Mon Sep 28 2020 Michael McQueen

Perhaps the most common fear of teachers in a classroom is that of losing control. The fear of students running amok and dominating the room is enough to send many teachers back into the traditional authoritarian format, where silent and repetitive work is the key means of learning. In my experience of working with schools and teachers, the words ‘Project-Based Learning’ are often quick to conjure up these fears.

The great educationalist John Dewey was a proponent of experiential learning well over a century ago. Of the key elements in making this a reality, Dewey highlighted the importance of ensuring learning was intensely practical: ‘Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn: and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.'[1]

The recent rise of Project-Based Learning embodies this philosophy. To clarify what PBL is the definition offered by the renowned Buck Institute for Education is a helpful place to start: ‘Project-Based Learning is a systematic teaching method that engaged students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.’[2]

While many schools and educators know the language of PBL and extol its virtues, recent research indicates that less than 1 per cent of schools actually use PBL as a central approach to their instruction.[3]

Ted McCain points to the fact that PBL requires a radical shift in the teacher’s role and this can be confronting. He points out that for PBL to work, teachers must be willing to relinquish some classroom control and recognise their role in guiding students through a process of learning by asking questions, prompting, compelling and challenging. ‘There is an element of planned obsolescence in the teacher’s new role: the goal is to guide students through the process of solving problems until they can do it on their own without help from the teacher.’[4]

In my experience, I have found that a second reason teachers and schools fail to embrace PBL is that there is a lot of confusion as to how to implement it.

Drawing on the work of key thinkers and practitioners of PBL around the world, here is a summation of the typical key elements of PBL:[5]

  • The problem or project students work on need to be ones from the ‘real world’.
  • Students and teachers work together in the choice of content as well as the process of learning and the method of evaluation.
  • Work and learning is generally done in small groups with an emphasis on collaboration.
  • Projects tend to be between one and three weeks in duration.
  • Students take primary responsibility for monitoring progress and communicating results.

As a great example of PBL in action, consider the example of a ninth-grade teacher in Paramus, New Jersey, named Cheryl Hopper. As part of an interdisciplinary unit exploring the geography, politics, economics, history, art and religion of Africa, Cheryl challenged students with this project scenario: You are an African nation that desires a substantial loan from the World Bank. Your goal is to convince the World Bank that your country’s needs are great and you deserve a loan.

The task then was for the students to choose an African nation, research the country’s natural resources, history, culture, economic, political and health needs and then present your plan to a panel of their classmate peers who represented the World Bank.

To help the students get started with their inquiries, Cheryl used a structured six-question framework for guiding the students in their inquiry:[6]

1. What do we think we already know? (to establish assumptions of prior knowledge)

2. What do we want and need to find out? (to clarify the gaps of knowledge and understanding)

3. How will we proceed to investigate our questions? (to formulate a plan for organising the research and discovery process)

4. What have we learned at the end of our investigations? (to ascertain new learning and quantify progress)

5. How can we apply the results to this and other subjects and our daily lives? (to make specific principals and learning universal)

6. What new questions do we have now? How might we pursue them in further work/research? (to highlight the ongoing nature of deep learning)

Recognising that a key part of her role as a teacher was to challenge and probe the students along the way, Cheryl posed questions to the students like:[7]

  • How and why did powerful kingdoms emerge in Africa?
  • How do geographical features account for the cultural diversity of the continent?
  • What were the effects of colonial rule?
  • How have traditional patterns of life changed and how have they stayed the same?

It is evident in this that the teacher’s role has not disappeared, merely transformed into a much more facilitative role. While a PBL approach can appear time-consuming and hard to control, the results speak for themselves. According to educational researchers Johannes Strobel and Angela van Barneveld, PBL is ‘superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and teachers’. And Susan Engel and Kellie Randall suggest that it plays a key role in sparking the curiosity that drives intellectual development. ‘When a situation is designed to arouse curiosity, [students] display improved academic performance.’[8]

Moving into the future of our society, this focus on teamwork, real-world learning and innovative thinking could not be more essential. Working in teams on projects in which students get the opportunity to solve real problems not only teaches them the kind of skills our future will require of them, but it prepares them for the format of work to which the world is moving – project-based, highly collaborative teams. As evidenced by the schools that engage with it, the small loss of control for teachers is nothing in comparison to the gains made for the futures of their students.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1]Dintersmith, T. 2018, What School Could Be, Princeton University Press, Oxfordshire, p. 171.

[2]Bellanca, J. & Brandt, R. 2010, 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 121.

[3]Bellanca, J. 2015, Deeper Learning – Beyond 21 st Century Skills, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, p. 116.

[4]McCain, T. 2005, Teaching for Tomorrow – Teaching Content and Problem Solving Skills, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, pp. 76, 77.

[5]McCain, T. 2005, Teaching for Tomorrow – Teaching Content and Problem Solving Skills, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, pp. 76, 77.

[6]Ibid., pp. 180, 181.

[7]Ibid., pp. 181, 182.

[8]Ibid., p. 195.