Exploring an Archeology of Ideas in Project-Based Learning

Today everyone is talking about Project-Based Learning as a ‘new’, 21st Century approach to teaching and learning.  But is the use of projects in teaching all that new? Not really…

Back in 1918 William H. Kilpatrick published “The Project Method” Child-Centeredness in Progressive Education” in The Teachers’ College Record.  In this now famous essay Kilpatrick proposes “wholehearted purposeful activity in a social situation as the typical unit of school procedure” in order to utilize “the child’s native capacities now too frequently wasted.”


William H. Kilpatrick

It’s fair to say that lots of teachers today use projects in their classrooms, so does that mean they are all doing project-based learning?  Not according to John Larmer and John Mergendoller who wrote a fabulous article in 2010 called: “The Main Course, Not Dessert: How are Students Reaching 21st Century Goals with 21st Century Project-Based Learning?” Larmer and Mergendoller point out that most teachers today still view projects as “dessert” – lightweight, fun activities (e.g. posters, skits, models) served up to students after they have learned the course material through more traditional methods such as lectures, textbook readings, worksheets, etc.  By contrast, in project-based learning (PBL), the project is “the main course”.  It is central rather than peripheral to the curriculum.

So what do we really mean when we talk about Project-Based Learning?  Based on my research, here are some of the characteristics of PBL defined by the experts…


Project-based learning (or PBL):

  • Is a comprehensive instructional approach
  • Uses principles of backward curriculum design
  • Frames learning in long-term units of study rather than short-term, isolated lessons
  • Organizes learning using two critical components:1) Driving Questions and 2) the production of Projects (artifacts) that address the driving question and represent student learning
  • Focuses on authentic, important real-world issues that capture learners’ interests and provoke critical thinking and reflection
  • Engages students in sustained, collaborative inquiry
  • Fosters collaboration (between students and between students and teachers) in designing projects
  • Develops important skills including: critical thinking, research, communication, collaboration, problem solving, and leadership.
  • Aligns assessment with projects – high interest tasks or performances that mirror the type of work professionals do in the community
  • Ensures that all learning culminates in a publicly exhibited product, publication, or presentation (developing a model, invention or business proposal; performing a play; writing a newspaper article; producing a video) – there is purpose and an audience connected to every project so that students recognize the relevancy and authenticity of their learning
  • Provides a natural link to ‘service-learning’ – students have opportunities to investigate current social/environmental issues and affect change in their community or globally

Project-based learning as we know it today is a complex framework for teaching and learning that has obviously developed over time with thoughtful consideration.


So where did all these ideas and components for PBL come from…?

For my final assignment in the last course in my EdD program: Seminar in Educational Theory, and my current dissertation research project, I wanted to explore the historical underpinnings of project-based learning.  What I have discovered in researching this topic is that PBL is in fact grounded in the theories of some well-known philosophers and child psychologists.  Here is what my ‘archeological digging’ for ideas came up with…

PBL and Inquiry-Based Learning



It may be argued that project-based learning owes its philosophical foundations to the Ancient Greek philosophers, and in particular Socrates (469-399 BC) who used a dialectic method of questioning in teaching his students. Socratic inquiry is based on the belief that asking thoughtful questions stimulates meaningful learning. The purpose of Socratic questioning is to prompt and guide students’ thinking, instead of imparting information by direct instruction. It is a teaching approach that is characterized by inquiry, debate, critical thinking, and active dialogue between instructor and student.


Project-based learning is grounded in the inquiry-based tradition, both as part of the process of learning and in the creation of projects. Students work in groups asking questions, researching answers, and drawing conclusions, as they work towards the creation of a project that represents their learning. While traditional teaching follows an approach of providing knowledge and concepts to students first, followed by structured opportunities for practice and application of new learning, project-based learning adheres to the principles of backward design, beginning with “the end in mind” – the project.  Project-based learning creates opportunities for students to investigate meaningful questions that require them to gather information and think critically.

221921A key component of the PBL framework is the Driving Question, which helps to initiate the inquiry process and maintain the focus on core learning outcomes and the project itself. Driving questions are open-ended, challenging, and have no one “right” answer. They frame important issues or problems (How can we reduce pollution in the local creek?), debates (Should skateboarders be allowed to ride anywhere in the city?), or challenges (What is the best design for a high school?).  Driving questions sustain further inquiry, deepen students’ learning, and ultimately lead to the creation of an original project.

For an interesting article on driving questions check out Andrew Miller’s 2011 article: “How to Refine Driving Questions for Effective Project-Based Learning”.

PBL and Experiential Learning

Experiential learning emphasizes the central role that experience plays in the learning process.  The idea of learning by doing and empirical accounts of knowledge can be traced as far back as John Locke (1632-1704) who in the 17th century advanced the idea that all reason and knowledge are derived from experience.


John Locke

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, originally published in 1693, Locke advanced several principles of instruction that included the notion that children learn better by practice and doing, particularly when their work is linked to their personal interests. Sounds a lot like current descriptions of project-based learning!


Another experientialist whose philosophy underpins project-based learning is John Dewey (1859-1952), who famously said, “Education is not preparation for life, but is life itself.”


John Dewey

Dewey believed that deep learning occurs when students focus their attention, energies, and abilities on solving genuine problems or issues.  For education to be most effective, content must be presented in a manner that allows students to relate the information to prior experiences and to deepen their connection to new knowledge through direct, hands-on experiences. Dewey insisted on the “intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education” (Experience and Education, p. 28) in order to make learning meaningful for students.  Dewey’s philosophy of learning is central to the PBL model, which is designed to allow students to act, experience, and interact with the curriculum in more direct and meaningful ways.

