Before we talk about project based learning, let’s talk about food.

It’s past noon and you skipped breakfast. Your stomach is growling. You crave something substantial. Which would be more fulfilling: that bowl of ice cream or that plate of pasta? 

When it comes to the projects we assign to students, we often default to dessert. Students learn in the “usual ways” throughout a unit, and a project is served up at the end to finish the meal – kind of like a treat. 

But the Buck Institute for Education sees projects in another way: as a main course in an approach called project based learning. That’s PBL for short, and it’s all about providing deeper, more meaningful and more memorable opportunities for students to learn.

What is Project Based Learning?

In project based learning, projects aren’t a wrap-up demonstration of knowledge and skills within a unit. Rather, the project is the unit. It’s a vehicle by which students learn. It becomes the central nervous system, supported by instruction, activities and assessments that make it whole. 

PBL focuses on meaningful, real-world issues. It challenges students to make decisions, create a plan and collaborate on a solution they can then share within a community. 

For example, students might…

  • Learn about personal financial management by helping real families plan for college, retirement, buying a home, starting a family and more. Students also learn how to interview different “clients” to learn about their needs, and work together to find the best solutions.
  • Learn about animal habitats by visiting a zoo, researching the animals they encounter, planning a habitat plan of their own and mapping out how to support it. Students might then present their plan to a professional zoologist or a group of zoology students.
  • Learn about climate change and sustainability by tracking how far their favorite cookies (and the ingredients that make them) travel before they arrive on the shelf. They can explore alternative recipes using locally sourced ingredients, compare costs, and create a cookbook with more sustainable alternatives.

A Lesson Planning Framework for PBL, a global effort seeking to develop a framework for high-quality project based learning, defines the foundations for effective PBL experiences:

  • It starts with a driving challenge. Students must solve a problem, answer a question, explore an issue of interest or untangle a multi-sided debate. 
  • It’s authentic. Authentic learning is real-life learning. It happens when students feel personally invested in the challenge and motivated to create the outcome.
  • It’s public. Students share the results of the project with a community of people.
  • It’s collaborative. Students must work together to achieve their goal. They may also seek guidance from mentors and experts outside the classroom. 
  • It’s plan-based. Students learn and execute project management principles and processes to keep their project on track.
  • It’s reflective. Students practice self-awareness and understanding through ongoing assessment and reflection.

In addition, PBL experts John Larmer and John Mergendoller advise that effective PBL also prioritizes:

  • Student voice and choice: Students make decisions about the outcome they’ll create, the resources they’ll need and the process they’ll use.
  • Modern skills: Students hone communication, collaboration and technology skills that will prove valuable in their adult lives.

Finally, projects aren’t one-and-done assignments that fit neatly within one lesson. Rather, PBLWorks says, it’s a sustained inquiry that involves students in “a rigorous, extended process of posing questions, finding resources and applying information.”

Though students make their own decisions, teachers still need to plan lessons and monitor progress. How will they introduce the project? What learning goals need to be met? How are students performing within the project? What instructional support do learners need? (So you’ll still find our Guide to Lesson Planning helpful!)

PBL: More Than a Trend

Though schools in the U.S. have been slow to adopt project based learning, research on PBL is picking up steam – and showing exciting results. A recent University of Southern California and Michigan State University study suggests it improves test pass rates among AP students, increases the number of low-income students taking AP tests, and boosts test scores for elementary-level students across socioeconomic and reading ability levels.
And those who have adopted it within their own classrooms maintain that it’s a step worth taking. Shares one teacher-turned-author, “It wasn’t about adding something new to the plate. It was about reorganizing my plate.”

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