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What is PBL, really?

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” - Arthur Ashe

What is project-based learning?


This question has been asked and answered a lot. If you type that question into your favorite search engine, you will receive billions of results. 


So, why is Applied Coaching for Projects (ACP) putting out a piece responding to the question, “What is project-based learning?”?


In our review of what was out there, the offerings lacked detail or could be overly complicated—neither of which well positions readers to give project-based learning (PBL) a try. This blog aims to provide readers like yourself with a clear understanding of this powerful pedagogical approach and ways to get started.


The PBL breakdown

PBL has deep roots.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a pedagogical approach to learning that places students at the heart of real-world problem-solving and inquiry. 


PBL encourages students to learn and apply knowledge and skills through an engaging, real-world project. In PBL experiences, students are immersed in the complexities and challenges of a question or problem that closely simulates real-world scenarios, requiring them to use various skills, such as collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. This approach empowers students to take ownership of their learning by making decisions and taking action as they explore and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question or challenge over an extended period. PBL not only enhances learning outcomes—it prepares students for real-life challenges by providing them with practical skills and hands-on experience.

This approach empowers students to take ownership of their learning by making decisions and taking action as they explore and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question or challenge over an extended period.

Project-based learning has deep roots, stretching from the philosophies of early thinkers like Confucius, Aristotle, and Socrates, who emphasized learning through doing, inquiry, and critical thinking. Jump to the 20th century, visionaries like John Dewey and Marie Montessori emphasized a “learning by doing” approach for learners of all ages. Jean Piaget’s work as a psychologist focused on how we make meaning. His work laid the foundation for constructivist learning theory—the idea that people actively construct or create their own knowledge through various experiences by the learner. 


According to this theory, learning is an active, contextualized process where learners build new ideas upon the foundation of their existing knowledge. This approach encourages hands-on, collaborative learning environments where learners engage in problem-solving and critical thinking tasks through cycles of inquiry. This iterative process not only reinforces learning. It also fosters a proactive, inquiry-based approach in students, making it a foundational theory behind project-based learning (PBL).


In the 1960s, Canada’s McMaster University took these ideas and put them into practice. The then-newly-created medical school aimed to have a holistic approach to learning and based its new curriculum on three visions (Graaff & Kolomos, 2007, p. 2): 

  • A vision on [human]kind and society

  • A vision on the medical profession and its role in society

  • A vision on education


They believed that “application in practice was seen as more important than storing facts by rote learning” (Graaff & Kolomos, 2007, p. 2). PBL complimented these visions and aimed to help practitioners “focus on the patient and his/her complaint” (Graaff & Kolomos, 2007, p. 2). 


After McMaster University pioneered the approach, PBL became the standard learning practice for medical schools. PreK-12 schools and systems followed in the 1980s and 90s. The approach remained limited until the early 2000s when the 21st-century skills movement and charter school networks, such as New Tech Network and High Tech High, began to give both a vision and a sense of urgency for this kind of teaching and learning.  


The 21st-Century Skills movement advocated for integrating skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and digital literacy into education systems to prepare students for the evolving demands of the global job market. It aimed to shift educational focus from traditional rote learning to more dynamic, real-world problem-solving abilities, thus enhancing students' adaptability and innovation in a rapidly changing world. This emphasis on practical, skill-based learning significantly boosted the adoption of project-based learning (PBL) methods in schools, aligning educational practices with the needs of modern society.


PBL turns the tables (and desks)!

Unlike traditional classroom settings, where learning often revolves around textbooks and teacher-led instructions, PBL turns the tables by encouraging students to drive their learning journey. Here, learning takes place through projects that are meaningful, complex, and connected to the real world. These projects prompt students to ask questions, dive deep into research, collaborate with peers, and develop solutions to problems that matter to them and their communities.

At its core, PBL is about preparing students not just to pass exams but to solve challenges, think critically, and communicate effectively in the world beyond the classroom.

