Project-Based Learning, in short PBL, is a powerful way to learn new things and remember them for a long time. It describes a form of learning that happens as a result of solving actual problems. It’s arguably so effective because first, it gives solving problems meaning and second because each task is mentally tied along a storyline which eventually leads to either failure or success of an entire project. What we learn during the process is now saved deeply and we can remember it later by mentally revisiting our project story.

Business magnate and visionary Elon Musk said that “our brain has evolved to discard information that it thinks has irrelevance. Picking a problem and then using various education tools, like maths, language, or economics to solve that problem is therefore far more engaging than teaching the tools itself.

Say we are going to take apart an engine to see how it works and then put it back together again. In order to take it apart, we need wrenches, screwdrivers, a whinge, and other tools. In the course of solving that problem, of taking apart the engine, we learn about the tools, how to apply them and why they matter.”

To understand it better, let’s look at the story of Jane, a shy 19-year-old learner who wanted to move out from home, but then miserably failed.

Jane just finished her University Degree and still lives with her parents. She is eager to move out and live on her own, but she has a tight budget. Jane begins her “project” by asking around: where do her friends recommend her to live? How much do they pay? She starts to search online but is soon overwhelmed by all the options.

Jane learns that her search is not effective unless she knows precisely how much money she can spend on rent?

  1. Her brain takes note, that such a big project needs proper planning. [draw her little brain, thinking hard and taking note]

The next day Jane spends time making some serious calculations about her income, her savings and her monthly expenses like food, phone, clothing, going to the movies. Her calculation leads to the conclusion that her budget for rent is very small. She starts thinking about taking on a job tutoring maths to kids, this could get her another R1500 a month, although there are additional expenses since she would need to buy a new smartphone…

  1. Jane’s brain goes through the various computations, makes a cost/benefit analyses and decides to try moving out without taking on another job.

Jane is happy. She made up her mind and realized that maths is a good tool that supports making an informed decision.

The next day Jane starts searching online again, this time for a shared home. It doesn’t take her long and she makes her first call to get an appointment to meet the hosts. This is her first viewing and there are three flatmates. They tell her to sit down and start asking very directly about her habits, preferences and how to describe her personality. Jane starts to feel uncomfortable and stressed. All she wants is to leave. She completely stops focusing, then excuses herself and simply walks out. Outsides she feels terrible.

  1. her brain notes an increased heart rate, some confusion about how to describe Jane, and a lack of communication skills responding to immediate social pressure.

In the evening she lies in bed and can’t sleep. She starts to have doubts: should she really move out? Maybe this is not for her? She did the first step and now she feels thrown back and unmotivated. She decides against living with roommates and that she will stay at home for now. Eventually, she falls asleep.

  1. During her sleep, her brain keeps working and revisits the experiences of that day. It puts the experience in perspective and decides what can be forgotten.

A few days later, Jane meets an old friend who has just moved into a shared house and tells her about his experience. It sounded so exciting. Her friend made her project a reality.

  1. Janes brain remembers her initial motivation and reminds her how much she wants to be independent.

In the evening Jane decides to give it another try and spends the entire night looking at listings, noting down the most promising posts and talking to friends asking them to describe her personality.

  1. Her brain, fuelled with millions of excited neurotransmitters, learns with her all night.

The next day she goes to see 3 new apartments. She learns to answer questions about herself and also asks important questions about the others: Do they mind if I play guitar? What do the others do for a living? What are their thoughts on keeping it tidy?

  1. her brain learned to describe Jane at ease and picked up many new social skills, such a public speaking and reading other people’s character.

On her 4th appointment, Jane finds an apartment with two super fun roommates who share lots of her interests. A new life begins.

  1. At night her brain notes that getting better at social skills is similar to practicing an instrument. If Jane repeats something she’ll get better with time.

In 2009 a study showed that PBL learners perform as well or better than traditional learners. Findings indicated that projects were superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development, and satisfaction of learners and teachers. Traditional learning approaches were more effective for short-term retention as measured by standardized board exams.

The idea of project-based learning was made popular by the educational reformer John Dewey. In 1916 he claimed that a learner learns more if he is interested in the subject and recommended  “learning by doing” or “learning by solving a problem”.

Dewey further stressed the importance of the connection between life and the objects we are studying. On learning, he said: “if knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects, it is impossible to procure knowledge without the use of objects which impress the mind”.


Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009


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