I was in an Oakland high school cafeteria leading a workshop for teachers focused on the question, “How will we know if we are doing project-based learning well?” Suddenly, the school’s principal walked in and confidently answered our question for us: “I know it when I see it!”
This principal illuminated a key problem of practice for PBL educators: there is no universally-accepted definition of the term. “I know it when I see it” is subjective and reveals a larger problem: It is hard to get better at something if we cannot identify what it is.
Many educators have a feeling about PBL, but when asked to articulate their vision I’ve seen teachers and leaders grasp for words. Researchers note that the variety of definitions challenges their ability to examine PBL as a practice (Thomas, 2000). One explained, “No two teachers implement PBL in the same way. This makes it difficult to define exactly what PBL is and then study its effectiveness” (Ravitz, 2010). In schools, the lack of a shared understanding creates well-intentioned disagreements: Does PBL require long timelines? What about materials? Does PBL need to be interdisciplinary? In PBL, do students choose the products? The academic content? Both, or neither? Does PBL allow for direct instruction?
Lack of clarity or consistency in our vision of PBL means it sometimes goes well, but not always, leading educators to question its applicability in their context. They say things like, “We tried PBL, but we’re not sure if it’s appropriate for students who struggle with math.” Or, “We tried PBL, but it doesn’t seem like a good fit at the elementary school level.”
When I hear this, I ask, “What did you try?” The responses often reveal ideas about PBL that diverge dramatically from what I’ve seen within experienced PBL teachers’ classrooms. Educators have explained their PBL challenges to me by saying: “In PBL, you need expensive resources, long timelines, and structural changes like student cohorts.” Or, “In PBL, students don’t get rigorous content, basic skills, or structured learning.” These, of course, are not what I mean by “PBL,” and therein lies the problem: we’re using the same words, but we mean different things.
Because we lack a shared understanding, PBL becomes something of a Rorschach test—an image of a pedagogical inkblot that elicits one’s preconceptions. When educators expect PBL to look like interdisciplinary collaboration, they find it. When educators expect PBL to look like unstructured student choice, they can find that, too. PBL can shapeshift into an exhausting, chaotic experience when we struggle with it, just as it unfolds as innovative, equitable pedagogy when we practice it well.
Working with the teachers in Oakland, we wondered, “If we walked into a great PBL classroom, what would we see?” And we wanted to know: How might a day-to-day PBL practice align with, and achieve, an ambitious vision for education?
To succeed as PBL educators, we need to share a high-level view of PBL, engage with its fundamental principles and paradoxes, and develop a detailed understanding of the rhythms and signature practices of PBL.
At its core, project-based learning is a method for facilitating learning made up of three ideas, which we can define clearly, even if their sum is complex:
At a high level, project-based learning is the acquisition of skills or knowledge through the process of engaging in an individual or collaborative endeavor that accomplishes a goal.
A PBL educator collaboratively designs and facilitates an educational environment in which learning is contextualized in a larger, purposeful undertaking. Typically, that means that within a project, students pursue meaningful questions and create a product or experience for an important community, all of which provide the basis for teaching and learning. In my experience, three related principles define the foundation of a successful PBL practice:
As educators, we know that all teaching and learning is contextual; the open secret is that the context may be contrived or irrelevant to students. Students intuitively question their context when they ask, “Why do we need to learn this?” Our stock answers reveal contextual weakness: “Because it is on the test (contrived); “Because you’ll need this in your future” (irrelevant, at least now).
In contrast, PBL situates teaching and learning in an authentic context. Thoughtfully-designed PBL forms a coherent narrative for students, teachers, and their community, in which learning is essential to achieving an important goal, and achieving project goals facilitates teachable moments. In PBL, the project focuses everyone’s energy on purposeful activity. Each element of learning, from student motivations to a range of relationships, daily activities, resources, and more, fits together cohesively. When a student might wonder, “Why do we need to learn this?” the project reveals simple and immediate answers: “This research will help us next week when we interview recent immigrants for our documentary.” Or, “Solving this equation will help us predict where our rocket will land.” Or, “We need to make sure our well-water quality data is accurate because we’re sharing it with the people who drink that water.”