At its core, PBL is about preparing students not just to pass exams but to solve challenges, think critically, and communicate effectively in the world beyond the classroom. This method acknowledges that knowledge is constructed, not just consumed, and that learning is a journey of exploration and discovery. By embracing PBL, educators empower students with the skills, confidence, and curiosity needed to navigate and contribute to the world around them—a world that is rapidly changing and faced with more complex, existential, and significant challenges every day.


Project-Based Learning: The Features and Experience

The Features

Here is a list of PBL’s common features.

  • Learner-centered: Emphasis on student choice and voice while also providing differentiated and scaffolded learning for universal access.

  • Inquiry-based: Encouraging questions and curiosity as a foundation for learning.

  • Collaborative: Importance of teamwork and communication.

  • Authentic Learning: Knowledge is applied in authentic ways and/or experiences are personally meaningful to the student.

  • Feedback and Revision: Continuous feedback loop from peers and teachers, emphasizing the process over the product.

  • Public Product: Creation of a solution, product, or performance that is shared with a relevant audience beyond the classroom.


To operationalize the pedagogy, we use frameworks. And there are several PBL frameworks out there. At Applied Coaching for Projects (ACP), we use High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL). It is a student-centered framework articulating what students should experience during a project. It is a good check to see if students are actually experiencing true PBL. Learn more about the framework here or check out our HQPBL rubric! Throughout this blog, when you see HQPBL, that is what we are referring to!


The Experience

There are three main components of a high-quality PBL Learning Experience. Let's get into what they are.


The image is a simplified diagram titled "PBL Learning Experience." It outlines three main stages of project-based learning with icons and text:  Launch (icon of a folded map). Investigation Cycles (icon featuring binoculars, a fuel pump, a location pin, and a shield). Public Product Showcase (icon of a vehicle). Each stage is represented by a circular icon connected by a horizontal line. The text "PBL Learning Experience" is prominently displayed at the top, and "ACP Applied Coaching for Projects" is at the bottom left corner.



The Launch

The Launch, also called Launch Project and Inquiry, is the project kickoff. The purpose of the launch is threefold. First, the launch should pique students’ interest. Effective launches are engaging and often active. Second, the launch should introduce the problem or challenge and make students curious to learn more. The students wanting to know more will lead to questions—hence the launching inquiry in the title. And lastly, the launch is a time to capture students' questions about the project—its process and products—and the problem or challenge. These questions will be used throughout the project to guide inquiry and increase students’ ownership of their learning and classroom engagement.


Investigation Cycles

Investigation Cycles sit at the heart of the project experience. They refer to the iterative process of Learning & Investigating, Revisit Inquiry and Reflect, Prototype & Develop Products, and Feedback & Revision. Students can move in and out of these steps multiple times during a project. We recommend that students complete at least two full cycles within a project. 


When students engage in an investigation cycle, they are learning by doing. Their experience is learner-centered, inquiry-based, collaborative, authentic, and integrated. They are also receiving feedback and improving their work. Not only does this support deeper learning, it mirrors real-world work. Whether I am writing my master’s thesis, addressing a community issue, completing a home project, or developing a new product or service, we, as adults, engage in these steps. This is why it is not only important, but necessary for us to teach in this way. As Plato said, “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.” Let’s get them off on the right foot and prepare them for the whole of their lives. 


Public Product Showcase

The third component of a project experience is the Public Product Showcase. Features include Preparing for the Showcase, the Showcase, and the Closing and Reflection. Let’s start at the beginning. PBL is about practicing success, not reinforcing failure. As such, we must give young people a fair and supported opportunity to prepare their products and presentations. Second, a high-quality showcase involves students sharing their work, solutions, and reflections with a public audience. That audience could be anyone outside the classroom who would benefit from or be relevant to students' work. 


I’ve told you what it is. Now, why does it matter? 


Showcases change the game. Students have the opportunity to share and celebrate their work and learning. Their work and learning get to take on meaning beyond the small team that produced it. When a product or performance is authentic and addresses a real need, students can do work that matters. They get to try on those adult roles and identities and use them to understand themselves and others better. 

Showcases change the game. Students get to try on adult roles and identities, understand themselves and others better, and see the real-world impact of their work.

