PROJECT-BASED LEARNING IN
THE PRIMARY SCHOOL CLASSROOM
Project-based learning (PBL) is increasingly being adopted as an
effective approach to learning in primary schools as teachers realise
how authentic and challenging learning experiences enable higher
levels of engagement and self-directed learning. Supporting learning
through a PBL approach in schools requires rethinking a number of
aspects which includes the types of experiences students are exposed
to, the process of learning and the output of such learning. The role
of assessment as well as student feedback and self-assessment are
important features of PBL. This approach further draws on the input
of ‘experts’ who support students to explore real-life problems or
challenges. Enveloping these experiences is the use of educational
technology and how this can enhance the learning process. This
chapter explores how PBL can be successfully incorporated into the
primary school classroom drawing on existing literature and from
research undertaken by the authors.
Project-based learning (PBL) is a learner-centred approach (Moursund,
1998) that provides students with opportunities to participate collaboratively in
groups in real-life opportunities where they are engaged in constructing learning
that is personally meaningful (Smith, diSessa, & Roschelle, 1993). It involves an
authentic mode of teaching that enables students to engage in learning by
investigating an authentic question or problem. PBL therefore effectively
addresses issues related to poor student engagement and motivation as it
provides opportunities for learners to deeply encounter the curriculum through
an authentic problem solving process (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). It has been
eagerly adopted by a growing number of schools to enhance student motivation.
It therefore not only aims to equip students with content knowledge, but the
ability to transfer learning across different contexts (Barron & Darling-
Hammond, 2007). It is widely considered to be an innovative instructional tool
that has been implemented across a diverse range of disciplines in the tertiary
setting and K-12 contexts (Hung, 2009).
The notion of the project as a construct comes from the work of William
Kilpatrick where he developed ‘the project method’ during the late 1800s.
Kilpatrick was unhappy with learning in schools at the time which he saw as
teacher driven with an overly rigid structure where rote memorisation and
passivity dominated the learning. In response to this he developed the idea of the
project method which he defined as: “A wholehearted purposeful activity in a
social environment” (Kilpatrick, cited in Peterson, 2012). The aim of this
approach was to purposefully engage students in all aspects of their inquiry by
enabling them to ask questions, make decisions and to reflect on their learning.
The focus of learning would be on inquiry where students would be able to
engage in topics that they are naturally curious about (Bell, 2010).
PBL is underpinned by learning theories of constructivism (Grant, 2002)
and situated learning theory (Zastavker, Ong & Page, 2006) and is strongly
influenced by the ideas espoused by Dewey (Blumenfeld, et al., 1991) where
‘learning by doing’ features. It follows the natural process of learning by
engaging learners in a problem that needs to be solved (Hung, 2009). As a
problem is encountered, learners can acquire greater knowledge and skills as
they seek possible solutions about the problem and its context. Learning
therefore has meaning beyond the classroom as students are equipped with the
critical skills to function more effectively in the world. Through undertaking
PBL projects students develop real-world skills such as solving complex
problems, thinking critically, analyzing and evaluating information, working
cooperatively and communicating effectively (Duch, Groh & Allen, 2011). The
importance of PBL can be linked back to the skills required by the 21st century
workforce. Barron and Darling-Hammond (2007) argue that teachers need to
help students successfully navigate this rapidly changing social and professional
context by equipping them with twenty-first-century skills.
Action learning has also had an influence on the development of PBL.
From an action learning perspective, people learn most effectively when
working on real time problems (Revans, 1971) typically, in a local context
although this aspect is changing with the advent of the Internet and global
PBL is gaining interest from teachers in Australia and in other parts of the
world as teachers seek to engage students in authentic activities. Rather than
being seen as a supplementary activity, it is considered to be an effective way
of learning across the curriculum (Bell, 2010). PBL can be used to integrate
cross-curriculum priorities and to include learning in subjects such as
mathematics, reading, writing and science (Bell, 2010). PBL therefore involves
teaching the curriculum through a project. This interest for an engaging and
integrated approach has come about in part due to a backlash against high-
stakes testing which dominates school practice.
This chapter explores the features of PBL. It draws on research and work
that the authors are involved in with primary schools. The authors look firstly at
the structure of PBL; they also examine the process and products produced via
PBL through exploring the examples of work being undertaken in a primary
school context. The opportunities for assessment, both by teachers and students
are outlined. The role of the teacher, as facilitator and risk-taker are discussed.
The role that educational technology can play in supporting PBL is explored
throughout the chapter. This chapter will also include a discussion of the
benefits and challenges to conducting PBL in the classroom.
