Education Trends

Yong Zhao: PBL Develops Students’ Creative Confidence

June 21, 2012

Editor's note: Today is the fourth in a series of posts from PBL World, a global gathering of educators interested in project-based learning. Join the conversation on Twitter by following the hashtag #pblworld.

Yong Zhao, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way, kicked off the third day of PBL World with a fast-paced tour of global education challenges and a ringing endorsement of project-based learning as a key strategy to help students succeed.

Countries around the world -- and especially China, where Zhao grew up -- are eager to help children "develop the skills, confidence, and creativity to survive in the 21st century," he said. Students in Shanghai may be able to produce world-class test scores, he added, but that doesn't mean they will be prepared to take advantage of future opportunities.

"What makes someone successful in the 21st century is definitely not your ability to memorize facts. What will make someone successful is your relentless capacity to innovate, to create. It's your ability to network, to make friends from your own circle and from other countries. It's your ability to see through challenges, to look for opportunities in problems, and to take action to change things instead of waiting for someone else to do something," Zhao said in an interview after his keynote.

Meanwhile, he added, the U.S. is focusing on the wrong goal by aiming for higher standardized test scores. "Fixing the horse wagon won't get us to the moon," he said, referring to the current educational system as a holdover from an outdated era. Emphasizing test scores over creativity will undermine American students' talents and confidence -- the very qualities that countries like China are trying to encourage. An "outlier" like Lady Gaga, Zhao noted, would be of no use in the village where he grew up. Yet she's become a mega-star in the U.S. because of a "tolerance for diversity of talents."

Tolerance, talent and technology are the ingredients needed to produce what Zhao calls "black collar" workers (named for the late innovator Steve Jobs and his trademark black turtleneck). Innovators will be the ones who will produce not only breakthrough products but also new solutions to social, environmental and policy challenges, Zhao predicted.

A Community of Innovative Educators

Zhao's spirited address, mixing research with disarming humor, was well received by the PBL World audience of 450 educators from around the globe. Co-sponsored by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE at and the Napa Valley Unified School District, PBL World is the first event of its kind.

Bringing together teachers who are eager to do high-quality PBL with their students is a smart and necessary idea, according to Zhao. "If you're an innovator in education, you're often alone. We need innovative teachers and schools to get connected and know that they are not alone. That passion needs to be sustained in the group. PBL should not be confined to one classroom or one school. We need to connect projects and students and teachers globally."

That's exactly what's happening at PBL World, where participants are fine-tuning project ideas with support from the BIE National Faculty. They're using many of the same processes for peer review and revision that help students improve their work and take learning deeper. As Zhao noted, authentic PBL builds from students' interests and then takes them through a process "of multiple drafts, peer review, revisions. That's how you develop the habit of going for greatness."

What are some of the project ideas taking shape at PBL World? Here's just a sampling of the driving questions that were being shared in a critical friends protocol on Wednesday afternoon.

  • How can we design a car that is more energy efficient, faster and safer?
  • How can we expand the Islamic art collection at our city art museum?
  • How can we advocate to preserve our favorite places?
  • How can current high school students help to design an engaging project for middle-schoolers?
  • How can we convince the school district to install safety padding in the school gym?
  • How can we, as chefs, change the chemistry of a recipe to improve the quality of the product?
  • How can we increase assistance to those who are homeless in our communities?
  • How can we create better understanding of mental health issues?
(Learn more about the critical friends protocol from the National School Reform Faculty.)

Good questions, of course, are at the heart of inquiry-based PBL. Zhao suggests a few more questions to keep in mind to help improve the quality and authenticity of projects. That's how students will capitalize on the benefits of PBL. He suggests considering, "How can new technologies be used to support PBL? How can children develop their strengths, creativity and confidence through projects?"

Students also need to be thinking about what they want to gain from doing projects. Zhao is a strong proponent of basing projects on students' interests and passions. Each project offers an invitation for students to think about, "What are my strengths? What are my interests? What are my weaknesses that I want to improve on?" Figuring out what product to make as a result of their learning should get students thinking about another good question: "What can I make that is meaningful to me and useful to others?"

More PBL Resources

At the University of Oregon College of Education, where he is Associate Dean for Global Education, Zhao is developing a new platform for global collaboration in education. Called OBA ("the heart of glOBAl"), the site will be available soon for educators to share projects and curriculum globally. Learn more at

A good driving question is an essential element of high-quality PBL. Coming up with just the right question to frame the project and focus students' inquiry is a tall order. Get some tips from Andrew Miller's post, How to Write Effective Driving Questions for PBL.

Elementary teachers often ask what their students are ready for when it comes to PBL. Take a look at this popular video, Five Year Olds Pilot Their Own Project-Based Learning, to see PBL in action with primary students.

For some DIY professional development, watch the recorded BIE webinars on all aspects of PBL.

If you want more insights about "authentic" PBL, read this post from John Larmer, What Does It Take for a Project to be Authentic?

What are your questions and observations about PBL? Please add to the comments.

Watch a video of Yong Zhao's keynote on June 26th at ISTE 2012:

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