The District

Enabling authentic learning through PBL

The Newsela Team
May 14, 2021

Project-based learning (PBL) has sometimes been underestimated in the past, but more educators are beginning to recognize it for what it is: an approach that promotes deeper student engagement, 21st century skills, and connections to the world outside the classroom. Achieving these outcomes means doing PBL right — so we tapped some PBL experts to share their best practices.


Dan Cogan-Drew, Chief Academic Officer and Co-Founder, Newsela
John Larmer, Former Editor-in-Chief, PBLWorks
Jim Bentley, 5th Grade Educator, KQED Media Literacy Innovator
Maggie James, 2nd Grade Educator, PBLWorks
Project-Based Learning: An Underestimated Secret Weapon

Many educators still think of project-based learning as “dessert projects” — that is, fun projects for students to complete at the end of units, after the bulk of the learning is already done. However, panelist John Larmer emphasized that in gold-standard PBL approaches, the project is the framework for the unit and its content: It is the main course, not the dessert.

Jim Bentley shared what this philosophy looks like in his classroom. With his sixth graders, he uses a project focused on analyzing the accessibility of water in their community. His students conduct field research on plastic use and disposal, create photos, videos, and maps, and compare their community’s own water system with the one depicted in a relevant literacy text, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. They then present their findings to school district and park services district officials, most recently recommending the installation of reusable water bottle filling stations — using their knowledge to encourage adults to make a tangible, positive change in their community.

Particularly during the pandemic, PBL has been dismissed by some as incompatible with remote learning. However, John Larmer argued that projects like Bentley’s are more relevant than ever: “Students were hungry to do real-world work during the pandemic,” he said. “There were a lot of projects where students were marking the historic moment they were in.” Educators who did manage to adapt PBL to remote learning were rewarded with deep engagement and an opportunity to support their students as they coped with the year’s challenges.

PBL Gets Results

Despite PBL’s increasing popularity, there remains a false dichotomy between engagement and other academic outcomes: Many educators believe that they must sacrifice one to achieve the other. However, new research shows that this isn’t true: A study by Lucas Education Group found that students who took PBL courses performed better on AP tests than students who studied using traditional AP pedagogy. Specifically, the students who received PBL instruction were more likely to earn a credit-qualifying score of 3 or higher on their AP tests.

At its best, gold-standard PBL imparts not only content knowledge, but also 21st-century skills and deeper student engagement.

Why PBL Works

In an era of remote learning (and general student disengagement even before the pandemic), there is a need for pedagogies that harness students’ innate curiosity and allow them to take the lead in their own learning.

Even at a young age, students have a natural desire to make meaning and connections — and PBL leverages learners’ engagement not just with content, but with their communities. Gold-standard projects are well suited to incorporating student voice and choice, and to engaging with the worlds students come from. That might come in the form of a service project, a podcast including interviews with community members, or for younger learners, structures that attract birds to the school garden. “The more local you can make it, the better,” Larmer said.

Second-grade educator Maggie James added that learners of all ages have something to contribute as educators and districts work out what learning will look like post-pandemic. “I think our students have a key role in helping to shape our classrooms and our schools as we start to come out of this thing.” They have valuable insights about how to solve the deepest problems facing their generation, like how people can stay connected to each other despite physical distances, and how to take care of their communities both during and after the pandemic.

“Students, now more than ever, really want to tackle real-world issues,” Larmer added. “We need them to. There's a lot of problems in our world, our communities, our nation, where [students] are eager to address them. Let's turn them loose.”

All of the panelists emphasized that whether future learning takes place in remote, in-person, or blended settings, PBL should be central in ensuring that students not only master the curriculum, but become individuals who can solve their generation’s biggest challenges. Bentley noted that, especially in the 21st century, “People are measured by two big questions: What can you do, and what kind of person are you?” PBL answers both these questions by giving students the skills to solve big problems, and the sense of empowerment needed to take informed action.

To learn more, watch the session here.

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