Monday, May 20, 2013

Which Model of Project-Based Learning Is Needed in 21st Century Schools?

“PBL has been practiced in various ways in education and has become increasingly common with the advent of of digital technologies in recent years.” Yong Zhao, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students
Project-Based Learning (PBL)  is being touted as the 21st century answer to how we should be educating students and the perfect delivery-system for the Common Core State Standards. While those reasons for implementing PBL are legitimate, there are other reasons for implementing PBL as well. First of all, it has the potential to be a more engaging learning and teaching strategy. Secondly, it may more accurately mirror the world of work by engaging students in problem-solving. Thirdly, it can engage students in using technology to create and innovate. While these are additional reasons to implement PBL, we also need to be clearer regarding what we mean by PBL. There are multiple versions of PBL and those versions are not all equally effective in addressing these same reasons.

In his book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao describes three different iterations of PBL, each with its own features and desired outcomes. He specifically advocates for the third model, Entrepreneurial Model of PBL, in order to educate students to effectively tackle the problems we face in the 21st century, but his PBL model framework is an interesting way to help us think about what we mean by PBL and what we want to accomplish with its implementation. Here’s Zhao’s three models:

Academic Model of PBL
  • Goal or intention is to teach prescribed content and skills.
  • This prescribed content and these skills drive the project.
  • The resulting products are byproducts of learning and not considered as important as the content/skills learned.
  • Products are not really meant for authentic consumption.
  • Effectiveness of this model of PBL is assessed by how well students master the content and prescribed skills as identified on achievement tests.
  • Teacher controls the content, what is taught, how projects are created and how projects are evaluated.
Mixed Model of PBL
  • This model values the artifacts---the products students create, but also values prescribed content.
  • End products created by students are expected to be of high quality, and are sometimes created for consumers outside the school.
  • Mandated content and standards aren't ignored, but they are not the starting points for projects.Content and skills are not allowed to define, constrain, or guide the projects.
  • To ensure content and skills are taught, teachers are in control of the process: teachers may ask for input but they decide how the project is carried out.
  • Students have varying degrees of freedom within the prescribed project.
  • Students may engage in peer review or evaluation of projects, but evaluation is largely at teacher activity.
  • Focus is less on transmitting knowledge and more about learning real-world skills.
Entrepreneurial Model of PBL
  • Aim is cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and skills.
  • Places more emphasis on artifacts, the products, than either of the other two models.
  • Products must be of high-quality and must appeal to external consumers. Products must meet an authentic need of a customer.
  • Students are in more control of their products. They propose and initiate the product proposal process.
  • They must sell the product to the teacher and get the teacher to approve the product.
  • Students develop a business plan: documentation and analysis of target audience, feasibility studies, and marketing plan.
  • Teacher takes on the role of “venture capitalist,” consultant, motivator, and facilitator.
  • Projects can be individual or collaborative.
  • Time for students to work is divided into large chunks. Traditional schedule and calendar may not suffice.
  • Focus is on the product, not the process or skills necessarily.
  • Product-oriented learning.

It's clear by looking at Zhao’s three models of PBL, that the first two models are about teaching the prescribed curriculum, but only using PBL as the conduit for that teaching. The last model, the Entrepreneurial Model, is designed to foster an entrepreneurial mindset and skill set which is what Zhao’s book advocates and states is needed in the 21st century.

Whether you see Zhao’s “Entrepreneurial Model of PBL” or product-oriented learning as being feasible or not, it does offer some interesting ideas to ponder. As Zhao points out, “Entrepreneurship is about inventing a solution to an existing problem or creating a product or service to meet a need.” And if what we really need are creative and inventive solutions to the problems staring us in the face as 21st century citizens, then there’s certainly a great deal merit in this Entrepreneurial model of PBL.


  1. Ive used a form of PBL for decades in our school library units, altough we never gave them that title. units varied by teacher and by curriculum AND by changes in assessment emphasis that came and went. Either model of PBL, always needs solid pedagogy and fabulous collaboration by professionals. Strong PBL doesn't come in a kit and isn't downloadable in any model you choose.

    1. Yes, I also used PBL as a teacher, though I did not necessarily call it that either. As you say, it is not a kit, and I am positive there is no pure form of it. I think Zhao's framework though puts into words the idea that "How you conduct PBL" affects what you want to accomplish with it. If you want creativity and inventiveness, then it must incorporate more choice, more freedom. If you want to use PBL to deliver Standardized Curriculum, then you may find yourself being in more control of the PBL process as a teacher. I think you can do both too.

  2. Why choose? What about other hybrids, or new iterations? If PBL began while thinking outside of the box, why box it in?

    Thank you for the comparison.

    1. I don't think it is an either or dilemma either. I also do not think these can be viewed as pure models of practice either. This framework though I think maybe captures a continuum of elements that we must ponder in order to think about PBL as an instructional strategy. If we want to use PBL to teach the Standardized Curriculum, we may be forced to teach it leaning more toward one model. If we are after creativity and innovativeness, we may have to lean more toward the other. Perhaps a combination of the two is possible. One of the issues at the heart of PBL is perhaps can you teach the standardized curriculum with PBL and still foster creativity, inventiveness, and the entrepreneurial thinking too? Something to ponder.