What Is Project-Based Learning?

What Is Project-Based Learning?

Let’s start with some stories.

  • At New Harmony High, an XQ school in New Orleans, ninth graders published a book of short stories that imagines their city in a bleak future transformed by climate change. The students learned environmental science along the way, considered the culture of the place, and built their reading and writing skills.
  • At Furr High School in Houston, Texas—another XQ school—students worked with a nonprofit organization to conduct a “trash audit” of a nearby park. They collected trash found on the ground in the park, sorted it and determined its sources, then proposed preventative solutions such as more trash receptacles and a public awareness campaign. 
  • At PSI High, an XQ school in Sanford, FL, students planned modular, MICRO museums, about the size of vending machines, for the Sanford Museum.  Students collaborated to create storyboards, 3D models, and videos that envisioned how the public would interact with each exhibit exploring the community and local history.

Now here’s a pop quiz:

In each of these stories, students:

  1. Learned important academic content
  2. Explored real-world issues and shared their work publicly
  3. Gained valuable skills for college and careers
  4. Were emotionally engaged by their work
  5. All of the above

As is true of many multiple-choice test questions, the correct answer is “all of the above.” Because they’re all features of project-based learning (PBL), which students experience regularly at XQ schools as well as other schools committed to more meaningful, engaged learning experiences  They probably would not have that kind of experience at a traditional high school, although PBL is growing in popularity and is on its way to becoming an important feature of 21st-century education.

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Despite signs of change, however, most high schools in the U.S. (and their equivalent in other countries) are still operating on the “factory model” of education that began in the late 19th century. Students move through the “assembly line” of separate subjects, in separate classrooms, on a regular bell schedule, sitting passively as teachers fill their heads with knowledge and accumulating credits based on seat time and a minimal level of competency.

XQ schools are different; they are based on design principles that challenge the factory model, and a project-based approach to teaching and learning is a key part of many programs.

What Is Project-Based Learning? 

Here’s a definition from PBLWorks/Buck Institute for Education, a leading advocate for PBL and a provider of materials and professional development:

“PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

However, educators have defined PBL in different ways throughout its history and many stereotypes about it still exist, which we’ll address later in this article. People may commonly conceive of project-based learning as simply doing some sort of “hands-on” activity at the end of a unit. Or they may think of it as a way to apply what students have already learned through traditional instruction. Both conceptions are limited.

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The basic idea is that students learn by doing. They don’t just passively absorb knowledge delivered by a teacher, they gain it actively. Educator John Dewey, an early proponent of this approach, put it this way in Democracy and 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.”

A key concept for understanding PBL is that it creates a “need to know” for students. When students ask, “Why are we learning this?” the answer is typically, “because you’ll need to know it later (for the next course, the next grade level, for college, etc.)” or “because it’s on the test.” Neither answer is very motivating for students; they’re extrinsic. In an authentic project, students see the application very clearly; “we’re learning this because we need it to accomplish this important task or answer this meaningful question.” This gives them a more powerful, intrinsic motivation to learn.

In the three project snapshots mentioned at the top of this article, students were motivated by an authentic need to know; they learned science, history, and civics, used math, read, wrote, presented their ideas, and created media. They gained 21st century skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. 

Consider another example from Iowa BIG, an XQ school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. High school students planned and carried out an ambitious project that involved several academic subject areas with the intention of celebrating and bringing together their community. Their motivation to learn is clear, as you can see in this video:

PBL’s Relationship to Other Educational Practices

PBL is generally tied to constructivist theories of learning, bolstered by brain research, in which students actively construct knowledge rather than passively receive it. PBL is also associated with inquiry-based learning, service learning, and place-based learning—all of which can include a project of some sort. We should note that “PBL” also stands for problem-based learning, a close cousin of project-based learning.

Project-based learning also connects to other prominent 21st century practices in education, like:

  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
    PBL projects provide natural opportunities for students to build the SEL competencies described by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). These competencies include developing healthy identities, managing emotions, achieving personal and collective goals, feeling and showing empathy for others, establishing and maintaining supportive relationships, and making responsible and caring decisions.
  • Student-Centered Learning
    PBL is a way to provide student-centered learning, since both approaches emphasize active student engagement, student decision-making about what and how to learn, and the role of the teacher as guide and facilitator.
  • Personalized Learning
    Many people think personalized learning means students work on computers that give them materials appropriate for their particular skill levels and needs. A broader view of what it means to “personalize” learning includes providing students with experiences that match their personal interests and concerns—which is what happens in authentic projects.