In PBL, the elements of quality in a product or experience, and in the goals that the project accomplishes, are the learning targets for students. What makes a kite fly, what makes a community garden thrive, what makes a graphic novel pull readers in? When a PBL class embarks on these, or any other, projects, the elements of quality found in those projects become the students’ learning goals.
Think of a PBL class in which the students make documentary films chronicling the stories of local veterans: through their analysis of high-quality examples, the teacher and students uncover what students must learn to produce their own work. The elements of quality in an outstanding documentary include disciplinary practices and industry standards for research, the construction of an accurate and compelling narrative, and the establishment of a thesis, as well as unique components of the form such as filming, lighting, sound production, and editing. In another PBL class, students test environmental water quality and share the results with local community organizations. The elements of quality in their water quality project lead them to maintain standards for experimental design, meaningful water sampling locations, rigorous lab work and data analysis, and greater goals of scientific inquiry and the communication of their findings. PBL students and teachers examine exemplary projects, and their own drafts or prototypes, and ask, “What makes this great?” to identify and pursue student learning objectives.
The inverse is also true: when PBL is done well, student learning targets lead to the elements of quality in the products or experiences they create. One role of the PBL teacher is to illuminate disciplinary practices that are foundational to the inspirational products and experiences that spark their students. Digging into our example, a great documentary film relies on rigorous research and the careful construction of a compelling narrative—complex skills that depend on numerous competencies and require deliberate practice. A PBL teacher identifies, sequences, and scaffolds learning so students, at their readiness levels, create meaningful, beautiful work exemplary for its own elements of quality.
The symmetry between elements of quality and learning targets, and the symmetry between learning processes and production methods, convey much of PBL’s power. The more the processes for making a product or having an experience are inseparable from the processes for learning skills or content, the more deeply one is engaged in project-based learning.
Outside of PBL, the idea of rigor is often associated with quantity, sometimes with quality, and a narrow sense of equity: the number of chapters covered in a textbook, the number of advanced classes offered, and the final scores on standardized tests. In contrast, PBL associates rigor with a rich vision for authenticity, quality, and equity.
In rigorous PBL, students and educators engage in the behaviors and practices of experts or professionals as a matter of daily routine. PBL guides teachers and students to develop and learn from the habits and standards of scientists, mathematicians, journalists, anthropologists, and more, and they can do this with a high degree of professionalism.
This type of authenticity leads to the pursuit of quality. Perhaps the most visible display of quality is when community members attend a PBL exhibition and exclaim, “Wow, a student made this?” To get to that point, PBL students and educators pursue learning, doing, making, and being with a high degree of what EL Learning Senior Advisor Ron Berger called “an ethic of excellence” (2003).
PBL grounds academic work in authentic contexts, unlocking the potential for schoolwork to be true to students’ lives, identities, and communities. Students learn from and share their learning with communities beyond the classroom, which leads to critical questions in their school and the broader world. Ron Berger explained it to me this way: “This leads directly to work for equity, social and racial justice, environmental stewardship, and positive citizenship—working for positive, equitable opportunities and outcomes for all people” (personal communication, June 7, 2022).
PBL is a student-centered practice that offers multiple entry points and varied scaffolds for diverse learners to develop expertise with content, skills, and mindsets. Projects offer students multiple modalities to explore, learn, grow, and shine. And, PBL leads to presentations, exhibitions, and showcases—all teeming with opportunities for students to share the full range of their identities. While it has been established that PBL fosters a range of academic achievements, including among traditionally marginalized students (De Vivo, 2022), PBL has the greater potential to support all students in growing as thinkers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and citizens (Berger, personal communication, June 7, 2022).
Another way Berger suggests that we think about equity is to consider the schools that families with the greatest wealth or power choose for their own children: almost universally, they choose school settings with abundant opportunities for student leadership and expression in programs like athletics, Model United Nations, student government, theater, the arts, music, drama, robotics, and much more. PBL, which is intended to be in classrooms driving the core of the curriculum, is a method to bring these experiences to all students (Berger, personal communication, June 7, 2022).
