Project-Based Learning: A Real World Solution

lifelong-learning quote

There’s no arguing that core subjects like science, math, English, and history are important in the intellectual development of young learners. Where there’s room for debate is the method by which educational programs and institutions can best help students connect these subjects to one another and see the relevance of such knowledge sets and skills in “the real world.”

How students learn and achieve success in school is radically different from how people work in the professional world, where tasks tend to be project-based and increasingly require teamwork and interdisciplinarity. Teachers in both private and public school spheres are increasingly looking for innovative ways to accomplish their educational goals and generally make the learning process more enjoyable and impactful for students.

Enter Project-Based Learning (also referred to as PBL), a teaching and learning methodology that is on the rise and has gained notoriety for its expansion of the concept of “learning by doing,” its ability to engage students’ hearts and minds, and its real-world relevance for learning.

Learning by doing is not a new concept. In fact, Socrates’ model of learning involved questioning, inquiry, and critical thinking. That said, the traditional view of education in the 20th century centered around students being passive receivers of knowledge with teachers simply serving as a vehicle to deliver a static body of facts. It wasn’t until John Dewey, an American educational theorist and philosopher, argued for engaging experiences that helped students become inspired to be lifelong learners in a changing world. Today, training institutes and programs to help teachers learn to integrate PBL as a methodology in their lesson plans are becoming more prevalent.

Think Global PBL Academy is one such organisation that equips educators with the knowledge and skill set to offer PBL. They run training academies worldwide, as well as provide ongoing support in the form of coaches who physically come out to coach teams of practitioners in 21st century pedagogy to continue the vision and support they initiated during the academy.

Project-Based Learning: A Case Study

Debbie Diner is one such educator who has been trained by Think Global. She is currently in her fourth year of teaching fourth graders at a public school in rural Shenandoah County, Virginia. During her first year of teaching she started out by working as a team with a fellow teacher and spent a significant time experimenting with children’s engineering and STEM projects. Although they liked that such projects were motivational, Debbie explains, they “wanted something that was more integrative and less contrived.”

During her second year of teaching, Debbie and her teaching partner iterated on the previous year’s curriculum by trying out “integrated STEM.” They essentially assigned the same projects but thematically tied them together by telling students that the larger scale project for the year was to design a city. The Kicking Machine project became “design a machine to clear the land for our city”—it was the exact same project, but Debbie believes that the outside context made it more fun and meaningful for students.

Debbie and her colleague realised at year’s end that although they had made progress, there was still more to be done- they wanted to achieve their goal of integrating math, science, and social studies together, which they hadn’t been able to do the previous year.

Once they heard about Project-Based Learning via various STEM conferences they had attended, they decided to jump in and convert their classrooms to 100% PBL. They were able to attend a Think Global training that was provided by their school district and from there undertook the adequate amount of planning time needed over the summer to align their standards, write a curriculum, develop projects (nine in total) and write nonfiction research passages so they could integrate the research aspects of the projects into language arts. This year will be their second year using the PBL curriculum they designed.

Benefits of Project-Based Learning

Real World Application

Since PBL uses examples of problems that people face in everyday professional and personal life, students learn the hard and soft skills needed for navigating such challenges. Creativity, collaboration, communication, and other soft skills are key outcomes for students. “These are more than just buzzwords, they’re essential skills that employers are looking for in many rapidly-growing fields (technology, engineering, etc),” Debbie explains. “Because the projects are based on group work, students get daily practice in cooperation and problem solving. We very explicitly encourage growth mindset and learning from failure—we call failures ‘fabulous flops’ (taken from the book, Rosie Revere, Engineer) and have daily reflection sessions where groups think about what they’ve done well, and what they need to work on.”

Additionally, PBL creates an opportunity to put kids in direct contact with their community and the larger world, and connect “real world” needs with student work. For example, in Debbie’s classroom the first project is to make a series of maps of Virginia, showing economy, population, geography, etc. The students go on to use those maps to create an advertisement for their county in order to convince people to move there or visit. They partner with local stakeholders such as the county Chamber of Commerce to actually post those advertisements on their website. That’s just one example of providing students with a chance to showcase and be proud of their work. They also designed an assignment in which students write and film a movie about the Civil War. The completed films are screened at a “red carpet premiere” at the small local movie theater.

Enjoyable Learning and Teaching

According to various research studies assembled by the Buck Institute for Education, “in PBL classrooms, students demonstrate improved attitudes toward learning. They exhibit more engagement, are more self-reliant, and have better attendance than in more traditional settings.” (Thomas, 2000; Walker & Leary, 2009) Debbie affirms these finding: “Most students love the projects. Because we tie all four subjects into the same project, I always have that to fall back on—‘You need to learn how to round in math, because on your project this afternoon you have to research the sizes of Virginia’s neighboring states and then round those numbers so you can draw the states to a scale of 100 miles = 1 inch.’ That’s a lot more motivating than, ‘Learn to round so you can take a test.’”

