit, I gave them the steps to do (complete with milestones – deadlines at the end of the steps) so they could focus on movie-making itself rather than managing their projects.

Product-focus PBL provide students with greater flexibility with how they develop their products.  They work out what needs to be done and how to get there.  A teacher can act as a process consultant to guide students along as required.  I did this with a year 12 project management PBL unit.  Groups had to create a project plan so they start with elements of the plan and then the steps to develop those.  I enjoyed this very much as it was similar to my project management consultancy days – granted, without the usual pay. 😉

Important Points about projects and PBL

  1. Learning is a process as well as a product.  Have a balance of both and students benefit.  Ditto with projects.  Try both process-focus and product-focus PBL.
  2. Projects are typically collaborative work.  Ensure each project has a defined project team with members clear on their roles and accountability.  Point 8 in this Classroom Management post by Always Formative has some great ideas and links.
  3. Encourage chunking.  Even with assessments, enforce some minor deadlines.  This helps students with time management and prioritising.
  4. People are arguably the biggest variables in projects. Manage them well and the rest follow.
  5. Real projects are negotiable, i.e. the juggling of scope, time, budget, people and quality.  Pursue opportunities to develop communication skills.
  6. Evaluate both process and product.
  7. Sometimes the best option is to cancel the project altogether.  Plan for failure – what will you do as a teacher if a project team is really struggling?
  8. Identify assumptions and clarify expectations.  Reminders are good.
I think I’ll end this here now.
Do you have any other ideas or questions about PBL? Please leave a comment.

UPDATE (8 December 2011)

If the above seems a bit too hazy and you need a clear illustration, lucky for me this has been done brilliantly by Heidi Siwak in her post: Teaching Process and Planning.  She is essentially promoting the use of product-based approach.  In my comment, I state that she is able to do this because she (and likely her students) are familiar and comfortable with the processes involved in project-based learning.  One approach is not necessarily better than the other.  A PBL-practitioner should be able to switch as the need arises.

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