It's not the Project that matters. It's the Thinking.

When I first started this blog on incorporating Project-Based learning (PBL) and developing those kinds of projects, I started off with the usual suspects: distinguishing between projects and PBL, emphasizing authenticity and “real world” applications, and so on. Then I stumbled upon a video on Socratic Questioning from the Foundation for Critical Thinking with Richard Paul. 

Within the first two minutes of that video, I was blown away by Paul’s premise as it pertained to thinking. He posits: 

The main goal is to help students think in some way (e.g., historically, geologically, anatomically, chemically, philosophically, mathematically) or to think like an artist, a writer, an analyst, a researcher, an historian, etc.  (Paul, 2013)

I paused the video at that point to marinate. Then, I started it over at the beginning again, just to be sure I got it. I thought:

 Isn’t this kind of thinking what we want from our students, ultimately? 

Doesn’t PBL revolve around the idea that students will be doing this kind of  thinking, this depth of thinking? 

Then, I considered one of the distinctions between Projects and PBL: projects focus on a product (a diorama or PowerPoint) (Mayer, 2012) whereas PBL focuses on how a student works with and within a real-world scenario or problem or one that simulates authentic real world situations (Larmer, 2012).

Having students create a presentation on a president falls short of PBL. It is a project, but it is not by and of itself project-based learning. It is project-based presenting.

Having students think like biographers or journalists is the goal.  Why does someone write about a president? For what purpose?  How would a journalist share what he/she found out? Consider, too, how the significance of the thinking changes when writing/reading about George Washington versus Bill Clinton—the shift from thinking like a biographer versus a journalist. 

Real world thinkers are thinking like researchers, analysts, artists. Real world thinkers are thinking geologically, astronomically, and environmentally. They care about accuracy, clarity, depth, logic, and significance—all things that, if we were to witness them in a student project, would give us that teacher glow!

We don’t want students to “make a Prezi” or “make a brochure.” We want them to care about what they are reading and exploring (the content). We want them to care not just about the content, but about their thinking, their content.
If you really want to integrate PBL in your classes, step back and consider how you can move your students towards striving to understand things for the purpose of finding a resolution to problems yet to be resolved/continue to persist, or to provide a new perspective on something. 

That’s what researchers, engineers, poets, dramatists, global citizens, historians, architects, artists…do.


Larmer, J. (2012, May 24). What does it take for a project to be “authentic”? Retrieved from http://bie.org/blog/what_does_it_take_for_a_project_to_be_authentic

Mayer, A. (2012, November 27). What’s the difference between doing projects and project-based learning? Retrieved from http://www.friedtechnology.com/2012/11/whats-difference-between-doing-projects.html

Paul, R. [CriticalThinkingOrg]. (2013, September 18). Socratic questioning series [disk 1] [part 1] [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvMGza0Roo4&list=WL&index=12


  1. Insight-FILLED! I often see educators attempting to go out on the PBL limb only to fall short at 'Project Based Presenting' - your ideas give me a lexicon for feedback and establish an aim for educators. Brilliant Mindy! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Glad you liked, Chef R! When's your next awesome post? We need ya! :p