Rich learning also happens during the showcase. Students learn from each other and the audience who receives, reacts to, and engages with the work. Presenting publicly also improves the quality of students’ work by giving them a reason to care about how it impacts or is received by the audience. That little bit of accountability is good for students. And for all of us. 


Lastly, I’d like to highlight the Closing and Reflection step in the Public Product Showcase. It is important to take a look back at the project experience. We do so for the following reasons (note: this list is not exhaustive). 

  • Recognize and celebrate success

  • Consider what could be improved

  • Develop better metacognitive skills

  • Connect with other students

  • Cultivate self-awareness

  • Give feedback to peers and the teacher


For a fuller look at the components, see our Project Learning Experience Steps. As you review, notice which aspects of this you already do. Consider what you want to lean into, as well. 


The image is a flowchart titled "Project Learning Experience Steps" by ACP (Applied Coaching for Projects). It outlines three main stages of project-based learning: Launch Project and Inquiry, Investigation Cycle, and Present Products and Explain Learning.  Launch Project and Inquiry:  A. Launch: Generate interest and wonder to launch the project (e.g., surprising data, field trip, persuasive letter). B. Identify Questions and Products: Define the context, students' creations, sharing methods, and collaboration. C. Know/Need-to-Knows: Facilitate the process of generating student questions to drive and contextualize learning. Investigation Cycle (can be repeated multiple times):  A. Learning and Investigation: Provide inputs and experiences based on students' need-to-know questions. B. Revisit Inquiry and Reflect: Engage in ongoing reflection on new learning. C. Prototype and Develop Products: Develop products or performances based on new understanding and skills. D. Feedback and Revision: Give and receive feedback from stakeholders, plan for revision, and update need-to-know questions. Present Products and Explain Learning:  A. Preparing for Showcase: Practice and support needed for showcasing products and learning. B. Showcase: Structure and format for presenting products and explaining learning transfer. C. Closing Reflection and Celebration: Individual reflection on learning and growth, and celebration with others. The flowchart includes icons representing each stage and a dashed line indicating the progression through these steps, with a note that the Investigation Cycle steps can be completed two or more times.

What are PBL's Impacts

Student Benefits

First, PBL has many benefits for students. Let's see how.

FEATURE

BENEFITS

Learner-centered

  • Personalized and differentiated for students

  • The ability for students to use their voice and make choices about their learning

  • Engaging

Inquiry-based

  • Reinforces the learner-centered approach by using (a.) open-ended questions and challenges and (b.) letting students’ questions drive the process

  • A more rigorous approach to learning content

  • Develop rich transferable skills such as critical thinking, persistence, empathy, and imagination

Collaborative

  • Learn interdependently with peers

  • Develop self-awareness, social awareness, and relationships skills

  • Greater independence and ownership over the learning process and product development

Authentic Learning

  • Learning is more meaningful

  • Greater connection to authentic and real-world work

  • Supports deeper learning

  • More motivating

Feedback and Revision

  • Develop self-awareness

  • Develop metacognitive skills

  • Deepen reflective practices

  • Practice for success

  • Cultivate a growth mindset

Public Product

  • Put 21st-century skills into practice

  • Connects content and skills to authentic and real-world work

  • Create meaningful, shareable work 

  • Engage with others for feedback (e.g., peers, experts, and audiences)

Teacher Benefits

So, what about teachers? What are the benefits of using a PBL approach? 


In addition to the student list above (which may feel like wins for you already!), you get to play, innovate, and imagine. You likely have a standardized curriculum that you use. No matter how strong it is, you want to change some things. Whether they are the topics, the reading levels, the resources, the rigor, the process, or something else entirely, something needs to be adjusted to meet your students' strengths, needs, and interests. With PBL, you can imagine different ways of introducing the content to students and having them make meaning. 


Another benefit for educators is the chance to connect with the community. Projects in their best form include authentic and purposeful connections to community partners. Check out the examples below. 

