Getting Started with Project-Based Learning

Think back to your most memorable educational experience. Chances are, it was an epic project. As teachers, we can design epic projects to make this happen! But what about the time constraints? What about the standards? What happens if students struggle to collaborate? Check out the articles and resources below that answer some of your big questions as you begin your PBL journey.

The Need for Project-Based Learning

If we say we want students to become critical thinking life-long learners, we need to provide projects that encourage them to engage in creative collaboration. This is the power of designing collaborative projects.

We often hear about the need for students to hit the 4 C’s in 21st-century learning:

Creativity
Critical Thinking
Collaboration
Communication

We are nearly a fifth of the way into the 21st century and yet we are still in a system where students passively consume content. However, I would argue that those four C’s aren’t “21st-century” skills. They’re timeless skills. They were relevant a century ago and they’ll be relevant 200 years from now. These are the ideas Dewey wrote about a century ago and the ideas Quintilian wrote about two thousand years ago.

I love this idea that students should be engaged in collaborative projects, where they are thinking critically, engaged in creativity, and learning how to communicate.

I recently asked teachers to list the benefits they see in collaborative projects. Here are some of the things they learn:

  • Perseverance: how to keep going even when a task is difficult
  • Project management: how to plan, monitor, and assess projects
  • Communication: they learn how to communicate, resolve conflict, and show empathy toward others
  • Maker mindset: they define themselves as problem-solvers, designers, creators, and builders
  • Systems thinking: how to navigate external systems
  • Ownership: they increase in their sense of agency and they develop their own voice
  • Critical thinking: they have an authentic context to engage in analysis, evaluation, and the generation of new ideas
  • Adaptability: they become flexible thinkers
  • Inquiry: they learn how to ask great questions

This doesn’t mean you have to use PBL 100% of the time. Sometimes you still need to use direct instruction, workshops, discussions, etc. But PBL can be a valuable way to empower your students with voice and choice!

Articles on P.B.L.

The following are the articles I’ve written on what it means to empower students with voice and choice. Note that I continue to update this and revise this, so be sure to bookmark this page an come back to revisit it periodically.

Collaboration in PBL

Making the Shift to PBL

Instructional Strategies for PBL

Assessment in PBL

Examples of Student-Centered Projects and Strategies

Video Playlist

PBL Workshops

Although I work full-time as a university professor, I often conduct PBL workshops. My style is hands-on, engaging, practical, and fun. I infuse each workshop with storytelling, humor, and movement. While I tailor each the learning to the needs of your staff, here is a sampling of what type of workshops I lead.

Getting Started with PBL

Teacher Expertise: Novice

Description: PBL can seem daunting when you have time constraints, standards, and a curriculum map. What does it look like? How do you even get started? In this workshop, we begin with the “why” and move into the “how.” As a group, we will do a mini-project and plan out an initial PBL unit.

Making the Shift to PBL

Teacher Expertise: Emerging

Description: So, you’ve tried PBL but you’ve had mixed results. In this workshop, we focus on how to improve student collaboration through specific structures. We also explore ways to build additional student ownership into the inquiry, research, and project management processes. Finally, we examine specific assessment processes to improve self-reflection and metacognition. In the end, we do a project revision to take PBL to the next level.

Taking PBL to the Next Level

Teacher Expertise: Expert

Description: In this workshop, we focus on how to increase student voice and choice within our PBL units. We explore specific structures to build interdependency and boost collaboration within student projects. We also focus on taking student self-assessment and peer assessment to the next level to maximize metacognition. In addition, we get into ideas like personalization and compacting to take differentiation and choice to the next level. The goal here is to share the collective wisdom of the teachers in the room so that we can all learn from one another.

Get the Toolkit

We’re all on a PBL journey, whether you’ve been using a PBL approach for decades or you just launched your first project this semester. As you reflect on your journey, you will always need to experiment and try new approaches. If you don’t, you grow stagnant. But you’ll also need to figure out what works for you. Repeating the same project year after year doesn’t make you lazy. It makes you smart. It doesn’t make you less innovative. It makes the learning timeless. Because every year is a fresh start with a new group, a new context, new tools, and new insights. In the end, there is no such thing as a “repeat” project from year to year because classrooms are dynamic and teaching is relational. What you get, instead, are new iterations and new insights that will help you refine your craft and improve your teaching. That’s the beautiful part of the journey. Sometimes you fail forward. Sometimes you experiment. But sometimes you walk into a project saying, “I got this.” And you do.

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