The three foundational principles of PBL frame a powerful PBL practice, yet PBL educators often confront three types of paradoxes:
PBL can lead teachers to get lost in a paradox: in PBL, aren’t we here to make products, like solar-powered cars, community gardens, or graphic novels? The truer we are to the product, the better, right? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not necessarily. We are true to the product for specific reasons: to generate a powerful vehicle for learning, provide models for disciplinary practices, and engage students in work that matters.
The paradox of products is that in PBL, the highly visible nature of a “product” can cause it to crowd our field of view to become synonymous with the “project,” even at the expense of learning. A product or experience, like building a solar-powered car or publishing a graphic novel, is a component of a project, but a project does more: a project orients products toward accomplishing a goal. And, of course, in PBL, the project provides the basis for the deep work of student learning.
In the day-to-day processes of PBL, we do some very normal academic things, like analyze books and articles, diagram content on the board, complete practice problems, and look to experts and exemplars for guidance. Importantly, PBL situates these types of learning activities in the purposeful context of a project to maximize their impact.
In PBL, there are challenges, tensions, and joy in finding the right products that will elicit significant learning for all students. The crucial question to address to resolve the paradox of products is: to what extent does the project drive the curriculum?
PBL grows out of constructivist pedagogy that emphasizes the active role of the student in building their own knowledge through inquiry, discovery, and experience. As a result, PBL educators confront a paradox of guidance. The more the teacher can get out of the way, the more students can shape their own learning, right? The answer is, again, not necessarily.
PBL is often misunderstood as minimally-guided—or even unguided—instruction, and those who critique it as such construct a straw man. Though PBL is a student-centered pedagogy that empowers students to pursue inquiry, discovery, and experience, that student learning journey is facilitated by the design and support of a skilled teacher—this is the paradox of guidance.
Perhaps an educator (or administrator) who is new to PBL might not notice the pedagogical structures in place because those scaffolds are not what they expect to see. Take one key PBL practice: a critique. At first glance, a critique may seem like one student telling another what they like or don’t like in their work. However, practicing critique well raises two truths about PBL structures: first, a critique is itself a student-centered structure, and second, a powerful critique makes use of specific scaffolds to function as a productive method for teaching and learning. Experienced PBL educators use protocols so that critiques are synonymous with equitable, collaborative peer assessment and peer instruction focused on progress towards important learning targets.
PBL practices are composed of protocols, norms, and routines designed and facilitated to cultivate collaborative, dynamic, and productive student-centered classrooms. Protocols provide roles and responsibilities for students and teachers, frameworks for specific types of interactions, and channel participant energy into a process that accomplishes a goal. Norms and routines establish a classroom culture of worthwhile roles and responsibilities and supportive relationships.
One core competency of PBL educators is the ability to collaboratively design and facilitate protocols, norms, and routines to develop the skills of inquiry, discovery, and choice with all of their students.
When the teacher is not the immediate focus of each student’s attention, and the classroom is humming with learning, that is an indication of the quality, not quantity, of structures in place. PBL does not raise a question of whether to structure learning; the crucial questions to address to resolve the paradox of guidance are which structures to use, when, how, why, and who decides.
Harvard University recently conducted a study with its own students in introductory physics classes. Some participated in the traditional class, based on lectures and textbooks and termed “passive learning,” while others engaged in group work and similar practices which were labeled “active learning.” The “passive” and “active” students studied the same content and took the same tests. Unsurprisingly, at least to PBL practitioners, the students who participated in “active learning” outperformed their “passive” peers on the academic tests, which fits with a large body of research that shows that active methodologies lead to better learning outcomes (Crouch & Mazur, 2000). The surprise was in the students’ feelings about their learning: the students in the active group believed they had learned less, not more, and wanted passive classes (Deslauriers et al., 2019).