PROJECT

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Ecosystems Project

Product: Create a podcast series that explains what the local ecosystem is and how to protect it

Possible Partners

  • Park rangers

  • Biologists

  • Non-profit organizations

  • Local business owners

  • Podcast creators/producers/engineers

Creative Writing Project

Product: Anthology of poems that address themes related to justice and belonging

Possible Partners

  • Community organizer

  • Poets

  • Publishing editors

  • Community members who have participated in civic and community action

Music + History Project

Product: Compose and perform an original piece to be included in documentaries for a history class

Possible Partners

  • Composers

  • Filmmaker

  • Music historian

  • Music producer


Though there are many more, I will end with this one. By using PBL, you regularly get to diversify and level up your practice. There are so many components to high-quality project-based learning. In each project, you could choose one PBL component to focus on. Reflect on how that went at the end of the project experience. What did you learn? What went well, and what was a struggle? You can even engage students in giving you feedback.


Moving to PBL Practice

At ACP, we deeply value the practical and tactical. And we really want you to give PBL a try if you haven’t. As such, here are some strategies, tips, and protocols to help you get started with your PBL practice. We share some of the resources more than once because they are awesome!


Get to Know PBL More Deeply

Learn more about the pedagogy and the key frameworks (we recommend HQPBL). 


Try Implementing PBL Elements in Your Current Practice

Project-based learning brings together many incredible practices. You can implement the practices separately and apart from each other. Bonus: you can implement them without doing full PBL projects. In the list below, we offer some practices you can implement tomorrow! 


Get the Culture Ready

In PBL, we ask students to do deep work. We ask them to be vulnerable, take risks, fail, and keep going. They have to give and receive feedback and move forward with work that doesn’t have a clear or single answer. You and your students will need a culture that supports them in doing that work. Check out the resources below to help you get the culture ready. You can incorporate the culture pieces whether or not you are actively doing PBL.


Design with a Focus in Mind

Listen. I know you want to swing for the fences and do that big, out-of-this-world project. I implore you—don’t make that your first project. Before a professional baseball player ever comes to the plate, they train. They learn the basics and practice on smaller stages before batting in the World Series. 


Whether this is your first PBL or you are just getting back into it, start by focusing deeply on a few features at a time. You may begin by focusing on student inquiry. Think deeply about a meaningful challenge or question they will explore in the project. Take the time to help them understand how to be curious and generate strong questions. How do we go about researching those answers and verifying their accuracy? 

Whether this is your first PBL or you are just getting back into it, start by focusing deeply on a few features at a time.

Another element that is great to focus on is feedback and revision. How comfortable or not are students giving and receiving feedback? Think about their personalities and skill sets alongside the overall classroom environment. Is it safe enough for students to be both honest and vulnerable? Then, present to or co-create guidelines with students. Model and practice giving feedback on a non-student work sample before moving on to students giving feedback directly to one another. And then, of course, have the conversation about what to do with feedback. What should they act on and how? What can they dismiss and why?

This approach will allow you to get your bearings, strengthen your and your students’ muscles, and build confidence. You will learn where you and your students need to grow. Adjust and expand in the projects that follow. Then, by all means, swing for the fences!


Final Thoughts

As we wrap up our exploration of Project-Based Learning (PBL), remember that the learning journey is not just about acquiring knowledge. It is also about fostering curiosity, collaboration, and real-world problem-solving skills. PBL transforms the educational experience, making learning engaging, meaningful, and applicable to everyday life. By embracing this approach, you equip students with the tools to navigate and contribute to a rapidly changing world. So, take the first step, experiment, and watch your students flourish in an environment that celebrates inquiry and innovation. Together, we can make learning an exciting and meaningful adventure for everyone.


Citation:

Graaff, E. d., & Kolmos, A. (2007). "History of Problem-Based and Project-Based Learning". In Management of Change. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789087900922_002

1 Comment


This is a very thorough overview of what PBL is and, in a way, isn't. The wall that I keep seeing, that impedes teacher success, is the "Yearly Pacing Guide." We need to find leaders who are willing to allow teachers the flexibility to plan projects without the yoke of the pacing guide. I would go further and say we need leaders who encourage the risk taking of getting off of the pacing guide to complete one project with all (or most) of the HQPBL components contained within the project plan. I look forward to all of these posts and the guidance you guys provide for teachers wanting to improve their classroom environments. Nice job, as always.

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