Additionally, from an educator’s standpoint, Debbie is a more motivated and satisfied teacher: “It’s a tremendous amount of work to get things started [using PBL], but I could never go back to teaching any other way.”

Natural Differentiation

Although students in most public schools in the US are grouped according to age, skill levels can of course vary drastically in each classroom, making it a challenge to create assignments that fit the needs for everyone. In the case of PBL, Debbie observes that after giving students a design brief that outlines the minimum criteria for each project, “the projects really differentiate themselves to each student’s level. The gifted students can take the project and run with it, and take it to really interesting places. The students who struggle can work with more teacher support to meet the minimum requirements.”

Best Practices for Project-Based Learning

When planning to incorporate PBL in your teaching strategy, there are several key aspects to be mindful of:

1. Planning

Teachers enthusiastic to implement PBL should be aware that the strategy requires a good amount of front-end planning, particularly when it comes to addressing questions such as the following that Debbie outlined:

• How do your standards align?
• What projects can you do?
• What materials will be needed?
• How will you manage your groups?
• How will you communicate with parents?
• How will you grade students?
• How will you set up your classroom?
• How will you schedule your day?

It can be daunting to entirely change up curriculum and teaching strategy, so starting small is an important option to consider—it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Debbie suggests building a single PBL unit for a year, and then adding on a unit each year until you reach a level where you are comfortable.

2. Training

A deep understanding of PBL methodology is required for being successful when putting it into action, as it’s a big mental shift from traditional education practices. In fact, if PBL is implemented poorly, it actually hurts student achievement (Capraro, R. M., Capraro, M. M., Scheurich, J. J. Jones, M., Morgan, J., Huggins, K., Corlu, S., Younes, R., & Han, S. Y., 2014). Ideally, if you are an educator who would like to implement PBL in your classroom, you could attend a training such as those provided by Think Global. That said, if you cannot get access to professional trainers, try to attend conferences or seminars about PBL. “The VMI STEM Conference and the Virginia Children’s Engineering Conference are both wonderful places to start,” advises Debbie, who will be presenting at the latter conference in 2017.

3. Technology Requirements

As PBL requires some amount of independent learning, access to technology (particularly computers and internet) is needed for success. “Without access to this technology, it would be impossible to run any projects that require research—which is all of them,” notes Debbie.

4. Teamwork and Support

In implementing any new learning method, it’s best to have support from your administration and parents. There is plenty of research that supports the impact of PBL, (Buck Institute for Education, the National Education Association, and Edutopia are good places to start) so be prepared to deliver a strong case for introducing PBL into your curriculum, backed by this research. Debbie recounts how lucky she was to have a principal who is interested in supporting teachers who take risks and try new things. “We made sure to keep her in the loop at every stage in our planning and implementation process. We also hold multiple parent nights throughout the year and send home weekly newsletters to help parents understand what PBL is, how their children are being graded, etc. so they feel comfortable with the changes that PBL brings to their child’s learning experience.”

Additionally, Debbie recommends finding a partner like she did. “There is no way to get through the shift on your own, it is just too much work. It’s also incredibly helpful to have another person to bounce ideas off of, or to go up to at the end of the day and ask, ‘This is what we did, how did it go for you?’”

Project-Based vs. Problem-Based Learning

In a previous InformED article, John Savery, Director of Instructional Services at the University of Akron, cites the differences between problem-based and project-based learning: “While projects are excellent learner-centered instructional strategies, they tend to diminish the learner’s role in setting the goals and outcomes for the ‘problem.’ When the expected outcomes are clearly defined, then there is less need or incentive for the learner to set his/her own parameters. In the real world it is recognised that the ability to both define the problem and develop a solution (or range of possible solutions) is important.”

In response, Debbie cites the fact that every public education teacher in the United States has to adhere to some sort of state standards with their curriculum. “I completely agree (… ) that problem-based learning is more authentic,” she concedes. “However, I have no freedom to control what my students learn, and at the end of the year they take a standardised test to make sure that I’ve taught them what the VA Department of Education has decided I have to teach them.” Many of the standards are highly specific, and in order to meet them, Project-Based Learning may be a better methodology to satisfy the needs for teachers who have such requirements.

Although some educators and parents may have concerns about this new way of teaching, the facts speak for themselves. Various research reports have found that “students perform at least as well on standardised tests as students engaged in traditional instruction (Hixson, Ravitz, & Whisman, 2012). The real point though, aside from success on standardised tests, is that PBL is a proven method to prepare students for life outside of the classroom walls. As John Dewey wrote in his book Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”


Weezie Yancey-Siegel is an experienced producer and writer who is passionate about new forms of learning, global citizenship, and community building. She resides in central Mexico, and when not writing and producing events on a freelance basis, she is a Program Manager for GoodWorld Journeys, a learning retreat organisation.

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