George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Math, PBL and 21st Century Learning for All Students

Jason Ravitz

Independent Research and Evaluation Professional
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Considering project-based learning as a way to teach 21st century competencies? Or perhaps you have already used PBL in your schools and want support for your discussions with administrators, parents or board members? In either case, it might be helpful to know about the strong research evidence that PBL, when supported by good professional development, can in turn support the teaching and learning of 21st century skills significantly better than more traditional alternatives.

Sometimes skeptics will argue that for certain subjects (e.g., math) or some types of students (e.g., lower performers) are harder to teach using PBL. They might enjoy this video of students building a house as an example of good teaching -- but not necessarily an example that could or should be followed. Others, such as Paul Lockhart in his Mathematician's Lament, suggest that applying math to real world situations could actually hurt creativity.

Math teachers and teachers of lower-performing students do have unique challenges for teaching 21st century skills. However, research demonstrates those who use PBL are much better able than more traditional teachers to teach and develop these skills.

Here are two more videos showing students using math while conducting projects, working in groups to create original products or presentations.

These provide vivid examples of PBL helping math teachers promote 21st century learning, but how do we know, and how do we convince others that they aren't just anecdotal and isolated examples?

Evidence from West Virginia

Let's look at the data. Research shows these are not isolated cases. We see the evidence in research conducted with teachers in West Virginia. This statewide study included nine PBL math teachers, who received extended professional development, and 14 non-PBL comparison teachers.

  • Five out of nine (56%) of the PBL math teachers said students "created an original product or performance to express their ideas" every week, compared to none (0%) of the 14 non-PBL math teachers.
  • All (100%) of the PBL math teachers said students "generated their own ideas about how to confront a problem or question" weekly, compared to 36% of the comparison group.
  • Math teachers who used PBL reported more student collaboration than others. For example, 78% said students created joint products using contributions from each student weekly, compared to only 7% of comparison teachers.
  • Concerning communication technologies, two-thirds (67%) of PBL math teachers said students conveyed their ideas using media other than written papers at least monthly, compared to 7% of other math teachers.

Based on these results, math teachers should feel affirmed in their commitment to pursuing a high quality PBL curriculum as a vehicle for developing and promoting 21st century knowledge and skills.

What about the concern that PBL cannot be used with lower-performing students? Teachers of lower-performing students who used PBL also taught and assessed 21st century skills much more than non-PBL teachers. This was true for teachers of higher-achieving students, too, but they more often taught these skills without PBL as well. This means that PBL may be especially important for lower-achieving students who otherwise get less of a chance to learn these skills.

Are you convinced that PBL can help promote 21st century learning even in math classes and classes with lower-performing students? Based on your experience, would you recommend trying to teach 21st knowledge and skills in these classes using PBL, or trying a different approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Suggested Resources

This blog is part of a series sponsored by Autodesk.
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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Chris Fancher's picture
Chris Fancher
Design and PBL facilitator.

I worry that there are going to be math teachers who will say that they are going to use PBL because they think their students will perform better, BUT, they won't have the training or support in perfecting their skills in facilitating a PBL classroom. PBL can not and should not be done in a vacuum. PBL teachers (and especially math teachers) need other teachers to brainstorm with and they need administrators who understand what a PBL classroom looks like, to truly be successful.
Also, math teachers should not feel like failures when their projects do not meet the level of expectations they had hoped for. Sometimes a problem-based approach might work better for certain teachers and certain classrooms.
If you are considering using PBL, do your research. Ask questions. Get trained. And ask for others to help you. Once you stick with it, and learn from your failures, your students WILL benefit from learning in a PBL environment. They will be successful.

Jason Ravitz's picture
Jason Ravitz
Independent Research and Evaluation Professional

I agree wholeheartedly. All teachers and especially math teachers need the kind of support you described and the opportunity to develop their skills amongst colleagues. Hopefully it was clear in the blog that the WV teachers received considerable professional development within the context of a large systemic initiative. The PD they received was coordinated with BIE ( -- source of much help for teachers who want to investigate this approach.

What's compelling and why I wanted to share these findings is that teachers in WV (a P21 state) were not teaching 21st century skills nearly as much as the PBL math teachers. Although we could imagine teachers having students collaborate, creating, communicating, using technology, thinking critically (etc.) without PBL, the data suggests PBL is a very good way to get this happening.

It can be challenging to address 21st century competencies in a traditional classroom. It definitely makes sense to start small with PBL and build both teacher and student skills gradually, but for those who embrace this challenge PBL is certainly an approach to consider. What other ideas do you have?

Lynette's picture

I agree with your blog post. And also Chris Fancher, you make a good point about math teachers needing collaboration with other teachers/administrators. I always want to do more projects with my students than what I do, because I don't have the ideas or the time to create relevant projects.

What project ideas does anyone have for any topic in high school Geometry?

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I have used PBL in my own classroom, at least a couple of times, and I see some of the same benefits that Jason has noted.

I needed a new cell phone plan as I had just moved back to Vancouver from Bangkok. I told my students this and asked their opinion. They told me their opinions right off the start, and I pointed out that in order to accept their opinion on the best cell phone plan, I would need some evidence, specifically, mathematical evidence.

We then spent the next six weeks working on the project, and as students progressed through it, I taught them mini-lessons (10 - 15 minutes or so) on skills that would help them accomplish their goal. During the unit, the embedded lessons were on slopes of lines, graphing lines, finding the equations of lines from cell-phone data, researching cell-phone plans, solving equations, piece-wise functions, etc...

I circulated around the classroom and when students needed support on any of these skills, I offered it. If they didn't need support and were managing well, then I let them work in their small groups independently.

michael's picture
freshman biology teacher and Biomedical Sciences teacher

This is the future of education. The flipped cl;assroom works great for teachers and students. It seems as if we have had the whole classroom thing backwards for years. Homework in class allows the teacher to be hands on project based allows students to have hands on experience. The retention and higher level thinking skills are developing at an astounding rate in classrooms like this.

mcervantez's picture

I was very encouraged reading your post. My middle school started implementing PBL in all subject areas other than math 2 years ago. The teachers had in depth training in PBL and were expected to implement one project the first year and increase the frequency each year. The math department did not attend this training, however, we did attend a training on using problem solving to encourage higher level thinking. There have been significant changes in the students willingness to 'attack" problems and their confidence in class. Students now recognize that there is not just one way to solve a problem and are able to justify their thinking instead of saying "just because". I have struggled with how exactly PBL might look in a math classroom as I have only observed it in Science, ELA, and Social Studies. Any other examples of PBL in the math classroom would be great as my eyes are being opened to the fact that we should have been included in the original training and all of the follow up trainings after!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi mcervantez! I think Math is a particularly sticky question. In fact, I posed a question about PBL in the Why Math? blog just last week. ( I got a great answer from the blogger. I agree that math folks need to be included in all PBL training, in fact, we find that having inclusive training and coaching can make all the difference. I wonder if you might find this video helpful- it's a Physics classroom, but they're doing upper level math from a PBL perspective. You can see the challenge the teacher gave to his kids at

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