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The Importance of Project-Learning Schools

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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When I talk with groups of teachers about project learning, audiences typically divide along predictable lines. There are the pioneers who have been teaching with the project approach for years and wouldn't consider going back to more traditional instruction. There are those eager to give projects a try but not quite sure how to begin.

And then there are the naysayers who have a list of reasons why projects aren't worth their time and effort.

It was a different story at the first Project Foundry Conference, held recently outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Every teacher in attendance came from a secondary school that embraces project learning as central to instruction.

These tend to be innovative small schools, including charters, vocational academies, and schools geared for alternative learners. The setting for the event was the TAGOS Leadership Academy, in Janesville, Wisconsin, which is about to start its third year of delivering individualized instruction through the project approach.

These pioneering schools, looking for better ways of reaching today's learners, have been willing to rethink just about everything: How should the school day be scheduled? How do we measure student progress toward learning goals? What's the best size for a learning community that fosters strong connections between students and adults? Models vary somewhat from one community to the next but share a common vision of students deeply engaged in learning by tackling real-world challenges.

It doesn't take long for teachers from these schools to start sharing stories of fantastic projects and motivated learners. But as one of the participants pointed out, the larger community needs to hear these stories, too. Most adults have never had a chance to learn or teach in a project-learning setting. If these new schools are going to thrive in the long run, they need policy makers, parents, and community members to understand what they are doing -- and why it matters.

The goal is not only positive press coverage (although that doesn't hurt) but also a better way of talking about results. Most project-learning schools operate within the larger, more traditional educational system.

That means schools focusing on authentic assessment still have to turn in reports that tally credits earned for seat time. Sometimes, it can feel as if you're speaking different languages. To avoid confusion, Paul Tweed, founder of the Wildlands School, in Augusta, Wisconsin, suggests that project-learning schools find ways to translate what their students are doing to the more traditional language of credits and course titles.

Similarly, schools need to be able to talk with parents in a language they understand. That's the seasoned advice of Steve Rippe, who promotes school change through the network of EdVisions Schools.

"We need a bridging language," he says, so that parents who have never experienced project learning feel comfortable entrusting their children to a school that embraces that method. That's especially important for parents from low-income communities who know that education is the key to their kids' future. "They can't gamble it," Rippe says.

Another resource for encouraging this conversation is Project Foundry, which offers schools an online system for managing all the complex pieces of a project-learning environments. With feedback from end users -- educators themselves -- the toolkit is constantly being fine-tuned to meet evolving needs, including reporting tools to communicate results.

As I listened to these educators share strategies and wrestle with challenges, I found myself wishing their discussions could reach an even larger audience. If our old ideas about school are going to change anytime soon, this conversation needs to move from the frontier to the mainstream.

What ideas can you bring to the discussion? How do you talk about what works in education in your community?

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Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Comments (22) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kathleen Cagle's picture

Monica -
I suggest you take a look at the New Tech High Schools that are popping up all over the country. They are all modeled after the original New Tech High School in Napa Valley. Not only do they do wall-to-wall project based learning, they incorporate the community and work hand and hand with local businesses.

Good Luck!
Kathleen C.
New Tech @ Wayne

Zakiyyah Watts's picture

I work at a middle school in Georgia. This year we started doing project-based learning. I think it's a good idea. I believe this because some students don't test well on paper. Allowing students to do projects is a way that they can show what they have learned through creativity. It also takes away the boredom of traditional testing. However, students become frustrated when each of their classes require a project assignment around the same time, so we have to be careful to space them out. This way, students don't stress and shut down.

Jennifer Phillips's picture

Hello everyone! I am an instructional facilitator (teacher trainer) at a system of charter schools in inner-city Dallas. I have recently begun researching about PBL and am a huge fan. After reading this article and all of the comments, I'm incredibly bought in to the idea. The problem is, I've tried to get the teachers that I work with on board, and I've experienced a ton of resistance. My guess is that the apprehension comes from insecurity: they're afraid they (and in turn their students) won't be successful, they're afraid of wasting valuable test-prep time, they're afraid of the amount of work that would go in to creating projects, etc.
Does anyone have a suggestion about how to sell this idea to teachers?

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

We are pioneering the Take Action Project where students take informed and effective action on a science-related issue of their choice. I'm so happy to find a group of similarly interested educators. Looking forward to being part of this group and community. Check out what we are doing at or at the blog at

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Jennifer,
It can be tough if you're the only teacher in your building who's doing projects. A couple ideas to find more allies: Think about making your projects more visible to the whole community as a way to generate interest and get more teachers on board with PBL. An end-of-project celebration is an ideal time to invite colleagues, school leaders, and parents to listen to what kids have to say about their projects. Or, think about inviting another teacher to "join" a project that you have already planned. Try working with another class across disciplines or grade levels--at your own school, or farther afield (using web tools to connect). Finally, keep building your network of PBL advocates in forums like this one.
Good luck!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Zakiyyah Watts said: "However, students become frustrated when each of their classes require a project assignment around the same time, so we have to be careful to space them out."

Thanks for this insight. I've seen schools overcome this scheduling challenge by having teachers share project due dates via shared calendars or collaborative workspaces. Important to give kids adequate time to make the most of projects!

Samantha Cawthon's picture

I am currently a pre-service teacher pursuing my Master's degree in Elementary Education. While my education has been great, I am always interested in learning about the latest and greatest instructional methods. I am already a fan of using student-centered projects in the classroom, but how is PBL different? It sounds more extensive. Does an entire school have to have a mission of PBL or can an individual teacher carry this out in a traditional public school? Where can I find more information about what PBL entails and successful examples of PBL in classrooms?

susan donnelly's picture

this is so interesting please add more comments as I am going to immerse in this topic PBL right now Eutpoia keeps me building a good self concept for myself whicH I CAN MODEL WITH MY STUDENTS EV I can model with my students even if as a substitute and teaching
this must take practice with our students
thanks for the explanations
It really helps me envision methods and skills within our classrooms
I see lots of class discussions using
PBL !!!!

David J.'s picture
David J.
High School Teacher

After spending 25 years in engineering and manufacturing management, I decided to use my knowledge and skills to work with high school students interested in technology education and engineering. During my certification program, I was asked to consider teaching a high school pre-engineering curriculum called Project Lead the Way. I did extensive research and found the curriculum to be rich in activities, projects and problems that challenged, motivated and inspired young people. PLTW is currently being taught in about 17,000 schools across the country. My most memorable moments are when my kids finish a major project and sharing the joy they receive by finally solving the problem and experiencing a job well done. Our students today are learning about the 12 step design process and what it means to be an engineer. Classes include: Intro to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering, and Digital Electronics. My colleagues are teaching Biotechnical Engineering and a capstone course called Engineering Design & Development. The final project for this course is a student-designed and built electric car that will compete in the Electrathon event at Limerock Speedway this month. We also have a strong architecture program. Next year, we plan to add Aerospace Engineering to our course offerings, along with a new Medical Sciences Program. I can attest to the fact the project based learning is the most effective way to challenge and motivate kids to learn the 21st century skills that are needed and necessary in today's competitive global economy.

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