Because they did not understand how active learning works, the Harvard students often perceived active opportunities for greater learning as frustrating or confusing, especially in comparison to a neatly packaged lecture. Louis Desauliers, the lead author of the study explained, “Deep learning is hard work. The effort involved in active learning can be misinterpreted as a sign of poor learning. On the other hand, a superstar lecturer can explain things in such a way as to make students feel like they are learning more than they actually are” (Reuell, 2019).
Complex learning opportunities like group work, open-ended problem solving, and social discussions require metacognition and clarity of purpose. When the Harvard researchers tried a similar experiment with an added intervention of teaching students how active learning works, they found dramatic increases in students’ perceptions of the quality of their learning (Deslauriers et al., 2019).
The paradox of perception is found in the fact that PBL educators must simultaneously help students learn and learn how to learn; lack of clarity in either can lead students to believe they are learning less, even when they are learning more. Although the evidence shows that facilitated active learning—a hallmark of PBL—is superior to passive consumption of lectures (Lambert, 2012), the simplicity and familiarity of lectures, textbooks, homework, or a quiz can make students feel comfortable, and even make them believe they are learning more when they are not.
Harvard’s study made me wonder: If Harvard students believed that a blind foray into active learning leads to less learning, I wonder what it is like for our less experienced students in K-12? If Harvard students require proactive interventions to understand how active learning leads to real, deeper learning, it seems that our K-12 students, and their families, would benefit from similar support.
PBL students may find themselves in ambiguous situations, following unfamiliar structures, depending on the support of equally unsure peers—the possibility for frustration is real. To address the paradox of perception, educators must engage with students regarding all domains of their learning. The crucial question is reflective: to what extent can we be clear and collaborative in supporting student learning in skills, content, and mindsets?
At a high level, PBL is a pedagogical approach in which learning is contextualized in a purposeful endeavor. The promise of PBL is that the agency, coherence, and purpose offered by the project will engage diverse learners in deeper learning. On a practical level, the “what” of PBL is inseparable from the “how.” Like any method of teaching and learning, PBL has its signature practices. These are based on a resource that we developed at High Tech High—our PBL Design Kit:
The PBL Design Kit practices are not meant to follow a singular, linear order. For example, following a project launch, a class might critique an example of a finished product, to identify elements of quality and a list of learning targets. Another common example: PBL teachers and students assess their progress before, during, and after key learning experiences. Exhibitions should happen regularly, on a small scale, just as sports teams have many games before a championship.
Because PBL is a method, the scope and sequence of PBL practices directly impact what students and teachers understand PBL to be. Outside of PBL, teaching and learning are typically organized into units, often spanning a week or two, or maybe a month. And, outside of education, many professionals organize work into manageable units like design sprints, continuous improvement cycles, or various agile business models.
The consensus study How People Learn II identifies a “sweet spot” of two weeks in developing and retaining memorable learning (2018). As a teacher, I found that any project that was longer than two weeks worked better as a series of mini-projects each approximately two weeks long or shorter. Two-week cycles teach everyone in the community what each PBL practice is meant to accomplish and how to make the most of it. Two-week cycles ensure that the PBL experience is not a long, possibly ambiguous marathon, but rather a series of steps planned and scaffolded so that everyone makes progress and stays on course.
Here’s another open secret about education: PBL is already in schools, hiding in plain sight in the elective classes and career-technical education (CTE) programs such as theater, art, music, journalism, robotics, engineering, agriculture, and more, that typically operate at the periphery of the traditional academic experience (Mehta & Fine, 2020). Perhaps because these classes are rarely subject to standardized testing, their teachers and students have flourished as long-term PBL practitioners.
Perhaps more importantly, we naturally learn through projects throughout our lives. We regularly work to make or do something to accomplish a goal, and we build skills, knowledge, and mindsets along the way. We prepare memorable holiday meals for family and friends; we design and build furniture for our homes; we volunteer our time and energy in community groups and engage in civic life; we practice and pursue athletics, music, and much more. These endeavors are projects, and we learn a lot from them.
Over twenty years at High Tech High and within the High Tech High Graduate School of Education professional learning workshops, we asked thousands of educators on every continent except Antarctica to respond to this prompt: “Describe an experience of significant learning that was truly memorable. What did you learn? Why is this learning significant to you?”