Defining High Quality PBL

As educators become more interested  in project-based learning, some of its advocates worry that it will become a fad if it is not done well and does not deliver the promised results. They’re right to be worried; PBL is not a simple teaching method and it’s not hard to find examples of poor execution (see the “doing projects” section to follow). Lack of rigor is a common problem with how PBL is implemented. Some projects become merely a fun activity instead of a standards-focused, in-depth learning experience worthy of the time it takes.

Thankfully, educators have come up with good guidelines. The Gold Standard PBL model, created by the Buck Institute for Education, is one well-known example of an attempt at quality control. Another is the Framework for High Quality PBL, established in 2018 after a collaborative process that included PBL experts and prominent PBL school networks.

The HQPBL Framework lists these six criteria for what students should experience in a high-quality PBL project:

  1. Intellectual challenge and accomplishment
    To what extent do students:
    – investigate challenging problems, questions, and issues over an extended period of time?
    – focus on concepts, knowledge, and skills central to subject areas and intellectual disciplines?
    – experience research-based instruction and support as needed for learning and project success?
    – commit themselves to completing work of the highest quality?
  2. Authenticity
    To what extent do students:
    – engage in work that makes an impact on or otherwise connects to the world beyond school, and to their personal interests and concerns?
    – use the tools, techniques, and/or digital technologies employed in the world beyond school?
    – make choices regarding project topics, activities, and/ or products?
  3. Public Product
    To what extent do students:
    – share their work-in-progress with peers, teachers, and others for feedback?
    – exhibit their work and describe their learning to peers and people beyond the classroom?
    – receive feedback and/or engage in dialogue with their audiences?
  4. Collaboration
    To what extent do students:
    – work in teams to complete complex tasks?
    – learn to become effective team members and leaders?
    – learn how to work with adult mentors, experts, community members, businesses, and organizations?
  5. Project Management
    To what extent do students:
    – manage themselves and their teams efficiently and effectively throughout a multistep project?
    – learn to use project management processes, tools, and strategies?
    – use the perspectives and processes of design thinking, as appropriate?
  6. Reflection
    To what extent do students:
    – learn to assess and suggest improvements in their own and other students’ work?
    – reflect on, write about, and discuss the academic content, concepts, and success skills they are learning?
    – use reflection as a tool to increase their own personal agency?

The Difference Between Projects and Project-Based Learning

Many teachers and school leaders will say, “we do projects” and believe that’s PBL. But they’re not the same. Here are some typical examples of what students do when they “do projects,” not PBL:

  • Near the end of a traditionally taught unit on health and human physiology, students create posters that depict the effects of tobacco use on the lungs. The posters are displayed in the classroom, but they are not formally presented or discussed in detail.
  • During a unit on the executive branch of government, students pick a 20th century U.S. president and do research, then make a slide presentation to the class with key facts and accomplishments.
  • After taking a big exam in the week before Winter Break, students in a math class work with an art teacher to create colorful tessellations on paper.
  • After reading a novel, students work in pairs or trios to create short videos that reenact a key scene or dialogue, which are shown to the class.

These kinds of projects can serve a valuable purpose. They’re engaging, perhaps, and students might learn something or reinforce what they’ve already learned. But these projects do not feature all six of the criteria in the High-Quality PBL Framework. Dewey made the important point that what students are asked to do must “demand thinking.” In short, the learning has to be rigorous. That’s one of the main differences between simply “doing projects” versus the much more in-depth process of project-based learning. The table below shows additional differences.

“Doing Projects”Project Based Learninng

Supplemental to or separate from a unit

The project is central to a unit; it creates the reason for learning content & skills 
Typically done individually, outside of class timeMost work is done in class, in teams
Focused mainly on creating a productFocused on the process of inquiry and creation, not just the product
Not authenticAuthentic to students’ lives/interests or to the world outside the classroom
Typically done the same way every year, following teacher’s directionsProjects change or evolve if repeated, or are designed for unique issues/moments in time; involve more student choice
Often done without coaching, facilitation, or instruction by the teacherDone with teacher coaching, facilitation, and instruction on content and skills.

Stereotypes About Project Based Learning

Despite the recent growing interest in project-based learning, the term comes with baggage attached from the past. Here are some common stereotypes about PBL, followed by a more nuanced and contemporary view:

Stereotype #1:
In PBL, students pick a topic they want to study, do research, and present information.