THE STRUCTURE OF PBL
Although there are many suggested models for PBL there are some core
features that are common across the models. The first stage of PBL is a major
entry event that encourages students to develop a driving question. A driving
question enables teachers and students to explore and attempt to address a
particular area of interest. Some important criteria for effective driving
questions include that they are feasible, worthwhile, contextualised, meaningful
and ethical (Krajcik & Mamlok-Naaman, 2006). A major event could include
taking students to a part of the community which forms part of the project they
are undertaking. One example from research being undertaken by one of the
authors is where students undertaking a community PBL project focused on a
riverside walk where students visited the walk to take photographs.
In considering the driving question there are two essential elements:
●It should be a question that people ask in the ‘real world’
●It should be a question that has no easy answer
A good driving question elicits a desire to learn in students (Edelson,
2001) and should have some meaningful connection with the students’ interests.
It can also be student-led as learners are involved in making decisions about
what area they would like to investigate and how they would explore it. An
example from a research project carried out by the authors is with a grade three
class where the focus was on the school garden and students’ driving questions
were about how to develop and maintain the garden. In this example, students
were able to go on a tour around the school to explore and decide on a location
for the garden. They were then able to construct a proposal for a garden that
would best suit the location and the purpose for the garden.
As teachers seek to implement PBL, it is important that they scaffold
learning according to students’ ages. Young students need to have a great deal
of input and teachers should set a focus area in which students can develop their
driving questions. Scaffolded instruction is regarded as a key to the successful
implementation of PBL (Bell, 2010). With younger students, teachers may need
to include organisers that help students on track and allows tasks to be
manageable and achievable. Scaffolding learning also follows the sociocultural
model where the scaffold enables students to attain a higher level of cognitive
growth that they cannot achieve on their own. Teachers can also remove these
scaffolds when the learner gains the necessary skills and competency to
complete the different activities. Such an approach can generate confident
learners (Bell, 2010).
In developing the driving question, the students should be encouraged to
include the use of community members to help them. In doing so, the students,
teachers, and community members engage in collaborative activities (Krajcik,
Czerniak & Berger, 2002).
The second stage of PBL is where students build knowledge,
understanding and skills to answer their driving question. During this stage
students develop and revise their product through answering their driving
questions. Importantly, in this stage students should put the product into use
and assess its effectiveness through gathering data. It is important that students
have opportunities to develop multiple drafts/revisions of their product.
Assessment and feedback from teachers/self/peers is important at this
stage and helps to shape the process and the final product. PBL is considered to
be most effective when regular opportunities for assessment are provided in
addition to reflection and reminder of project benchmarks (Barron & Darling-
Hammond, 2007). Regular assessment and feedback allows teachers to meet the
particular needs of target students and groups. It also enables learners to value
the learning process rather than just focusing the final product. In conducting
PBL, teachers therefore need to give students frequent opportunities to review
and revise their project so they can support students’ success.
“Educators need to develop valid assessment approaches for process-
oriented education, that are consistent with the needs of 21st-century learners
and the assessment of 21st-century skills” (Lee, Blackwell, Drake & Moran,
2014, p. 21). Assessment from the teacher is an important part in helping
students develop skills and knowledge and can include learning products such
as portfolios, rubrics, whole class discussion, performance assessment, written
journals, and weekly reports (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2007). Assessment
plays a significant role in enhancing learning through informing instruction and
cultivating student reflection (Darling-Hammond et al., 2008). As a result,
teachers approach assessment both as a means for learning and to observe
learning. Such practices form an integral part of assessments practices in many
primary schools. What sets out PBL as being different in terms of assessment is
that authentic assessment should feature given the real-life nature of the
Self assessment is important as it gives students an opportunity to
critically reflect on their performance and the projects they produce. It is
“defined as a process by which students 1) monitor and evaluate the quality of
their thinking and behavior when learning and 2) identify strategies that
improve their understanding and skills” (McMillan & Hearn, 2008, p. 40). Self
assessment is a particularly valuable tool as it leads to self-regulated learning.
Self-regulated learners are able to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses
and can pro-actively undertake strategic actions to improve their skills
(Zimmerman, 2002). They are able to establish and be guided by personal
learning goals and strategies, and can effectively monitor their progress
(Zimmerman, 2002). However, one negative aspect of self assessment is
that students tend to perform poorly in this area. According to Dunning
Heath and Suls (2004), students’ assessments tend to agree only
moderately with their teachers and they find it difficult to assess how well or
poorly they comprehend material they have just read. One way that students
can be supported in self assessment is through the use of rubrics. This can be
in the form of pictorial responses for younger students to more sophisticated
rubrics for older students.