We did not conduct a scientific study, but the results were clear. Most participants write about experiences like learning to cook an important family recipe with a grandparent, stumbling over a foreign language the first time they traveled abroad, something that went awry while they were babysitting, or the responsibilities of their first job. If they write about school, they tend to write about elective classes, sports teams, or extracurricular clubs.
Every adult in school has some familiarity with PBL from their own life and from a colleague down the hall. It can feel like we are on divergent paths marked by individual experiences of learning through projects. When we share a common vision for PBL, engage with its principles and paradoxes, and consistently use its signature practices, we will move toward actionable PBL expertise that works for diverse students and educators.
When a student walks into school, they may not see themselves as a rocket scientist, an author, a dancer, a mathematician, or any of the many things that they just might become. Yet young people naturally try on many identities in the process of growing up. PBL—which situates learning in context, connects students with authentic communities, and brings their ideas and identities to the fore—offers the opportunity to do more than learn by doing; rather, to learn by becoming.
We build rockets because doing so changes the trajectory of students’ lives. We make documentaries and publish original novels because that experience changes young people’s personal stories. As PBL educators, our students might launch pop-up restaurants, stage original plays, build kinetic sculptures, or make many other unique, meaningful contributions to their communities. However, that is not our real project. As PBL educators, our project is people.
So, how then might we understand PBL, with its principles, paradoxes, and signature practices? PBL may look like many things to many people—it is our job to see that diversity as a strength, a unique blend of traits that encourage innovation and adaptation. Because in all of its forms, PBL is a method for all students to access authentic, deeper learning.
In addition to the references noted in this article, the following books and articles have been valuable for me as both a PBL teacher and a professional learning facilitator.
Bryk, A. S. (2020). Improvement in action: Advancing quality in America’s schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Fehrenbacher, T., & Scherer, R. (2017). Hands And Minds: A Guide To Project-Based Learning For Teachers By Teachers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Hammond, Z. L. (2014). Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (1st ed.). Corwin.
Immordino-Yang, M. H., Damasio, A., & Gardner, H. (2015). Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). W. W. Norton & Company.
Kluver, J., & Robin, J. (2022). Changing the Subject: Twenty Years of Projects from High Tech High. Jean Kluver.
Patton, A. (2012). Work that Matters: The Teachers Guide to Project-Based Learning. Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Steinberg, A. (1998). Real learning, real work: School-to-work as high school reform. New York: Routledge.
Online examples of PBL
These websites curate examples and related resources of PBL in action, in classrooms.
Models of Excellence: https://modelsofexcellence.eleducation.org/
Created in collaboration with Harvard Graduate School of Education, Models of Excellence is an open resource featuring exemplary pre-K to 12th-grade student work.
Changing the Subject: https://changingthesubject.org/
Changing the Subject documents 50 exemplary projects from kindergarten to grade twelve from the first twenty years of the High Tech High schools.
Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence: building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Heinemann.
Crouch, C. H. & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970–977.
De Vivo, K. (2022, January 24th). A new research base for rigorous project-based learning. Phi Delta Kappan. https://kappanonline.org/research-project-based-learning-de-vivo/
Deslauriers, L. McCarty, L., Miller, K., Callaghan, K., & Kestin, G. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116, 39, 19251–19257.
High Tech High Graduate School of Education. (n.d.). The PBL Design Kit. PBL Essentials. https://pblessentials.org/.
Lambert, C. (2012, March-April). Twilight of the lecture. Harvard Magazine. https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: learners, contexts, and cultures. The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24783
Ravitz, J. (2010). Beyond changing culture in small high schools: reform models and changing instruction with project-based learning. Peabody Journal of Education, 85(3), 290–312. https://doi.org/10.1080/0161956X.2010.491432
Reuell, P. (2019, September 4). Lessons in learning: study shows students in ‘active learning’ classrooms learn more than they think. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/09/study-shows-that-students-learn-more-when-taking-part-in-classrooms-that-employ-active-learning-strategies/
Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. The Autodesk Foundation. http://www.bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/PBL_Research.pdf