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The Nuts and Bolts of Project-Based Learning

March 21, 2014

What in the world is it?

Project-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional strategy that transforms the approach to educating.  In a traditional setting the content taught is typically delivered by teacher directives and is teacher lead.  In PBL, the learners determine what they “need to know” based on the project/problem/challenge that is designed by the facilitator.  Learners then embark on a journey of inquiry and understanding through application in workshops and other scaffolding experiences created by the facilitator. The facilitator’s role evolves from only teaching to coaching or guiding the learners to proper understanding of the content and application thereof.

What does it look like?

Ultimately the framework of PBL or the PBL process is an in-depth problem solving method.  The steps are detailed below:

  • Launch or Entry Event – The project launch or entry event is the very beginning and the vehicle for setting forth the project or problem to be addressed.  This also serves as the “hook” or the initial engagement to spark the learner’s interest and inquiry.  The format of an entry event can vary from a guest speaker to a video or even a letter from a local corporation.  The message to the learners is posed as if they already have the skills necessary to complete the tasks.  From the entry event the learners can gather “who”, “what” and “why” for the project.  Included and extremely important is a driving question; the driving question serves a directional beacon or lighthouse, guiding learners through the project.
  • Knows and Need to Knows – Following the project launch the learners will work through a process to unpack the project – what are they being charged with, what do they know that will help them and what do they need to know in order to complete this project? This is a heavy evaluation piece of PBL where the learners evaluate prior knowledge and understanding and begin to apply it to new situations while building new knowledge and skills. These Need-to-Knows drive instruction and are what the facilitator uses to build workshops or scaffolding activities.  Need-to-Knows arise from the initial entry event but also are continuously generated throughout the project process as new skills are developed and knowledge is gained
  • Social Contracts – Early in the launch process the learners are grouped accordingly for the project.  Group sizes vary from 2-6 but most often are comprised of 3 or 4 learners.  Before the leaners set forth on the project they first will negotiate a social contract outlining communication norms, group work expectations, discipline procedures and a task log.  The social contract is a means of accountability for each learner.  If a learner is not “pulling their weight” they may receive a warning.  After several warnings, the learner may be on grounds to be “fired from the group” and would have to complete the project individually.  Removal from the group ALWAYS requires documentation of failure to contribute and ALWAYS requires a group meeting (or multiple) with the facilitator.
  • Next Steps – The next steps are simply a list of “to dos” for the group to help identify how to start.  This simple skill translates very well to college and the workplace as being self-starting or self-directed.
  • Scaffolding – Scaffolding refers to the various methods that a facilitator will help build skills and knowledge for the learners so they are able to continue forward in the project.  Scaffolding directly correlates with the Need-To-Knows created by the learners.  This relates to the unique dynamic of PBL in which the learners are requesting teaching/instruction/scaffolding from the facilitator indicating greater engagement and resulting in deeper more meaningful learning experiences. Scaffolding may look like a facilitator lead discussion, a lab, peer teaching or any other best teaching practice.  Great teaching is not thrown out in PBL but incorporated into the context of the project. 
  • Critical Friends – This is quality control for both facilitators and learners.  Any project that is run at NTH@C is passed through critical friends in which other facilitators provide “I likes”, “I wonders” and “Next steps”.  Learners use the same protocol to gather feedback on final products or presentations before submitting final drafts. 
  • Presentation – The culmination of PBL is the presentation of the final product or performance.  Learners create a variety of products such as videos, reports, poems, essays, news broadcasts, marketing plans, business plans, experiments and the list goes on.   With the product will be a presentation to demonstrate mastery of skills and application of knowledge in the project context.  Through these presentations learners build invaluable oral communication skills necessary for success in life.
  • Reflection – Finally, after the project and presentation, the learners and facilitators both will engage in a reflective process to evaluate the good, the bad, and the ugly from the project.  This information is used to redesign future projects, but most importantly this process allows the learners to really evaluate how they directed their own learning, how meaningful their contributions were to the project, and how to improve moving forward.

Group Work and Collaboration

A scary thing about PBL is group work and collaboration for fear of cheating and coattail riding.  While these things may be impossible to ever completely eradicate in both traditional and PBL, PBL implements several strategies to promote individual accountability as well as honest and appropriate sharing of knowledge.  Through the use of social contracts learners begin to build responsibility by holding peers accountable for work and contributions in a respectful manner.  By facilitating versus solely teaching, the facilitators are able to work closely with each group monitoring group and individual progress.


Grading in PBL typically differs whereas the “whole” learner is evaluated with emphasis on other 21stcentury skills in addition the standards required.  At NTH@C learners are graded on six different learning outcomes:

  1. Knowledge and Thinking (core content and application of)
  2. Collaboration
  3. Global Citizenship
  4. Oral Communication
  5. Written Communication
  6. Agency

For more information regarding learning outcomes at NTH@C please click HERE.

Who is it good for?

A common misconception is that project-based learning is “not for everyone”, but this could not be further from the truth.  Project-based learning is realworld learning using real-world skills that has been used in a variety of institutions around the world for decades.  To offer a more rigorous and hands-on approach to education, the medical and engineering fields have employed PBL to train future doctors and engineers through application and field-based experiences resulting in deeper and more impactful learning.  Now being applied in public schools, PBL provides more rigorous and meaningful learning opportunities while attacking apathy due to the disconnect between school and life outside of the schoolhouse.

For the history of PBL, research and just more great info CLICK HERE

submitted by Wes Vanicek, facilitator at New Tech High @ Coppell

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