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How Project-Based Learning Imitates Life and Video Games

Posted September 2004: Lynne Díaz-Rico explains why learning needs to be less like stacking dimes and more like slaying dragons. See Gu Peiya's Portal article, "Leaving the Bathtub to Make Waves," Essential Teacher, Autumn 2004 (pp. 32-35).

How can ESL software be as exciting as a video game? To answer this question, I created conversation simulation software and tested it against the standard grammar software of the day. Of course, in 1985, when I did my doctoral research on this topic, few people imagined how exciting video games would become. But three characteristics of video games illustrate principles that still separate exciting from dull learning.

  • Video games are open ended. Until the user follows Super Mario down the tube, there is no predicting what the next level will look like. Learning should also have some exciting, unpredictable aspects.
  • Video games ring bells and blow whistles on every screen. Similarly, enjoyment with learning cannot be postponed until the very end.
  • Video games don't teach skills that are useful in real life. This is the shortcoming of today's video games--they often leave the user with twitching thumbs rather than any useful learning. In contrast, learning should teach skills learners can use.

Learning by Slaying Dragons

Project-based learning (PBL) presents learners with problems to solve or products to develop. It fits the three characteristics above in ways that ordinary classroom tasks do not.

Long-Term Growth Potential

Projects are open ended. In fact, the most exciting projects are those that grow and grow and grow.

When Dennis Sayers began Orillas, an e-mail collaboration between ESL learners at distant sites, who knew that it would become the standard against which subsequent e-mail projects would be measured? The growth potential in good projects promises the learners that they are a part of something that will remain important to them next year and the year after that--because some things in life are worth the investment.

Day-to-Day Excitement

PBL is exciting in its day-to-day activity--the thrill doesn't come only at the end. The real world is relatively complex, and students may encounter ill-structured problems for which they do not have enough information to solve at the outset. The problem definition may change midway through, or various participants may define the goal or desired outcome in radically dissimilar ways.

In its sometimes-messy character, PBL prepares learners for real life--and real life furnishes the truest enjoyment, a sense of honest pride in confronting challenges. Learning needs to be less like stacking dimes and more like slaying dragons.

Real Language, Real Consequences

PBL exposes the learner to real language. It is an opportunity for students to take on tasks that are consequential, with investigations and activities that are full of real-world language.

In many ways, school is an inadequate preparation for real life. In school, problems are simplified, have right and wrong answers, and are neatly structured to fit within class periods. Teachers guide or provide knowledge, which is neatly divided into content domains. Students know exactly what actions are required to produce good grades.

In contrast, PBL puts students in charge of seeking knowledge and selecting and generating the activities they will pursue to complete the project. Because a project is emergent and negotiated rather than fully planned by the teacher, it encourages students to go beyond the minimum standards of involvement.

A World of Tasks

How, then, do teachers find important, comprehensible projects that are worth the time, energy, and emotion they require? The first place to look is in the endless problems of today and tomorrow. Delisle (1997) and Edwards (2000) provide useful guides to the rationale, process, and evaluation of PBL, and Lewis (1991, 1995) offers a wealth of practical tools and strategies. Ada (1988) has rendered memorable a touching project (with an ESL component in the mix) that changed people's lives.

Mrs. Holly's Garden Project

I leave you with the image of Mrs. Holly in the garden. At Lugonia Elementary School, in Redlands, California, in the United States, each fifth grade worked year after year to build a garden outside their classroom. Students come back from the nearby middle school and from high school to their garden now and then to tell Mrs. Holly how life is treating them and to check on the garden. Even though high school ends, they can always come back to the garden.

Mrs. Holly has retired, but the garden club still meets every Monday afternoon at 3:00. It was a scrubby task to make a garden grow in a poor neighborhood where people have little money left at the end of the paycheck. But the project was worth doing, the neighborhood is worth living in, and the garden is worth a visit even if otherwise life is tough. If only all schooling made such a difference toward a life worth living.


Ada, A. F. (1988). The Pájaro Valley experience: Working with Spanish-speaking parents to develop children's reading and writing skills in the home through the use of children's literature. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas & J. Cummins (Eds.), Minority education: From shame to struggle (pp. 223-238). Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters.

Delisle, R. (1997). How to use problem-based learning in the classroom. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Edwards, K. M. (2000). Everyone's guide to successful project planning: Tools for youth, student guide. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Lewis, B. (1991). The kid's guide to social action. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Lewis, B. (1995). The kid's guide to service projects. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Lynne Díaz-Rico ( is coordinator of the MA TESOL program in the College of Education, California State University, San Bernardino, in the United States.