Other ways that students can be supported to critically self assess include
the use of student-led conferences with teachers, the use of graphic organisers
and target setting. Importantly for PBL, the quality of the focus question that
students develop will impact on how well they can self assess. The conferences
that take place within the project’s stages have a much more significant impact
than providing feedback after the project is completed.
Peer assessment involves students critically engaging with each other’s
work in order to improve the project being undertaken. “Where assessment
criteria are clearly set, peer feedback will enable students to make judgements
of their peers comparable to those of the teacher” (Patri, 2002, p.125). It is
considered to be an important tool for maximising learning opportunities by
enabling students to develop metacognitive skills and better understanding
about their own work. However, peer assessment, like almost all learning in
primary schools, needs to be properly taught to students so that they can
undertake this it a meaningful way.
The ways that students undertook the feedback and assessment in the
garden project was through having regular focus group sessions at the end of
each PBL session. These discussions enabled teachers to ask questions that
helped students evaluate their progress and to set goals for the next lesson.
Students also kept a record of their progress through a folder, where they
documented each step taken to conceptualise, implement and evaluate their
projects. Their learning was documented as a portfolio rather than being centred
on a final product.
The use of technology was diversely used to facilitate peer feedback in a
community PBL project run with year 5 and 6 students in four schools. A video
conferencing session between two classes at two schools was observed where
some of the students in each class presented their projects and received
feedback from the students at the other school. Students from one school were
able to view the website/resource of the students from the other school which
greatly facilitated understanding and discussion.
This followed on from a session mediated online between the schools
where the students put up some powerpoint slides using Google slides where
they set out the ideas of the project in the early stages. Students from the other
school where then able to look at the slides and leave written comments to help
the students shape their projects.
The final stage of the PBL structure is the conclusion where students have
the opportunity to present their project to the learning community which can
include their peers, teachers, family members and community members. At this
point students can “continue to learn through other students by seeing how
others approached the problem and from feedback and questions they receive
from the audience” (English & Kitsantas, 2013, p.137). It is recommended that
showcasing student work through presentations, portfolios and exhibitions that
are opened for the broader community is an effective way to validate the PBL
process (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2007). Providing students with a real-
life audience and context for their work affirms their understanding that their
work has broader applications and is relevant to current needs and concerns.
This approach was taken by a year 4 class, which held a film festival to
showcase the films produced from the PBL projects undertaken that term.
The Role of the Expert
An important aspect of PBL is that students can learn from experts who
model the skills and then give feedback to students as they practise them
(Thomas, 2000). This expertise can come from the teacher and from outside
In working with external experts, students can engage in the community
with a wide range of people including council workers, performers, medical
practitioners and so on. These people can also come into the schools to work
with students and share their expertise.
Additionally, technology can be used to provide access to experts. In this
instance “educators see how technology opens opportunities to reinvent projects
so that they become more authentically connected to students’ lives” (Boss &
Krauss, 2014, p. 4). There are many new technologies that allow students in
classrooms to engage with experts all around the world including video
conferencing and mobile devices.
The strategy of challenge-based learning has been developed by an Apple
Education Team to develop and refine the skills students need to thrive in the
modern world (Apple Inc, 2010; 2011). It draws heavily on aspects of project-
based learning as well as inquiry-based learning and has a strong focus on the
use of technology. Like PBL, CBL is characterised by activities that provide
students with learning experience in a real-world context where they work.
with peers, teachers, and experts in their disciplines to tackle challenges from
the real world (Cheng, 2016).
In research undertaken by one of the authors, video conferencing via
mobile devices was used to connect students with experts in authentic settings
(Maher, 2015). In one instance students were able to interact with staff at a
dental clinic and learn about the roles of dentist and have a dental hygiene
lesson. In another example, students were able to engage with staff at a meal-
on-wheels centre to get a firsthand view of the activities that were performed
there as a way of understanding the community.
Where outside expertise is drawn upon, as suggested by David (2008), the
role of the teacher is that of a facilitator. Through this facilitation, teachers can
work with students and experts to engage in new types of authentic learning
opportunities. Additionally, in drawing on outside expertise, teacher are able to
provide opportunities for students to engage in a wider range of projects where
they may not necessarily have the knowledge to support such learning.
