What is Project Based Learning (PBL)?

by | Jul 20, 2021


Have you heard the buzz about project-based learning (PBL)? This collaborative, student-centered instructional strategy is gaining more attention and popularity as school leaders seek solutions to address achievement gaps and accelerate learning when schools reopen this fall. However, PBL has been described as a steep learning curve for educators and students to shift traditional practices and embrace student-centered learning. Let’s explore how your school can adopt a PBL strategy in the 2020-2021 school year:

Definition of Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBLWorks describes Project-Based Learning (PBL) as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

In PBL, students learn through the process of creating a high-quality project that aligns with grade-level content standards and extends the curriculum. PBLWorks explains that this research-informed instructional method engages students in learning both academic concepts and social and emotional skills including:

  • Critical thinking,
  • Problem-solving,
  • Collaboration, and
  • Other communication skills.

PBL is designed to support students with taking ownership to drive their instructional interests which differs from a traditional approach to instruction where the teacher does most of the heavy lifting.  The students benefit from PBL because they chose to dig deeper into learning about all aspects of their projects.  Students are more actively engaged in the learning process.

7 Best Practices for Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBLWorks outlines seven key practices for teachers who want to incorporate high-quality project-based learning (PBL) to teaching and learning. We’ve adapted these practices below to help you understand your role in PBL as a principal or other school leader:

  1. Design and Plan — If your teachers are new to PBL, they’ll need professional development to learn how to design a high-quality project. PBL involves more than simply assigning a traditional project, like asking students to make slideshow presentations that regurgitate information they’ve learned in a lecture. An Edutopia article explains that through PBL, “Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end.” The Center for Student Achievement Solutions can work with you to provide professional development that helps teachers understand how to design and implement effective PBL.
  2. Align to Standards — Most schools use some form of standards-based education to help educators assess whether students are meeting grade-level learning expectations. Any instructional method, including PBL, should teach content and skills aligned with your grade-level content standards. School leaders must provide professional development for teachers to help them understand how to measure students’ learning progress i
  3. Build the Culture — PBL is an inherently collaborative instructional method that gives students a voice and choice in their own learning. If you expect teachers to give students’ autonomy in their learning, you must first nurture a culture of shared leadership that uplift teacher voices.
  4. Manage Activities — Although PBL is highly student-driven, students still need plenty of teacher support along the way. They need help identifying appropriate learning resources for their projects, developing a timeline for their work, and keeping tasks organized. Likewise, teachers leading PBL for the first time need school administrator support to identify professional learning resources on this instructional method and to build time into their schedules for professional development.
  5. Scaffold Student Learning — The IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University describes instructional scaffolding as “a process through which a teacher adds supports for students in order to enhance learning and aid in the mastery of tasks. The teacher does this by systematically building on students’ experiences and knowledge as they are learning new skills.” Essentially, scaffolding requires teachers to gradually grow students’ learning through the curriculum by building upon the content and skills they’ve already mastered. And scaffolding is not just a strategy for teachers; it’s a method you should employ when planning professional development for your team! Read our recent article about how professional learning should be ongoing and job-embedded to learn more.
  6. Assess Student Learning — All instructional strategies, including PBL, should incorporate regular formative assessments that allow teachers to evaluate students’ learning progress. School leaders must provide professional development that helps teachers understand how to make data-driven decisions in their classrooms.
  7. Engage and Coach — PBLWorks recommends that teachers “identify when [students] need skill-building, redirection, encouragement, and celebration.” School leaders should model all of these skills by giving teachers high-quality feedback frequently and consistently.

Ensuring PBL is Inclusive, Accessible, and Equitable for All Students

Project-based learning (PBL) has been growing in popularity for many years, but school leaders must remember that a popular strategy is not necessarily an equitable strategy for all students. Students come from different cultural and educational backgrounds, and many have different learning needs.

Educator Elena Aguilar reminds us that when education is equitable for all students, “every child gets what they need in our schools—every child, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, who their parents are, what their temperament is, or what they show up knowing or not knowing.”

School leaders should consider how underserved student groups may need extra support to succeed in PBL. At your school, these student groups may include:

  • Students with disabilities and IEPs
  • Students with limited learning resources at home
  • Students who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-related learning loss
  • Students of color who are disproportionately impacted by the achievement gap

Here are a few tips to ensure PBL is inclusive for all students at your school:

Meet students where they are to promote success.

As you prepare teachers to lead PBL in their classrooms, openly acknowledge that your students are all in different places in their learning journeys. Teach your team how to use student data to predict which students may need extra supports through PBL. Provide professional development to help teachers implement differentiated instruction and scaffolded learning to meet students’ individual needs.

Nurture a positive, inclusive culture.

PBL often requires students to work collaboratively to achieve a collective goal. This type of group work promotes social and emotional skills like leadership, problem-solving, negotiating, and conflict resolution—but students will need some help along the way. Your teachers need professional development to understand how to properly incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) into their PBL lesson plans, so all students have the skills they need for success.

Provide opportunities for personal reflection.

At the Center for Student Achievement Solutions, we often remind school leaders that personal reflection is a key component of effective teacher professional development. Although you can provide feedback and suggestions for teachers to improve upon their practice, they also need space to consider their own performance and identify areas where they want to improve.

Similarly, students need teachers to guide them through personal reflection as they work on learning projects. Students feel more empowered to drive their own learning when they can set their own learning goals.

Seek expert consulting for your professional development strategy.

Any time your school or district implements new procedures or instructional strategies, it’s easy to become overwhelmed as you try to support your teachers’ professional learning. You may feel as though you’re trying to get yourself up to speed on PBL basics while also training teachers on this new concept.

We would be honored to partner with your leaders to develop a professional development strategy that is tailored to your team’s needs. At CSAS, all of our consultants are seasoned educational leaders, so we’ve been in your shoes! Start by scheduling a free call with one of our expert consultants so we can learn about the challenges you’re facing. From there, we can map out a custom strategy for your school’s improvement.



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