5 Myths About Project-Based and Self-Directed Learning Schools

As I continue to speak and write about both project-based and self-directed learning, I come across people who have any number of pre-existing beliefs about these approaches.  Toward that end, here are five myths that I often encounter. Within each myth are valid, important, and significant questions and concerns, but it is important to dispel the myth that they accurately represent what happens in project-based or self-directed schools. The reality is that traditional schooling still dominates in most schools, so those exploring alternatives can benefit from learning about the common myths and considering how they can respond to them. Of course, the most convincing response is simply inviting them to spend a day in a well-designed project-based or self-directed school.

Myth #1 – “These types of environments are just for the advanced students.” – I hear this often as people argue that certain students need more direction and structure. In reality, this has nothing to do with academic giftedness.  I’ve seen many types of learners thrive in project-based and self-directed environments. What seems to be more important is whether students are willing to embrace a school culture that focuses upon learning and not earning grades, credentials and traditional accolades. Are they willing to learn about asking great questions, developing strong research and communication skills, and growing in their skill with self-monitoring, self-direction and time-management? If so, then they can thrive in a project-based or self-directed learning environment. It is true that some students may enter such a school more or less prepared.  That is where some scaffolding may be necessary to help students cultivate some of these skills and perspectives.

Myth #2 – “Project-based Learning and Self-directed learning schools are all basically the same thing.” – There are hundreds of ways that people come together to envision and start a project-based or self-directed learning environment.  There are multiple approaches to and working definitions for both project-based learning and self-directed learning.  Some project-based schools emphasize team-based shared projects while others are largely individual projects.  Some self-directed schools have lengthy processes for planning and proposing projects, while others are almost entirely student-directed (including the process).  Some have teachers and learning coaches who still play a large role in directing students each step of the way, while others leave more of that to individuals or groups of learners.

Myth #3 – “Traditional schools are better at helping students develop breadth of knowledge where these schools may be better at depth of knowledge.” – There is truth to this.  Students are exposed to a systematically broad body of knowledge in different content areas in a traditional school.  And yet, if we interview learners from different types of schools in their mid-twenties, we are unlikely to find a significant difference in the breadth of knowledge among the learners. Part of this has to do with the minimal knowledge retained by many in the traditional schools, so the real myth is that exposure or “covering material” results in retaining it.

Myth #4 – “If students don’t experience traditional schooling now, they will be at a disadvantage at the next level.” I’ve yet to find any strong evidence to support this claim. Instead, project-based and self-directed environments give learners a chance to develop the skills that we know make a difference in life after school, things like critical thinking, time-management, follow through on projects, research skills, the ability to learn something in teams and with little direction, initiative, and self-discipline. You will find graduates of these schools in top Universities around the world.

Myth #5 – “These alternatives are not as rigorous as traditional schooling.”  It is true that they have fewer or no tests, that they don’t force students to all do things in a similar way, and that there is more student choice in the experience.  However, these approaches, when done well, promote a level of depth that we rarely find in traditional classroom environments. Over a four-year high school experience, many students are developing a collection of eight to sixteen projects that more closely resemble a college research paper or senior project than the typical work in a traditional high school. In addition, these students often have the challenge of presenting and defending their work to an audience of peers and/or community members.  That can be quite rigorous. In fact, one can earn an entire master’s degree or doctorate by research (without attending any classes) at some of the oldest and most distinguished Universities in the world…basically using a model similar to what we see in many project-based or self-directed learning environments.














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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

3 Replies to “5 Myths About Project-Based and Self-Directed Learning Schools”

  1. doctorpi4nulearning

    I agree with you the importance of self-directed learning and project based learning. Now what do you think need to be done to help more schools or individuals get benefited by this approach?

  2. Raphaël

    I agree with you but just to point something out on your Myth 4 : my best friend was in a self-directed learning school when she was younger. When she had to go back in a traditional school, she didn’t fit the system and it was really hard for her. I don’t say it’s a disadvantage but it doesn’t bring only advantages !

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Thank you for that important point. I have observed this challenge in both directions. I recall one situation with a high school senior (ranked 1st in her class) transferring to a PBL school. She had to start with the freshman 21st century workshop because she lacked the basic skills to succeed in this new type of schooling. The same can happen when one tries moving back to a traditional school after being in an alternative school of some sort. The transition can be a challenge.

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