Benefits for the Learner
PBL has a number of benefits for learners as they engage in self-directed
learning. Learners can develop critical reasoning processes, acquire greater
motivation to learn and cultivate collaborative skills. The purpose of PBL is to
facilitate the acquisition of 21st century skills that include critical thinking
competencies and deep content knowledge (Darling-Hammond et al., 2008) as
well as skills such as creativity and innovation, problem solving, and
communication and collaboration” (Kim & Choi, 2016, p. 135).
Students are shown to develop greater self-directed and autonomous
learning skills as they plan and organise their projects. As there are several
stages to completing a project, careful planning is required so that students can
complete their work in due time; as a result, “learning responsibility,
independence and discipline’ are considered to be three key benefits of PBL”
(Bell, 2010, p. 40). Students are held accountable by the project plan that they
themselves have created. They can further keep on track through engaging in
regular self-reflection and goal setting, which allows them to self-monitor their
This self-directed learning was evident in the example of the research
project carried out by the authors where a grade three class designed a school
garden. First, students needed to brainstorm the venue and purpose for their
garden. Next, they had to decide on a design for their garden and create a
proposal for why it should be built. They were then to present their proposals to
their classmates and to the principal of the school. Once the best proposal was
selected, students needed to undergo the inquiry process again to build the
Students can also develop greater accountability and self-directed learning
skills through peer expectation. Hmelo-Silver (2004) proposes that
collaborative groups are an effective way to implement PBL as facilitating
teams of learners can help share the cognitive load and enable participants to
contribute their particular strengths to the group. They also highlight how
students can share parts of the project with each other and become ‘experts’ in a
particular area, which allows them to acquire deeper knowledge in specific
fields. Other research on the collaborative PBL approaches indicate how
learners are able to engage in greater problem solving and creative and critical
thinking by being able to mutually construct knowledge through sharing and
debating their ideas (Blumenfeld et al., 1996). In order to successfully solve a
problem, learners must draw on their own thinking and reasoning skills.
Learners are encouraged to follow their logical steps of reasoning to approach a
problem, which allows them to develop their self-regulatory and metacognitive
skills (Hung, 2009). Hmelo-Silver (2004) describes how learners demonstrate
metacognition as they realise gaps in their knowledge, are able to set learning
goals to address these gaps, identify what they need to work on to achieve these
goals as they set action steps, and finally, are able to monitor their progress and
evaluate the success of their efforts. As learners take control and become more
self-directed, they can become independent learners who are capable of lifelong
By exploring the different avenues to address a problem, learners may
integrate information across multiple domains. Such knowledge is coherently
organised around the deep principles in a domain (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). By
looking at best possible solutions from all different angles, they can deepen
their understanding about the knowledge and skills regarding the context. Such
a deep processing of knowledge can help learners to apply and transfer their
understandings to other contexts (Dunlap & Grabinger, 1996). Consequently,
one strong advantage of PBL is the way it helps learners transfer reasoning
strategies to new problems.
As part of one science-based PBL project undertaken by one of the
authors, students at one primary school were asked what skills they developed
in undertaking the project. The majority of the students spoke of collaboration
and teamwork. They clearly valued working with each other in small groups.
As part of the same project, students collaborated with each other across
schools via video conferencing and using Google slides to comment on each
other’s work which allowed them to share ideas. This also helped to grow a
community of learners.
Enhancing students’ motivation to learn is also considered to be core PBL
(Tamim & Grant, 2013). As learners engage in authentic real-world and
challenging problems their motivation to learn can increase. Not only are
students able to link learning to real life contexts, the problem solving process
cultivates a sense of ownership as learners struggle to answer a driving question
or find a solution to a problem. This is another factor that increases learner
motivation, as learners take responsibility for solving a problem by seeing it as
his or her own (von Glasersfeld, 1995). The ability to take control over one’s
learning and to be involved in the decision making process also engages
learners (Bell, 2010). Through differentiation, students can pursue areas that
hold interest and they deepen their knowledge concerning these areas. As
students decide on the approaches towards developing their project, they can
choose to learn using their preferred learning styles.
In the project involving the grade three class on designing a school garden,
students who enjoyed art were able to use draw their project ideas rather than
writing out their ideas. They found this to be highly motivating as they enjoyed
art but felt that there was little time for it in daily classroom activities.
Challenges of Conducting PBL
The flexible and diverse ways to approach PBL has also led to some
challenges in its implementation, both for teachers and students. As a result,
whether PBL is an effective instructional tool has been the subject of much
debate. Although proponents of PBL argue that it is enhances student
motivation and learning skills, others have claimed that PBL is difficult to
implement as it requires more time and effort to reach the same learning results.
