Project-Based Learning (PBL)

"Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."

As we witness more and more technological advances that are engaging students outside of the classroom, teachers must alter the way they use projects. Mundane projects that are strictly assessed but do not provide any real-world applications are stunting the growth and creativity of students. Any assignment that excites children will create a positive, proactive environment and be memorable
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for all involved. The PBL approach is a great way to start incorporating more engaging projects in any classroom for an innovative shift. Along with the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and math, 21st century skills such as teamwork, problem solving, research gathering, time management, information synthesizing, and utilizing high tech tools are critical components of supporting students as they become more responsible for their own learning. PBL also provides various opportunities for all learning styles since all children do not learn the same. Since some teachers are finding innovative ways to use information technology tools to help engage their students, they can add PBL to the list.

Peter Grunwald, founder and president of Grunwald Associates LLC, a market research and strategic consulting company explains, "Our data has shown pretty persuasively that students have a set of expectations around technology... To the degree that schools can go at least some way toward meeting those expectations, they'll have a much better chance of engaging students - and of course engaging them is critical to maintaining their interest and ultimately helping them achieve." (Careless, 2008)

What is it?

According to PBL online.org, "Project Based Learning is an instructional approach built upon that engage student interest and motivation. These activities are designed to answer a question or solve a problem and generally reflect the types of learning and work people do in the everyday world outside the classroom." Since many students in classrooms across the globe are being bored with one-dimensional content presented in mundane manners by teachers, they will benefit from PBL academically through enriched content and personally through positive relationships with their peers.

Wikipedia.org provides detailed descriptions as highlighted below for rigorous and in-depth Project Based Learning:
  • The organization around significant issues, debates, questions, and/or problems provides the core for higher-ordering thinking.
  • After learning new skills and concepts, students are enabled to apply them in order to attain a final project with meaning.
  • Inquiry is essential in order to provide new learning and creations such as an idea, an interpretation, and/or a new manner of displaying learned information.
  • The core components of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication (also known as 21st Century Skills) are created through a team approach.
  • Students are allowed some voice and choice as they work independently and make their own choices in order to improve engagement.
  • Constructive feedback from peers is required in order for students to revise for better quality.
  • Students learn that their work is a reflection of them and it is open for critique-good or bad.

Several definitions still remain for this model that organizes learning around projects based on complex tasks surrounding challenging questions or problems As a result, we find the focal points of PBL to be the involvement of students in design, problem-solving, decision making/investigative activities, and self-advocators for learning. According to John Thomas (2000), other defining components of PBL include... "authentic content, authentic assessment, teacher facilitation but not direction, explicit educational goals, cooperative learning, reflection, and incorporation of adult skills." He also shares that various definitions consistently relate "the use of an authentic ("driving") question, a community of inquiry, and the use of cognitive (technology-based) tools."
We believe that PBL is one of the answers to innovative curriculum because it teaches students 21st century skills which are integrated into the actual content of the subject. As students use the skills stated above, they are evolving into great students and leaders who have a better chance of surviving in the real-world. Preparing students for this ever-changing, global technology-enriched world we live in, is becoming more vital to the success of our nation.

