How Does Personalized Learning Differ from Project Based Learning (PBL)?

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


Many moons ago when we were first describing our vision of personalized learning and writing Personalizing Learning with Habits of Mind (ASCD 2017), we regularly were asked the question:

“How does personalized learning differ from Project Based Learning (PBL)?”

Here was our response in the book:

We see project-based learning as part of that progression in which students move from developing their thinking as part of a teacher designed set of choices for a project to developing a project based on an independent, personal inquiry of their own. Project-based learning always includes a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, and a public product (Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015). These experiences can be vetted by examining them for voice, co-creation, social construction, and self-discovery—in other words, by using the four attributes of personalized learning as filters to clarify the degree to which students have opportunities to think, create, share, and discover (Kallick and Zmuda, p. 8).

Often times when PBL was implemented in schools, the Gold Standard of PBL, many teachers did much of the heavy lifting to design the experience. They identified the challenging problem or question; aligned it to knowledge understanding, success, and skills; assigned what might constitute an authentic product, and led students through the critique and revision process along the way.

As we considered PBL as described above, we looked at it from the perspective of our definition for personalized learning. With that in mind, we focused in on the phrase “progressively student-driven.” We started to challenge ourselves and others to consider using the personalized learning sound board we designed as a way to progressively move toward student driven.

Realizing a need for a common definition for PBL, in early 2018, the Framework for High Quality PBL was released based on research and feedback from hundreds of educators from around the world. The reason for the relaunch? (Words in bold for emphasis).

At the present time, there is a lack of agreement about what goes into high quality Project Based Learning. Various models and guidelines for PBL have been created by experts and organizations in recent years. These are typically written from the perspective of the teacher. The Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning describes PBL in terms of the student experience and is intended to provide educators everywhere with a shared basis for designing and implementing good projects.

This framework delineates 6 criteria to emphasize student role with related reflective questions. There is real synergy in this iteration between personalized learning and PBL. For example, examine the criteria for High Quality PBL and notice the connection between those criteria and the 4 attributes of personalized learning and habits of mind we describe in our book.

High Quality PBL Criteria

4 Attributes of Personalized Learning

Habits of Mind Connection

1. Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.

Co-creation: They engage with others as they develop their inquiry and research.

Social construction: They seek resources both within and beyond the school walls.

They are:

  • Thinking flexibly
  • Questioning and posing problems

2. Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives, and their future.

Voice: They want to address and possibly solve problems that might have social impact. They want to practice their advocacy.

Self-Discovery: They learn what it feels like to be empowered and imagine what that might look like for their own future.

They are:

  • Applying past knowledge to new situations
  • Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

3. Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.

Social Construction: They are eliciting feedback from others who they consider to have expertise in their work products.

Self-discovery: They learn how to both give and receive feedback.

They are:

  • Taking responsible risks
  • Remaining open to continuous learning

4. Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.

Social Construction: They recognize and appreciate the expertise others offer.

They are:

  • Thinking interdependently
  • Gathering data through all senses

5. Students use a project management process that enables them to proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.

Co-Creation: They learn how to manage themselves as well as how to co-create a plan for success with others on their team.

Self-Discovery: demonstrate self-direction as they reflect on their process.

They are:

  • Striving for accuracy
  • Thinking about their thinking
  • Persisting

6. Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

Self-Discovery: As students are working through the project, they uncover strengths and interests as well as learn what to do when they don’t know what to do.

They are:

  • Responding with wonderment and awe
  • Remaining open to continuous learning

If we go back to the question we are asked frequently, “how does personalized learning differ from Project Based Learning (PBL)?”, we are reframing the question. In what ways does PBL strengthen the opportunities for students and teachers to co-create personalized learning experiences? And, with the clarity of the new HQ Framework, we are deepening our definition and meaning for both PBL and Personalized Learning.

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