There may be occasions when this type of project is appropriate, but the topic and the research process should connect to important learning goals. And there should be an authentic purpose for presenting the information, in a particular medium, to a particular audience (unlike the U.S. president “project” above). Most PBL projects should be designed by curriculum specialists or the teacher, or co-designed with students, with the topic and products selected for specific standards and instructional purposes.

Stereotype #2:
In PBL, the teacher acts mainly as a facilitator and does not directly “teach” the content; students learn it on their own.

The role of the teacher does shift in PBL, but not entirely. The teacher still provides a structure for the project, monitors and coaches students regularly, and directly builds students’ knowledge and skills as appropriate. Students may learn some of what they need to know and find answers for their inquiry questions through research, using online resources, or interviewing experts or other people beyond the classroom. But the teacher should use their judgment about the best way for students to learn what’s needed for a given project. Sometimes, the best way is for the teacher to just teach it.

Stereotype #4:
In PBL, students always create a tangible (or digital/media-based) object that is the “project.”

Think of a “project” you might do in your everyday life as an adult. It might be to create something tangible, like a wall of family photos, a vegetable bed, or a new play structure for the kids. But it could also be an event, like a party or a wedding. Planning a vacation or painting a room is a project. Same goes for PBL projects; some involve creating physical objects, but some culminate with a presentation, a performance, a service, or an event. The process is the most important part of the experience; that’s where the learning happens.

Stereotype #5:
In PBL, the focus is on “soft skills” and it is not effective for teaching “content.”

It’s true that, in the past, some students’ PBL experiences did emphasize engagement over learning and were more about collaboration, creativity, and “independent learning skills” rather than academic knowledge and skills. (Not that these 21st century success skills are not valuable, as we’ll discuss in the next section.)

However, recent conceptions of PBL, like the Gold Standard PBL model and the HQPBL Framework, put academic learning goals at the center. Projects should be designed to teach specific standards and disciplinary concepts and skills, and the research on PBL supports its effectiveness, when done well. For example, in two studies released in 2021, third graders and high school A.P. students whose teachers used a PBL curriculum had higher test scores in science and social studies than students who were taught traditionally. In another study from 2020, researchers found that second grade students from low-income families who were taught with PBL had higher test scores in literacy and social studies.

Why Project-Based Learning Is Important

Simply put, the goals of project-based learning are (a) to improve outcomes for students, and (b) to make school more engaging. These goals are linked, of course: the purpose of greater engagement is to promote better learning. We’ll discuss the outcomes piece in a moment, but first I’ll explain why I like to put both goals front and center.

Student Engagement and Project-Based Learning

When I was a high school teacher, I was acutely aware of how bored students usually are by traditional instruction. Students know how to play the game and (most) are willing to go along with the familiar routine of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, and homework assignments. But they’re not engaged by much of it. 

In a 2018 survey of high school students, about a third said they were bored “most or all of the time.” Only a quarter said they were “barely ever or never” bored in school. There’s data suggesting students grow more disengaged as they move from elementary to secondary grades. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 74 percent of fifth graders reported feeling engaged in school, compared with only 32 percent of 11th graders.

However, high quality PBL can make a big difference by motivating students with projects that address real-world issues, directly connect to potential career interests, or that speak to young people’s lives, cultures, and identities. 

Three other aspects of PBL make it engaging for young people.

One is the public product. In traditional instruction, only the teacher typically sees a student’s work–or sometimes their peers if it’s a presentation or something displayed in the classroom. Sharing work with people beyond the classroom ups the stakes for students; no one likes to look bad in front of an audience or present a shoddy piece of work to someone whose opinion you care about. If students have been in contact with experts, stakeholders, real-world organizations, or anyone else beyond the usual classmates and teacher during a project, they want to do well.

Then there’s the technology angle. Projects often include the use of tech tools for communication, collaboration, and creation, which most young people today enjoy using.

Finally, most projects involve teamwork, which tends to engage people. Students stay engaged because they don’t want to let their team down, find it rewarding to think and create together, and feel a sense of pride in group accomplishment. This isn’t true of everyone, of course; some students, and adults too, find it challenging to work with others and prefer going it alone. I’d argue that they need some collaborative experiences, too.

