Ruth Gilbert blog – project based learning

As a trained teacher, I have always been hugely interested in effective teaching techniques and pedagogies.  

We all know that different people learn in different ways. There is never a ‘one size fits all’ method and what works for one student may be a disaster for another.

For young people following a more vocational pathway, the emphasis is of course on the practical nature of learning. Even within this arena however, there are many different ways to teach – but I believe none is more effective for developing skills than project-based learning (PBL).

The official definition of PBL is that it has “a publicly exhibited output and the students receive a simple brief to achieve this.”

After losing a bit of popularity in the 70s for being seen by many as ‘unstructured’ and ‘lacking rigour’ PBL is now, I am delighted to see, coming back into favour. The rise of digital technology has made it easier for students to research, make and create high quality products/services – making the process exciting and relevant to the real world.

In order to operate effectively in today’s knowledge-based economy, young people need to have a much wider range of skills than may have traditionally been required.

Interestingly, I have come to realise that my teacher training did not include reference to anything beyond individual learning. There was no preparation at all for the ‘team approach’, which most of us experience in the work place and which is so clearly crucial.

Problem solving, working as part of a team, researching and analysing information, planning, critical thinking skills, interpersonal skills decision making…the list goes on! Being able to use technology effectively is also key.

PBL ensures students develop all these skills, whilst managing their own learning process under the guidance and mentorship of their teacher. It also encourages applied learning – with more natural skill development, which is required for the world of work.

A PBL- approach also lends itself to collaborative projects, not only within a cohort of students put potentially across groups and whole institutions.

Crucially though, PBL is a vehicle for learning and not assessment. Many schools and colleges think they do it, when actually they are simply setting projects as assessment tools.

I feel there is not enough emphasis on true PBL in our education system. Many tutors/teachers believe themselves to be delivering effective PBL, when in fact, they are offering project orientated learning. This is quite different as it involves all the information being delivered beforehand by teachers, with students needing to meet a set criteria. PBL requires much more student input, innovation and creativity.

Interesting research carried out earlier this year* highlighted that young people are not happy with the education system’s main focus being on passing exams. Young people told us they want more of a balance and more support to prepare them for work and life, which is essentially what PBL provides.

This is exactly why the Career Colleges Trust puts PBL at our core – and we are seeing some very positive results so far, illustrated by this particular example:

Bromley’s Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College set a brief for their 14-16 students to visit a local farm, pick strawberries, make jam and produce scones to sell alongside this jam. Crucially, students needed to know their costs and profit margins.

This activity was well received and the students were very motivated, with one of them saying: “We only have to sell one more plate of scones and jam to breakeven and we’ve got more to sell so we’re going to make a profit!

I have no doubt that young people who are exposed to this way of learning will be immediately more employable. Should however, they choose to delay entry into the workplace, the PBL skills will also stand them in good stead for university and other higher education routes.

Vital to successful PBL is of course effective employer engagement. Industry needs to be involved, ensuring that projects and the associated learning are all relevant. It is ultimately to an employer’s advantage to encourage the development of young peoples’ employability skills.

PBL is about learning real skills, which can be effectively used in the real world. Something I’d urge all colleges and schools to consider for their students.

For more information about Career Colleges, please visit

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