Exploring PBL and how it works in any classroom has left me in a reflective mood lately. Mostly because I am wondering what it will look like in my classroom. Based on my research this week it seems like PBL could work with any age group, level of learner, learning preferences, or subject matter. Of course, certain elements must be in place for PBL to be effective, and the role of the teacher is extremely important in terms of project success. Clearly the best way to determine how PBL will look in your classroom or mine is to test its validity in a real classroom setting.

How Effective is PBL in the Classroom?

Holm (2011) delves into PBL effectiveness by asking the question: “What does current research say about the effectiveness of project-based learning at the individual classroom level?” In order to answer this question, she summarized peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of PBL, over a ten year period, as it pertains to prekindergarten through grade 12 classrooms (Holm, 2011, p. 3).

What intrigued me the most about this article is that the author’s comparative study included different age groups, subjects, projects, and even countries. In the end, Holm concluded that PBL could be effective in any classroom especially if the teacher possessed certain skills and a positive attitude towards this kind of learning. Not surprisingly, Holm found that student achievement was higher when project-based ideals were aligned with school systems and policies (Holm, 2011, p. 10).

Moreover, project-based learning was perceived positively by students because it “fostered greater engagement with the subject matter” (Holm, 2011, p. 9). Also, students enjoyed “the active, hands-on approach to content, as well as improved perceptions of subject matter” (Holm, 2011, p. 9). Studies also showed that “the beneficial academic effects of project-based instruction were most pronounced for middle-to low-achieving students” (Holm, 2011, p. 9).

Holm also found that PBL is more effective or successful if the teacher possesses the following abilities: good classroom management skills, solid content knowledge, the ability to set clear learning goals, the ability to anticipate difficulties, willingness to support students on an as-needed basis, an understanding of individual differences, and a positive and encouraging approach to interactions with students” (Holm, 2011, p. 9).

Teaching Style & Effectiveness

Reflecting on Holm’s findings about the teacher skills required for PBL I realize that some of us, myself included, might question our own abilities. However, according to our class readings, PBL can be successful if the following three conditions are fulfilled: a strong teacher-student relationship, rigor and accountability, and student involvement.

As an English-Language Arts (ELA) teacher, I enjoy working closely with students. Because we explore human nature in-depth, ELA classrooms are community-orientated and relationship-driven. Exploration, discussion, reflection, and communication are front and centre in an ELA classroom; therefore, these aspects of the course demand that the classroom and the community within it feel secure enough to share their views as well as understand others’ views. If the classroom isn’t open and accepting, it is difficult to fully explore human nature. Likewise, in order to understand why people do the things they do, empathy is essential! This kind of approach would be difficult to achieve in an ELA classroom that wasn’t community-orientated and relationship-driven. Right?!

Rigor and accountability are also very important. Having taught grade 12 for numerous years I have experienced this first hand. At the end of the course students must take a government exam. This exam accounts for 50% of their overall grade. High standards and student accountability ensure better results. Moreover, I have found that student choice, consistent practice and revision, and constructive feedback (from peers and teacher) are also important components of student success when it comes to these demanding exams. Based on this experience and what I am learning about PBL, the skills I have already acquired should be advantageous when introducing PBL into my classroom.

Over the years I have changed my approach to teaching and learning. Lecture style classrooms were in vogue when I started teaching in the 1990s but I never really felt comfortable with that approach. Perhaps that is why I embraced project-based instruction and educational technology early on in my career. Nowadays some educators use descriptors like “guide on the side” (teacher role) or “student-centred classroom” to describe what their classrooms look like in the 21st century. I like to think that my classroom is more 21st century than not. Obviously, there are times when the teacher is not just a guide. Nevertheless, the ELA curriculum supports both student involvement and real-world learning. As I write this, the Inspiring Education initiative by the Alberta government [which focuses on cultivating engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit] is well underway. The best way to foster such thinkers or citizens is through project-based learning—isn’t it? Clearly, the government wants citizens who can adapt to an ever-changing world. How are you going to achieve this goal if students aren’t given opportunities to direct their learning and connect this learning to the real world as well?

PBL in My Classroom

Ideas, ideas, ideas …

Right now I feel overwhelmed … mostly because I am not sure what direction to take. It’s like the menu is too big, and there are too many tasty main courses to choose from!

Some of the projects I have explored focus on theme based concepts like resilience and choice. Their driving questions could be easily adapted to any grade or text(s). For example, the question “what drives our choices?” works with well with many texts, whether a play or a short story. The project example I found connected the driving question to the play, Romeo & Juliet.

Another teacher had students consider why poets write? Although I don’t care for the wording of the driving question (Why do emos write poetry?) the focus on the importance of self-expression is certainly appealing. It reminds me of my “What is art?” unit for ELA30-1 . So the potential is there as well.

The “A Hero in My Eyes” project also captured my interest. Although it doesn’t meet the 8 elements of PBL it certainly inspired me to ask this driving question: Why do humans need heroes, either imagined or real? Again … there’s another choice to make.

As you can see PBL ideas are everywhere … I just need to make a choice. No matter the choice though, I plan to use the Resilience Café assignment as a guide because it is very thorough and provides an excellent walk through for a PBL newbie like me.


Holm, M. (2011). Project-based instruction: A review of the literature on effectiveness in prekindergarten through 12th grade classrooms. Rivier Academic Journal, 7(2). Retrieved from http://www.rivier.edu/journal/ROAJ-Fall-2011/J575-Project-Based-Instruction-Holm.pdf