Project-Based Classrooms Help Students Become Active Learners

01/21/2015  |  By Michael Golden

With lackluster outcomes and persistent achievement gaps across the country, how we educate our children and prepare them for the world is under the microscope. It should be a wake-up call that we continue to fall behind other countries in educational outcomes. The world is changing at a remarkable pace, yet we educate our youth largely the same.

Kids today live in a world that engulfs them in stimuli, changing the way their brains process information and how they learn. What might have worked in the classroom 20 years ago does not work today, but it is still widely used. And the tools available today are often banned from classrooms, requiring students to power down at a time when we should be encouraging them to power up. 
To engage today’s students, lessons have to be truly meaningful to them. One effective approach is the use of project-based learning.
What does project-based learning look like? Given the blaring recent headlines about the Ebola virus, it could be a science teacher partnering with a social studies teacher to challenge students to answer the question of how infectious diseases continue to outsmart us and what we can do about it. In the project, students would need to understand the cell biology behind infectious disease transmission and undertake data analyses as well as historical and current transmission rates of the disease. With this as background, they might develop an infectious disease video game, learning Kodu or Scratch programming languages with input from experts such as CDC scientists who help them assess the realism of their game play.
This approach addresses many of the challenges we find in education today such as:

  • Too many students lose interest in learning and quit school before they are adequately prepared to enter the work force.
  • The dropout rate is too high, with nearly half of students of color quitting school before graduation. Of those who eventually left school, an overwhelming consensus was that classwork was irrelevant and boring.
  • Seventy percent of employers say high school graduates lack the problem-solving and critical thinking skills required to work in their companies.

Kids must become active drivers of their education. Project-based learning would help students relate to their teachers as coaches and give them a more thorough grasp of why the skills and knowledge they are learning will matter to them after they graduate.

Supporting teachers as they implement exemplars of 21st Century learning is a way to get started that is showing results for students. Units of study can be delivered through a blended-learning approach that utilizes technology as a tool, vehicle and builder of community. Teachers help students build the skills tied to rigorous standards through developing solutions to authentic problems. As teachers become more comfortable with the pedagogical approach, they can adapt the units to local context and student interests. Collaborating with peers, teachers create their own projects and units. Student data, including frequent student engagement survey results, are used to revise projects through an iterative design process. 
The second step is tapping into the millions of people in our country who say they want to help improve education. Most of us can name at least one inspirational adult who made a difference in our lives, but not every young person in America has access to such role models. We should make sure that every student benefits from this kind of connection in school. Working professionals and subject matter experts can give students an invaluable window into their professional worlds,acquaint them with the greatest challenges in their work, engage them in collaborative projects on contemporary problems, and give them concrete feedback on their contributions. Through these online mentorships, students can explore an expanding universe of career paths and possibilities, while developing skills,competencies, and knowledge in their coursework through the benefit of direct feedback from experts.

Here are some design principles based on learning sciences to consider when you are ready to bring problem and project-based learning into your classroom and school:
1.    Position students as developing experts - Students are learning contemporary ideas and gaining experiences with contemporary tools and practices. They actively drive their educational experiences rather than passively receive knowledge. 
2.    Provide extended learning opportunities to engage students in project- or problem-based learning – Project or problem-based learning is a powerful way to model skill-building through real-world challenges. This approach to learning is organized around carefully crafted problems, highlighting critical thinking, problem solving and collaborative skills. Students identify problems, formulate hypotheses, conduct data searches, perform experiments, formulate solutions, and determine the best “fit” of solutions to a real and relevant problem in the world. Students publish their work online, make presentations at public events, or pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.
3.    Students progress along competency-based learning pathways - Students experience multiple opportunities to develop ideas and skills/practices over time with increasing sophistication. They engage, apply and use their developing understandings and competencies, deepening their learning and expertise development over time. 
4.    Provide continuous performance feedback and metacognitive facilitation - Students need targeted, meaningful feedback on multiple iterations of their work, with opportunities to reflect on their learning. Skillful use of performance feedback and metacognitive facilitation allows students to effectively navigate decisions about their learning, educational and career trajectories. 
5.    Access experts to provide multi-faceted learning support - Experts from a variety of fields provide feedback to students to position students as developing disciplinary experts. Experts help support students by providing resources, answering questions and outlining their own educational and career trajectories. As these adults share their own struggles, students see that expertise is developed through hard work and persistence.
6.    Create experiences for students to learn contemporary knowledge, skills & practices - Learning experiences are aligned with emerging standards, 21st-century skills, and social and emotional learning. These standards represent the contemporary knowledge, skills and practices currently regarded as necessary in order for students to prepare for tomorrow’s careers. 
7.    Build upon students’ prior interests and identities to promote seamless learning and participation in authentic pursuits - Learning takes place not only in schools, but also in a variety of other places 24/7. Connecting learners’ in- and out-of-school experiences – and the interests, identities and cultural practices attached to those experiences – facilitates meaningful learning. Learning experiences should be tailored to give students choice and voice.
8.    Cultivate thriving social learning networks - Learning is a social phenomenon. Students cultivate social networks constructed of experts, teachers, peers, etc., in order to learn from the experiences and expertise of others. This leads to creativity and deeper learning. 
9.    Leverage video, disciplinary tools and digital literacies - Engaging in contemporary disciplinary ideas, skills and practices requires that students have access to learning tools beyond the traditional textbook. Students need access to high-quality media, disciplinary tools and applicable technology. These tools also ensure that students become digitally literate, understanding current technologies and how they are used. 
10.    Support multiple means of expression - Giving students opportunities to express themselves in a variety of ways will help ensure that all learners gain practice presenting ideas and showcasing their competencies. Further, students gain confidence that their ideas and competencies are highly valued and not simply the “right answer.”
As we focus on turning the tide on student outcomes, we should also adopt an approach to classrooms that reflects the world we and our young people live in today. We need to tap into resources that help keep teens engaged in high school and better prepare them for higher education and the workplace of tomorrow.


Dr. Michael Golden is a co-founder and CEO of Educurious, a nonprofit organization that links students and real-world experts through project-based learning and technology. Learn more at
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