Learning Theories Supported by PBL

We will highlight three specific learning theories and their orientations specified in PBL which are cognition, constructivism, and situated cognition. As students are motivated by engaging assignments such as PBL, their motivation to work harder is increased. Research shows that motivation, expertise, contextual factors, and technology drive the cognitive research and development activities in Project-Based Learning. In 1992, Ames shared, "All things being equal, students who possess a motivational orientation that focuses on learning and mastery of the subject matter are more apt to exhibit sustained engagement with schoolwork than students whose orientation is to merely perform satisfactory or complete assigned work" (Thomas, 2008). Since PBL provides rich learning related to real-life context and instruction through the exploration of authentic scenarios, cases, and problems, it can be described as situated learning which is oriented in constructivism. Students excel in learning environments as the discover, experiment, and socialize. Another important concepts that links PBL to situated learning is how students work collaboratively to solve the case or problem as they reflect on the their solutions and learning activities with the teacher's help. The learning environment supports scaffolding through collaborative activities, learning resources, and instructional support. Due to those facts, situated learning is based on the following four beliefs: 1) Learning occurs as a result of everyday situations, 2) The knowledge gained is in context is transferred to similar situations, 3) Social interaction enriches learning, and 4) Learning can not be separated from the action that occurs in the world (Dabbagh & Ritland, 2005). Through cognitive apprenticeships, learners continue to be engaged in more meaningful and purposeful projects. Although cognitive apprenticeships are very similar to situated learning, it additionally incorporates strategies such as authentic learning, modeling, coaching, and fading along with emphasizing cognitive skills and technology for reflection, articulation, and exploration (Dabbagh & Ritland, 2005).

Why use PBL?

So why would students choose PBL over a traditional project? As students venture through PBL, they gain a deeper understanding of the key concepts and standards. Projects can enable students to address community issues, explore careers, interact with adult mentors, use technology, and present their work to audiences beyond the classroom. Amongst all the beneficial skills that students will learn, PBL can motivate and eradicate any negative beliefs that students have about school being boring.

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As with any task and/or assignment that is innovative and engaging, time for preparation and planning becomes a vital component. In Edtopia's article, "How Does Project-Based Learning Work?", the writer shares the following steps for implementing PBL:
  1. Start with the Essential Question
  2. Design a Plan for the Project
  3. Create a Schedule
  4. Monitor the Students and the Progress of the Project
  5. Assess the Outcome
  6. Evaluate the Experience

Global Connections


Integrating technology in PBL is a sure sign of more engagement for students as they enhance 21st century skills. According to Charles Fadel, Cisco's education global lead, "Technology has certain attributes that can help achieve educational transformation. Perhaps the biggest promise of technology is that it can mass-personalize, per an individual student's learning style. It strengthens education because it scaffolds the learner in multiple learning dimensions - visual, auditory or tactile... Technology also motivates, because young learners are drawn to it; and it connects them to a world of people and information."

The New York City Global Partners provide a working example of how PBL is used in collaborating with other students around the world. They share their thoughts regarding the connections on their website under 21st century skills as: "Project-based learning and online communication reinforce vital literacy, technology, and critical thinking skills needed for success in today's interconnected world. Global Partners Junior develops interest in diverse cultures, getting our urban youth to think beyond their city blocks. Projects teach students to take pride in their local communities and find innovative ways to make their cities stronger, often applying what they have learned from their international peers. Students engage with one another using a social media platform and create multimedia projects using a variety of technology. "

By using PBL in classroom instruction, students will be prepared for the increasingly complex work environments of the 21st century. In a nut-shell, PBL is a model for classroom activity that shifts away from the traditional classroom practices of short, isolated, teacher-centered lessons to learning activities that are long-term, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and integrated with real world issues and problems. As stated previously, high levels of creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and collaborative reading, writing, and communication is at the core of learning via technology as we are witnessing now.

The following video describes how PBL works.


The Buck Institute for Education commissioned the cutting-edge advertising agency, Common Craft, to create a short animated video that explains in clear language the essential elements of Project Based Learning (PBL). This simple video makes the essential elements of PBL come alive and brings to light the 21st Century skills and competencies (collaboration, communication, critical thinking) that will enable K-12 students to be college and work-ready as well as effective members of their communities.

View the following video to see how PBL is extending to include STEM (STEAM) for a competitive environment in a science classroom.


Hear from three teachings about how they used PBL to reconstruct their classroom time.


The video below shares what experts think of PBL.



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The following documents in quick view format provide guidance for getting started:
-Lesson Plan Template
-eSN Project-Based Learning

The Center for P-16 Research and Collaboration is also a great resource for PBL.

For more information on a PBL Checklist in English and Spanish, please visit http://pblchecklist.4teachers.org/index.shtml.

Next: Assessment as Learning