Project Based Learning: Tips for Putting the Cliches Into Practice

by CUE Blog Editor - Kate Petty on November 19, 2013

By CUE Member Lisa Highfill

The pendulum swings again with Project Based LearningThe pendulum is swinging again with Project Based Learning, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Cliches about education have surfaced often throughout the years as attempts to explain the latest fad or learning design. As we move from independent state standards to united common core standards across the country, the pendulum swing is on the minds of many, inciting a range of emotions from panic to frustration for some, while others are jumping on the waves of change.


Changes in education can be a reflection of society at that time. While many believe education is slow to change, continuing with outdated structures that were created in the industrial age, others are averse to following another model. Educator Madeline Levine speaks of the paradox, “It’s exactly during these uncertain times when people must be willing to try new things, to be more open, curious and experimental.”


Many educators view this current shift as an exciting time to be in the classroom. It’s a time of shifting pedagogy as many are innovating  instructional methods, providing students with skills that go beyond the basic 3 R’s to embracing the 4 C’s of 21st Century learning- communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity. One strategy for accomplishing this is Project Based Learning.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

~ Confucius

Project Based Learning (PBL), as defined by The Buck Institute for Education,  is when “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. Rigorous projects help students learn key academic content and practice 21st Century Skills.” PBL is not a scripted program, it’s the way a teacher structures the delivery of instruction- from learning the content to producing evidence of understanding a standard or skill. The main tenants of PBL is Inquiry-Based Learning. Students engage in exploring ideas and discovering information rather than being lectured. It relies on structuring lessons around curiosity, wonders, and creativity. PBL provides the framework for this active learning method.


Getting started can be one of the biggest challenges, as a teacher must weigh the fine balance of being the deliverer of content with allowing students to be the drivers of the project. The teacher’s role to work with students, guiding learning, answering questions, leading discussions, and helping students synthesize and apply knowledge. Finding a ‘project-worthy idea’ can be done by starting with the content standards, identifying a concept or idea that can be connected to skills students are expected to learn. Or, start with the driving question or idea that students are wondering about. For example, wondering if all people get their water from the faucet can be a very powerful essential question, guiding the inquiry process to integrated learning throughout the subjects.


Considering a variety of methods for assessing skills in a PBL unit is important since so many of the expected outcomes occur during the process.  Mark Prensky recently wrote in an article exploring the idea that assessing PBL units means including more than just the completed product. Other factors such as attitude and action, communication and teamwork, and effective thinking skills need to be evaluated. Formative and summative assessments to consider include rubrics, peer evaluations, group reflection, surveys, writing prompts, quizzes and authentic products created throughout the unit.


When technology is infused with PBL, it has the power to be more than just a tool. It can be transformative, changing the way we synthesize learning. It has the potential to bring about real change and connects us with others in ways we never believed would be possible. Technology enables students to post their brilliance on ‘digital bulletin boards’ that can be shared across the globe with the potential of positively affecting others. When planning a good PBL unit, you should always define the purpose behind the learning and prepare for how it will be shared with a greater audience. Authentic purpose and outcomes are a vital part of any PBL unit.


As we navigate new standards, new methods of teaching, and the ever-changing world of technology, the role of the teacher as a learner is impossible to avoid. The enthusiasm and energy that builds in PBL classrooms is contagious. Students are engaged through active learning, they’re inspired by the authentic purpose to their work, and they’re learning lessons that go well beyond the standards and the one year you have with them. The same applies to teachers. By practicing what we preach and reflecting on our own discoveries, a newfound excitement and energy to teach will ensue.

Learn more about how to organize Project Based Learning in your classroom with Do-It-Yourself PBL tutorials from the Buck Institute for Learning.

Want to learn more? Check out the following  articles about Project Based Learning.

Lisa Highfill

Lisa Highfill

Lisa Highfill, is a K-12 Instructional Technology Coach in Pleasanton, CA. She has a passion for innovative learning strategies including Project Based Learning and actively works to share and collaborate with teachers, parents, and community members in order to improve the quality of education. Lisa has presented at numerous conferences across California, including the CUE 2013 Annual Conference, sharing ideas to improve the way kids experience learning. She is a Google Certified Teacher and a part of the inaugural group of YouTube Star Teachers.

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