Project based learning for the 21st Century

Project based learning for the 21st Century

What is project based learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is, essentially, learning which involves the student making some sort of project or artifact. That is the simple version, however, the definition does not end there. Not all student projects fall under the term PBL. To be considered true PBL, there have to be other facets to the learning activity. What these other facets are will vary according to the many researchers studying and defining the topic. Consider this quote by Blumenfeld et al:

“Project-based learning is a comprehensive perspective focused on teaching by engaging students in investigation. Within this framework, students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating their ideas and findings to others, asking new questions, and creating artifacts.”[5](Blumenfeld, et al., 1991)

In this definition the focus is on investigation designed by the student. The project could be an experiment or research study or an actual physical product or artifact.

Here is another definition:

To be considered PBL, a learning activity must have the following specific criteria:

  • students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world
  • increased student control over his or her learning
  • teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection
  • students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups
    (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000),

These criteria also focus on investigation or inquiry of a topic but in relation to a problem. The student has control over the learning, assumably through designing the method of learning.

Here’s yet another definition from with a list of design elements:

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. In Gold Standard PBL, projects are focused on student learning goals and include Essential Project Design Elements:

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills – The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration, and self-management.
  • Challenging Problem or Question – The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained Inquiry – Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information.
  • Authenticity – The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.
  • Student Voice & Choice – Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.
  • Reflection – Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  • Critique & Revision – Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  • Public Product – Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

Some whole schools consider themselves to have project based curriculums and each implements PBL in their own unique way. Some use PBL in groups only, while others use it for both individual and group work. Some focus on each student choosing a big picture project or inquiry that lasts for an entire school year. Some have smaller projects that are related to the standard curriculum. There are also varying degrees of student choice and ownership of the design of the projects within these various schools.

Despite all of these subtle differences in the definitions and implementation of PBL, the consensus seems to be that PBL can be a very effective way of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

Is project based learning effective?

PBL has numerous benefits that have been noted in research. The following are a few of those:

  • increased long-term retention of content
  • equal or better performance on high stakes tests than traditional learners
  • improved problem-solving skills
  • improved collaboration skills
  • improved attitude towards learning
    (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009).

What are the origins of project based learning?

Project based learning has its origins in experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, a phrase promoted by John Dewey in the late 1800’s. Dewey believed students learned best when engaged in hands-on learning. Experiential learning has been expounded on over the years by various other educators, with the vast majority following what’s known as the experiential learning cycle. This cycle consists of three parts: Do, Reflect, Apply. Students engage in an activity, reflect upon what was learned through the activity, then apply that knowledge by re-engaging in that activity. This cycle is widely used in Adventure Education models or Outdoor Education models that involve students in risk-taking activities. The classroom experiential learning models differ slightly and involve more planning prior to doing. These models have eventually evolved into the PBL models that we have today.

How does Open Space Education use project based learning?

Open Space Education uses PBL throughout its frameworks. Our individual Learning Path framework is designed to give students the tools to create their education around their interests, passions, and goals. The Learning Journey Framework is a PBL framework for completing student projects. This framework covers the criteria listed above from in the following ways:

Key knowledge understanding and success skills

OSE students gain 21st-century skills through the process of learning how to learn. From designing a Learning Journey to engaging in one, OSE students develop and actively work on skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, self-management, media literacy, and public speaking.

Challenging problem or question

The first step of a learning journey is to define one’s inquiry. This step involves the student in creating a list of questions, ultimately narrowing down to one big question or one problem they are trying to solve. Students refining their inquiry/ question/ or problem throughout the learning Journey process.

Sustained inquiry

Learning journeys can be as short as a few weeks, but they can also be much longer. A series of related learning journeys can also extend for an entire school year. The timeline for inquiry is defined by each student with the help of their advisor. No matter the length, the rigor of each journey remains the same, as students must refine their inquiry, find their own resources, gather information, apply that information to a specific project, and present that project to their peers and the world at large.


All OSE projects, including individual and team projects, are focused on real-world problems or questions that have real-world context. Students research their problems and questions in light of the current understanding of the issue and research on the topic, and their solutions are measured in terms of industry standards for the topic. For example, students researching local water quality might try to develop a solution for mitigating agricultural runoff into the area streams. They will be researching technology that is available and may even develop their own technology. Testing and evaluation of their system against available technology would be part of the research they undertake.

Student voice and choice

Student choice is paramount in all OSE frameworks. Students design their overall Learning Path, their individual Learning Journeys, and, as a team, their Action Learning Team projects. Faculty encourage students to develop their interests and passions and refine them throughout their learning career, as they work towards their ultimate goals. Student voice is valued in the democratic school model, with students suggesting topics for the Learning Marketplace.


Students refine and assess their own relationship to their work throughout the process. Reflection activities are built into the Learning Journey framework and the Learning Path framework. These include taking time to assess how their learning is progressing, how engaged they feel, whether they want to make any changes, etc. During the Action Learning Team sessions, students learn Social and Emotional Learning skills such as giving positive and constructive feedback to one another. Reflection not only occurs on their own work, but they can reflect on other students work. This peer evaluation helps students see things from other perspectives and also encourages collaboration rather than competition.

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