Project-Based Learning: How is this different from traditional learning?


As a child, I didn’t really seem to learn how most teachers taught. I was not the “sponge” they anticipated…or the sponge they told me I should be. When a teacher talked at me, or lectured at me, it was rare if I understood anything that was said. I began to realize I still had to learn these things, even though it was really hard for me. I challenged myself to find a practical use for everything teachers were throwing at me: this experience also influenced me as a teacher.

Now, standard classroom models would specify that I, the teacher, give students a question, then give the students the answers, ask those students to memorize the answers, and then give students a test to ensure they’ve memorized information. This is what I call “teaching what to think.”

While this can be a faster, more predictable way for teachers to ensure they’ve checked all the mandated boxes, it does not allow students to use logic or reasoning skills. It is teaching to the test. I firmly believe this is why we see and hear from so many young people who cannot function well alone; they seem to truly need someone to give them the answers. They’ve been expected to parrot from elementary to graduation, but suddenly, in higher education and then in the workforce, these same parroting students are expected to have unique ideas and employ reasoning and logic as part of problem solving. Because I want my students to not struggle with this, I do what I call “teaching how to think.”

As teachers, parents, and parent-teachers, we aim for students to:

  1. value the study of the discipline
  2. engage with the content
  3. persist when the work gets difficult
  4. grow from guidance and critique
  5. connect theory to application and practice

Simply asking students to memorize content to pass a test does not meet any of the five aims of education listed above. So, what do we do differently to ensure students receive the quality education they deserve?


Aim to have students value the study of the discipline: Discuss what experiences we, as teachers, have to the discipline. If you’re teaching your child math, why not include consumer math? Simple grocery store calculations can make for a much more exciting math lesson than worksheets and times.

Aim to have students engage with the content: Provide an example of how your curiosity evolved into to a question and the pursuit of an answer, describing how those connections were made and the excitement and rewards of doing so. Better yet, participate in the inquiry by asking students a question you do not know the answer to. Ask your child which product has the lowest price per ounce. While it may be printed on the grocery store shelf, ignore it. Work out the problem together, and then double check your answers. Find an ingredient for which you don’t have a recipe, and research in the store using your smart phone from where the item comes, and how it’s used. Find recipes together, and decide if you’d like to try something new together!

Aim to have students persist: When the work gets difficult and to grow from guidance and critique, we can take share our own vulnerability and growth. Oftentimes, parents hide this vulnerability from their children. In turn, children will balk at the idea of trying something new and possibly “failing.” They begin to believe that if they cannot do something correctly the first time, they should not do it at all. Understanding that all people must experience growth is paramount. I always say “If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing” because growth is uncomfortable. Demonstrate not only a process but the thinking through the process. For example, project a problem on a piece of paper and talk aloud the process of solving it. Verbalize the weighing of alternatives so the patterns of thinking are illustrated on the way to the answer. In doing this, students get to eavesdrop on your thought process. If you’re grocery shopping and discover the store does not carry some of the ingredients you need, what are your options? Helping children to develop these reasoning skills will benefit them not only as an adult, but also as a child because they begin to uncover solutions to problems without asking you; they trust their own process!

Aim to have students connect theory to applications and practice: We can integrate personal connections as resources. If your child has questions about bridges, do you happen to know an engineer who can help? Can you show your child how learning the formula for volume will be beneficial as an adult? Why should your child learn history? Help them form these connections. Students will learn to form them on their own as they grow older, but right now, they need your examples.

If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my course catalog to see how I use the Project-Based Learning methods in my classroom! 



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