Student Outcomes and Project-Based Learning

The research on PBL has seen mixed results over the years, often due to widely varying quality of implementation and lack of agreement about what is high-quality PBL. However, more and more studies are showing it leads to better academic outcomes, when designed and implemented well. As outlined by Getting Smart, the goals of project-based learning are to:

  1. Teach academic content knowledge and skills, and develop deeper understanding.
    PBL aligns well with recently adopted state standards, including the Common Core for ELA and Mathematics, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 Framework for Social Studies. These standards call for depth over breadth and real-world application of academic knowledge and skills, with less emphasis on simply knowing long lists of facts.
  2. Build 21st century success skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity/innovation.
    In the modern workplace in the information age, people often work in teams on projects. And many people freelance, tackling project after project, in what’s been called the “gig economy.” It truly is a project-based world. In this world, simply knowing a lot of information is not enough–and it’s all right there on your phone anyway! When employers are asked what it takes to succeed on the job today, the list typically includes the skills listed above.

    These competencies are helpful in college, too, along with the time management skills and ability to work independently that students gain by regularly experiencing PBL in their K-12 years. What’s more, these skills are valuable for citizenship in a democracy, and throughout life in general.
  3. Help students become aware of their own academic, personal, and social development.
    One of the six HQPBL criteria is “Reflection.” and one of primary things students reflect on during a project is their own growth. PBL provides numerous and varied opportunities for students to grow – not just academically, but as people.
  4. Help students gain confidence for meeting new challenges in school and in life.
    Projects can take students out of school and into the wider world. They may work with experts and community groups, and interact with adults in a variety of settings–and even develop career interests. Some projects may present obstacles and challenge young people in unexpected ways. These experiences build self-confidence.

Equity and Project-Based Learning

There are additional important reasons for a project-based approach beyond the benefits to individual students. 

The first is equity. A common myth about project-based learning is that it’s not for all students. Some teachers and school or district leaders might say, “our students are not ready for PBL” because they have low test scores, and need to be taught “the basics” first, with an emphasis on test-prep. Or they might say their students are too undisciplined and cannot handle the independent, self-directed nature of project work. 

Typically, educators who raise these objections are talking about students from lower-income families and BIPOC groups. Other groups for whom PBL is often deemed inappropriate include English Learners and special needs students.

However, research has shown PBL can work for all students. As the above-referenced study of second graders found, project-based learning can have a statistically significant and positive impact on student achievement among high-poverty, low-performing elementary schools, where most participating students were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

With the right support, PBL can even be a force for educational equity, for several reasons:

  • PBL represents the kind of teaching and learning all students deserve.
    We should not subject some students to the pedagogy of poverty while students with more privilege are given higher quality learning experiences.
  • PBL aligns with culturally responsive pedagogy.
    Since a key aspect of PBL is authenticity, teachers and students can pursue projects that speak to students’ cultures, identities, and communities. A PBL classroom reflects features of culturally responsive pedagogy such as knowing the students well, setting high expectations, promoting a growth mindset, and being a “warm demander.”
  • PBL can be transformative for students.
    School can feel like an oppressive place to some students, especially those from historically marginalized groups. They often feel powerless. But imagine the powerful sense of agency they gain when they experience a project that makes an impact on the real world, like the examples from XQ schools we discussed earlier. Imagine them experiencing that sense over and over in a school that regularly uses PBL.

Finally, PBL is important for teachers too. Many teachers today feel dispirited by the drive to improve test scores through mandated direct instruction, using off-the-shelf materials. They see the faces of their disengaged students. For teachers who learn to do PBL well, however, it’s a different story. They see students who are excited and motivated to learn. They’re asking questions, pursuing answers, connecting their learning to the world outside the classroom, and creating high-quality work they’re eager to share publicly. According to Finkelstein in a 2010 study, “Effects of problem based economics on high school economics instruction,” teachers who use PBL report being more satisfied with their teaching methods–and I’ve heard teachers say it’s the way they’ve always wanted to teach.

Seeing is Believing for Students in Project-Based Schools

Another challenge to project-based learning is that students don’t have much experience with it. Students who have been taught throughout their school years in the traditional way may even resist PBL if they are suddenly introduced to it. They may only equate “learning” with listening to teachers talk, taking notes, reading textbooks, and memorizing material for tests.

That was the case at Crosstown High, an XQ school in Memphis, Tennessee. But as you can see in the following video, 9th graders there learned a lot more with a PBL approach than they thought they had, and were surprised by their high scores on the state’s standardized test.

Regardless of the reason you are interested in learning more about project-based learning, we hope you’ve been inspired by examples like those shared above. Learn more about approaches to meaningful, engaged learning and high schools leading the way.