PBL and Constructivism/Social Constructivism


Jean Piaget

Constructivism was developed in the latter part of the 20th century as an alternative to the behaviorist approaches to education in which learning is viewed through the lens of ‘instruction’, and knowledge is considered to be external, objective reality.  Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is widely acknowledged for his contributions to the theory of constructivism.  Piaget’s theory of human development was based on the hypothesis that learning is a transformative process; children learn by constructing new ideas or concepts based on their current and previous knowledge. Understanding is shaped and reshaped as new knowledge is acquired, especially when new knowledge is incompatible with previous understanding.

art_constructivism_bannerConstructivism views learning as an active process that requires learners to construct their own understanding through engagement in hands-on learning opportunities, followed by opportunities for reflection. In the project-based learning model, students focus on deep exploration of significant issues or problems.  Through an on-going process of knowledge construction and reflection, students design personally meaningful projects that represent and transform their understanding of big ideas connected to the curriculum.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) developed a theory of social constructivism based on the idea that learners construct knowledge through interactions with their environment.



In contrast to Piaget and other constructivists who believed that development always precedes learning, Vygotsky believed that social learning precedes development, particularly when learners are in the presence of more competent ‘others’. His well-known theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is defined as the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers(Mind in Society, 1978, p.86).

screen-shot-2010-10-31-at-13-47-15 In Vygotskian theory, and in the project-based learning model, the starting point for instruction is the learner’s current knowledge and skills. The learner brings prior knowledge and experience to the learning task, which can be applied to solve problems and develop new understanding. Project-based learning reflects a Vygotskian perspective by prioritizing social interactions that allow learners to “face cognitive challenges that are just slightly above their current levels of ability” (Wrigley, 1998, p.2).

In PBL classrooms students have opportunities to work in cooperative groups entering into “discussion and meaningful interaction with more capable peers or teachers. These individuals can model problem solving, assist in finding solutions, monitor progress, and evaluate success.

Paolo Freire (1921-1997),a Brazilian educator and political activist, is also considered a significant contributor to the field of social constructivism.


Paolo Freire

Like other constructivists, Freire viewed knowledge not as something static that is transmitted from teacher to learner (the“banking model”), but as something that is socially constructed through meaningful questioning and dialogue. He advocated for a concept of education grounded in problematisation (or problem-posing), a form of critical inquiry. “Only an education of question can trigger, motivate, and reinforce curiosity” (Pedagogy of the Heart, 2004, p. 31). Freire’s work focused on making education a meaningful and liberating process, particularly for disadvantaged children in Brazil, by focusing on critical thinking, and the development of identity, democratic participation, and cooperation. Freire considered the traditional “banking” concept of education “as an instrument of oppression” (Freire, 1970) and advocated instead for learning that focused on problem-posing and dialogue, one that would ultimately lead to critical consciousness (conscientizaçào) – “the ability among students to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 17).

0826412769.01.LZZZZZZZAction and reflection (praxis) were important in Freire’s work and are particularly relevant, important concepts to consider in a project-based learning model.

PBL and Constructionism

 The Constructionist epistemology builds on both the experiential and constructivist theories of learning to view learning as a reconstruction rather than a transmission of knowledge. Seymour Papert (born 1928) initially proposed the theory of constructionism in the late 1980s, through a grant application to the National Science Foundation called Constructionism: A New Opportunity for Elementary Science Education.

Constructionism extends the ideas of experientialism (learning by doing), Piaget’s theory of constructivism (individuals reconstructing new knowledge based on experiences), and Vygotsky’s and Freire’s theories of social constructivism, by asserting that deep, meaningful learning occurs through the creation of an artifact or product of one’s learning.  In 1991 Papert and Harel wrote:

Constructionism–the N word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe. (Situating Constructionism, 1991, p. 1)

150px-PapertTo see what Papert has to say about Project-Based Learning, check out this interview with him on Edutopia.

The idea of students constructing knowledge in the form of an original artifact is the core element in the project-based learning model; moreover, it is what distinguishes project-based learning from other inquiry/constructivist theories such as problem-based learning.  In project-based learning students work cooperatively towards the creation and public exhibition of a tangible, meaningful product (e.g. simulation, game, story, pamphlet, video, play, model, website, etc.) that represents their personal and social construction of meaningful knowledge.

Rooted in inquiry, experientialism, constructivism, social constructivism, and constructionism, project-base project-based learning is a clearly a theory of learning with legitimate, well-defined historical and philosophical roots.

Project-Based Learning Resources Online: 

In researching the topic of project-based learning I have used many resources, some of which are available on the Internet.  Here are my recommendations as a starting point for others interested in learning more about PBL.

Blumenfeld, P.C., Soloway, E., Marx, R.W., Krajcik, J.S., Gusdial, M & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 369-398 

Buck Institute for Learning – “Dedicated to improving 21st Century teaching and learning throughout the world by creating and disseminating products, practices and knowledge for effective Project Based Learning (PBL).”


Edutopia – another great website full of  practical ideas for teaching using the PBL approach

Grant, M. (2002). Getting a grip on project-based learning: Theory, cases and recommendations. Meridian, 5(1).

Grant, M. (2011). Learning, beliefs, and products: Students’ perspectives with project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 5(2), 37-69.

Houghton Mifflin Project-Based Learning Space

Patton, A. (2012). Work that matters: The teacher’s guide to project-based learningA High Tech High and Learning Futures Project guide. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Scholastic – The Power of Project-Based Learning

Wrigley, H. (1998). Knowledge in action: The promise of project-based learning. Focus on Basics: Connecting Research and Practice, 2(D). National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.


One Comment

  1. Thought provoking article that clearly defines the historical educational underpinnings to project based learning. It is quite clear that student questions are essential in creating a successful project. The process involved is just as enriching as the “main course” at the end. Thank you so much for your insightful posts.


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