The Problem with PBL

A cross-post from Teach Paperless

Every time I've visited an educational conference in the last few years, the big buzzword (is an acronym a word?) is PBL. I have heard to definitions of the PBL acronym: Problem-based and Project-based (or Product-based). I'm not sure why it's not PL, because of the hyphenation, but I won't ask. Either way, it is presented as a fix-all for education.

I like the PBL framework. However, I see a subtle danger in pushing PBL as something that should be happening in every classroom with every student all the time. Most often, the reason behind this is that in "the real world" we learn through inquiry, problem-solving and projects.

I don't deny the validity of that argument. However, in the real world (and in the magical world, too - folks still learn in Narnia), we learn in ways that go beyond the PBL approach.

Take inquiry. Life doesn't always begin with my own questions. Sometimes someone asks me a question and the motive is external. Sometimes epiphanies happen. Sometimes I learn through something that is not a question at all - just an observation or an explanation. Sometimes I start with an answer and then question it later, as I intuitively create something new.

Sometimes life isn't a problem to be solved. There's a place for nuance and paradox and the recognition that we don't have all the answers. I ran into this a few years back when I had a Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process PBL. In the end, a student approached me and said, "I read about fatalism and the history of that area. What if peace isn't possible? What if there isn't a solution? More importantly, what if it's not our job, as Americans, to solve the problem?" We should have looked at the human element, at the conflict and the culture without treating it as a problem to be solved.

In the real world, learning isn't always a product or a project. Sometimes it's a conversation over a pint or a cognitive process in a time of distress. Sometimes it's a Google search when something sparks my curiosity. Sometimes it's a metaphor as I watch a baseball game. Or it's a tweet. Or a hike. Or a profound way in which a song speaks to the human condition.

I am not against PBL. I see it as a vital part of authentic learning. However, as amazing as it is, it still remains a part rather than the solution to a holistic education.
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. PBL is a step in the right direction. PBL seems to fight against the status quo of education. It is something that educators can grasp. I am not sure if there is ever going to be a single solution to solve everything that is wrong with education. PBL may not be the way that people learn in the real world, but is a lot closer than taking a multiple-choice test. Life may not be a problem to be solved, but a lot of occupations are based on projects and problems that need to be solved.

    1. I agree. I'm a fan of the PBL framework. I integrate it into my classroom. However, I think there are dangers in finding any framework, strategy, style and running with it at the expense of others.

  2. I think PBL, in any of the permutations you named is a powerful tool, up to a point. With that said, I have been pondering things that I read in a book by Willingham titled: Why Don't Students Like School.

    Two of the key points that Willingham makes are that expertise is based on facts and prior knowledge of a subject and two, novices don't think like experts. For the most part, students are novices in most of the things we are teaching them. What ever problem, project, or product we are asking students to address or accomplish needs to be grounded on the knowledge they already know and on the levels of thinking of which they are capable. The statement "novices don't think like experts" is true of any novice at any age. It is not an attempt to say students are not capable of complex thought just that they are novices and need to be working on projects appropriate to a novice.

    When I was working on my Masters and teaching in the classroom the variation of PBL was experiential learning. That we, as teachers, were to give students activities where they could experience the concept that we wanted them to get and they should pull out the appropriate understanding from the experience. This only works to a limited degree, in my experience, because gleaning knowledge is difficult and often the students do not have the foundational facts to glean that knowledge from.

    Another interesting point that Willingham makes is that people remember what they think about and that many projects don't really consider what it is that they lead kids to think about. Often what a kid thinks about in an assignment is not what was expected. For example: (paraphrased from the book) if an assignment about plot elements and structure in a book tries to incorporate art into the assignment it is quite possible that the students will be more likely to remember the aspects of what it takes to draw a good castle than the connection between plot and structure.

    Again, Willingham does not suggest that you shouldn't use multiple ways to have students think about a lesson or demonstrate understanding just that teachers consider what they want students to think about and use the best tool for the job. If a project based/problem base method gets kids thinking about the point of the lesson then it is the tool to use.

    It is an interesting book and I found it thought provoking.

    1. Thanks for such a thorough response. I appreciate it. I love the concept of thinking about it from the question of why students hate school. Maybe the biggest gift of PBL is that it is student-centered and it allows for mastery.

  3. As an after thought, I meant to say that I found your student's response to be insightful. It would have made a great essay in response to the question.

  4. First of all, LOVE the blog. Your writing is thought provoking and well articulated.
    Secondly, I agree. We learn in so many different ways and use knowledge in so many different ways that it is dangerous to shoe-horn student learning into one basic strategy. PBL (or OL - I think I agree and like that better) is not ineffective unless it is the only strategy offered. It is the equivalent of saying that most of your ambulation is done by walking, so when you work out you should only walk. No running. No lifting weights. And no stretching because you don't do that in real life.
    We are waaaaaay too caught up in the idea that we can provide and deliver the same identical education to EVERY student. We can't. They aren't cars. They perform differently. They learn differently and some things work bettter than others on an individual basis.
    And Beth, I loved your comments. That book sounds like a good read.

    1. I love your comment, "We can't. They aren't cars." Exactly.


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