One challenge to the effective delivery of PBL has been attributed to
teachers’ beliefs. If the teachers’ beliefs about learning and students’ capacity to
engage in learning do not coincide with the principles of PBL, difficulties can
result. Teachers may struggle with entrenched beliefs about how students
should learn in terms of providing students with the freedom to pursue their
areas of interest whilst simultaneously covering curriculum requirements
(Hertzon, 2007). Teachers may also find it difficult to attain the balance
between providing adequate scaffolding and enabling spaces for self-directed
learning (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). They need to be able to provide appropriate
modelling and feedback, facilitate individual and cooperative learning and to
engage students in meaningful assessment and self-reflection to guide the PBL
process (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2007). Finally, if teachers do not
understand the complexities of the learning process in PBL, they may simply
regard learning as an open-ended and unstructured process and may fail to
provide the necessary guidance, modelling and scaffolding (Barron & Darling-
Hammond, 2007). They may not realise the careful planning and pacing of
learning that is required to effectively engage students in collaboration, the
implementation of the project, reflection and assessment. As a result, the
implementation of PBL often depends on the skills of the facilitators (Hmelo-
This was also the case with the year 3 teachers who were involved in PBL
garden project. In most cases we found that teachers felt unsure of how much
support or guidance they needed to provide. These teachers struggled to
overcome their fears of ‘losing control’ and felt that they were learning
alongside their students on how to provide them with greater autonomy. Their
lessons changed from being teacher-centred to student-directed, which meant
that teachers were not often involved in explicit instruction but rather guiding or
observing student progress. This was a novel experience for the teachers, who
felt that they were benefiting as much as their students by improving their
teaching skills. A more common response, however, was teachers opting to
control student learning by creating a driving question for students or by modify
an existing unit of work without allowing students to drive the PBL process.
Considering that teacher beliefs and practice are strongly influenced by
the school context, the authors found that PBL was more effectively
implemented if there was regular support provided to teachers through learning
communities. This finding has been supported by similar studies that
demonstrate that PBL is effective when a majority of teachers in a school are
involved in the process (Bitter, Taylor, Zeiser & Rickles, 2014).
There are a number of challenges for students undertaking PBL projects.
Students may find it difficult to identify a meaningful ill-structured problem, to
then generate a meaningful driving question (Martín, López & Martínez, 2014).
Students may lack the necessary background information or the learning skills
to research content or may find it difficult to work together in teams and to
maintain their motivation when experiencing setbacks. These difficulties are
more pronounced the younger the learner. Students who are more familiar
with traditional teacher-centred learning modes may also experience
frustration and discomfort as they are less comfortable with self-directed
learning (Hung, 2009). Students may find it difficult to generate a meaningful
driving question, may lack the necessary background information or the
learning skills to research content or may find it difficult to work together in
teams and to maintain their motivation when experiencing setbacks.
There is strong evidence to indicate the benefits of PBL across a wide
variety of learning contexts. The research indicates that not only are students
able to recall what they have learnt for longer periods of time, they are also able
to transfer their learning across different contexts. PBL offers a form of
teaching and learning that breaks away from traditional teacher-directed
practice; as a result, it provides opportunities for acquiring skills that such
forms of instruction often ignores. This chapter has outlined the main
components of project-based learning and some of the key aspects that go
towards making it successful.
Like all instructional methods, the effectiveness of PBL is determined by
it is implementation.
Successful PBL requires preparation. Teachers need to carefully plan the
learning outcomes and goals of each project in terms of what they want students
to do and what skills they would like them to acquire. They then need to ensure
that all students are able to achieve these goals through scaffolding, guidance,
regular feedback, clear assessment and opportunities for practice. By doing this,
teachers will be able to know how much structure and guidance students
require. There is a need for direct instruction in a just-in-time basis for students
who are struggling with PBL or who are engaging in PBL for the first time.
There is also a need to provide teachers with time and a community of
like-minded practitioners who are able to support them. To extend teachers’
understanding and to prevent PBL from becoming another externally mandated
process that it added on top of an already heavy workload, teachers need to be
given additional time to engage in professional learning. The introduction of
PBL into classrooms is considered to be a transition, where teachers are
required to go through a period of adjustment to become comfortable with a
flexible and dynamic mode of teaching that allows them to connect to their
students in powerful ways. To support teachers and students throughout all
stages of PBL, the use of technology can enhance the learning processes and
extend the learning community beyond that of the school.
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