P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThe following is a guest blog post from CEM partner Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s P21Blogazine

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What if project-based learning (PBL) became the core of teaching and learning for every student, every day in every school?

Projects have been around at least since Sister Genevieve set me and my 50 first grade classmates to work creating our sandbox neighborhood. By the late 1970s, projects had morphed into the start of project-based learning (PBL). By the 1990s, problem-based learning (also PBL) emerged. Today, the initials PBL cover multiple ways of teaching and learning with PBL gurus a dime a dozen. Prompted by High Tech High and then the New Techs, PBL has fostered whole school reforms in the US and around the globe and the most effective teachers are grabbing every chance they can to call on PBL and other practices that promote deeper learning for every student, no matter what his or her zip code.

Lots has been published and showcased about PBL through Edutopia, the Teacher Channel, P21’s Exemplar Page, the P21 Blogazine, and elsewhere. Because PBL is an instructional framework and not just a strategy, adopters of this highly engaging model of instruction have optimal freedom to design PBL units outside the box while calling on their unique talents to be makers and not just duplicators of the curriculum. The freedom given to PBL teacher-creators is a blessing. But it is also a curse. Even as more teachers and school leaders try to embrace PBL as a key to highly effective instructions and core to whole school transformation to deeper learning, those who think reform and improvement are about polishing the traditional, non-engaging ways of teaching and learning found in the factory model push harder to retain the obsolete instruction in outdated schools. Because these “hold on” voices also fill many of the positions which govern curriculum and instruction by handed down mandates and the distribution of state and federal dollars, PBL innovation remains tough, often little more than talks from TED.

This post gives us a look through a future set of lenses with optimism. However, their lenses are not always rose tinged. They see there are many challenges faced by those who want to transform instruction into a full day of effective practices such as PBL, but cannot. What are these challenges and how can they help students become the center of active learning, driven to learn by their intrinsic motivation? What can teachers, school leaders and other educators do to make PBL the go-to model of instruction for every student, every day in every school. Or is that a pipe dream?


Transforming schools to the deeper learning culture with PBL as a dominant form of instruction is no pipe dream. That’s so for several good reasons. Deeper learning’s forward movement is not yet overwhelming, but PBL does qualify as a strong emerging trend to foster that change. Here is some evidence.

  1. Research. For those who actually accept reliable scientific research, an increasing count of strong studies validate PBL’s path to the front as a core driver of deeper learning. They join the research about the connection between high teaching standards and deeper learning outcomes. (Search online for the American Institute for Research’s studies of deeper learning at http://www.air.org/project/study-deeper-learning-opportunities-and-outcomes.)
  2. Variety of Applications. The range of full school and district adoptions of PBL centric deeper learning is expanding. As the P21 Exemplar Network illustrates, school size, population, location, or type matters not an iota. Whether a school is a gifted elementary academy, a public middle school with a multi-lingual population, or a former prison-like public alternative high school or other structure, more public, charter and private school leaders and boards are understanding why PBL-centered instruction-for-all is in an hour which is now.
  3. Business Interest. Although there are too many instances when business leaders try to be the know-it-all education gurus, their interest, driven by a well-documented need for 21st century employees proficient with the 4Cs and technology, is shining a spotlight on PBL as a 21st century tool for learning.
  4. Schools of Education. Lo and behold, at least some education professors are catching on. While among these few there are more who lecture about PBL, instances are popping up where schools of education may even teach future teachers via the PBL method. Take a look at the University of Illinois post in the Blogazine archives as well as San Houston, Cal Poly and others where PBL is a well accepted teaching model (http://blogs.wit.edu/provost/files/2011/04/Examples-of-Project-Based-Learning-110426.pdf).
  5. Caine’s Arcade. If a nine year old Caine can do PBL alone and intuitively, why can’t all kids get the opportunity to learn from learning by making projects? That’s the increasing question from parents and the general public as factory addicted instruction fails.


Of course there is a downside. As poster Ted Fujimoto has shared in the past, PBL as a driving force for deep change has a long way to go. So does deeper learning. The vast majority of our schools are still stuck in an often times toxic culture where teacher talk and worksheets, extrinsic motivation, behavior control, distrust, and low expectations instruction surround an obsolete curriculum. In contrast, when working in a whole school culture of collaboration, mutual respect and trust, high expectations for achievement, effective teachers most easily can call on PBL as a rich and common model of instruction with deeper learning outcomes. Without a positive culture to support PBL’s regular use, teachers are limited to being outliers for whom anything more than a few sporadic projects is allowed. In many schools, there is not even an outlier. PBL is a term unknown in the faculty lounge or totally absent from school leaders’ radar. Parents and local business leaders seem more up to date on PBL, deeper learning and a culture of trust than the school people. In the meantime, we see a nine year old, boasted by a father with minimum education and untrained in PBL, an itinerant filmmaker, and the Internet are proving beyond a doubt that the right collaboration of folks can create an international scene around a young boy’s powerful, self-made PBL experience outside his school’s walls.


Of course, PBL is not the be-all and end-all. As Peggy Brookins, President and CEO of the National Board of Teaching Standards, reminds us in her post, there is much more to teaching than one strategy or one model of teaching, no matter how powerful. Peggy shares a larger vision. In her vision, the National Teaching Standards combined with teaching that produces deeper learning are a necessary marriage. The teaching standards and evidence based strategies guide teachers to produce deeper learning in every student, no matter what his or her zip code may be. This month I have selected real world examples of what happens when teachers and districts transform their culture and practice with PBL as a quintessential teaching tool. Clear in the posts, you will find a thread that runs through what living evidence is saying about PBL’s most effective applications in this day and age. You will also visit with highly effective teachers, including NTBS certified teacher Lisa Del Muro who shines as an example of what happens when a teacher lives up to the standards in a school that creates a culture of success for all.

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