Learning in the 21st Century

@R10ELA Newsletter

Humans do two things that no other species does. We tell stories and we use tools.

--Adam Savage

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So...What is PBL?

You've probably heard lots of people talking about project-based learning, or PBL, but do you feel like you really know what it is?

This word cloud was created using definitions of project-based learning provided in educational research in order to give you a better grasp on what PBL really is. Words cloud generators give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in a source text. Using this visual tool, you can see which words appear most often when defining project-based learning. See the "More Resources" section below for word cloud generators.

A General Description:

According to Jones, Rasmussen, & Moffitt (1997) and Thomas, Mergendoller, & Michaelson (1999), project-based learning involves "complex tasks, based on challenging questions or problems, that involve students in design, problem-solving, decision making, or investigative activities; gives students the opportunity to work relatively autonomously over extended periods of time; and culminate in realistic products or presentations."

A More Detailed Understanding:

In Thomas' (2000) research review of project-based learning, he identifies five criteria for authentic project-based learning:

1. PBL projects are central, not peripheral to the curriculum.

Thomas (2000) explains that in PBL, the project is the curriculum. Projects that follow traditional instruction, and projects in which students learn things outside of the curriculum (enrichment projects) are not examples of PBL.

2. PBL projects are focused on questions or problems that drive students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.

Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, and Palincsar (1991) explain that the "questions students pursue, as well as the activities, products, and performances that occupy their time, must be 'orchestrated in the service of an important intellectual purpose.'"

3. Projects involve students in a constructive investigation.

Thomas (2000) states, "An investigation is a goal-directed process that involves inquiry, knowledge building, and resolution...If the central activities of the project represent no difficulty to the student or can be carried out with the application of already-learned information or skills, the project is an exercise, not a PBL project."

4. Projects are student-driven to some significant degree.

Thomas (2000) explains, "PBL projects incorporate a good deal more student autonomy, choice, unsupervised work time, and responsibility than traditional instruction and traditional projects." He goes on to say, "PBL projects are not, in the main, teacher-led, scripted, or packaged."

5. Projects are realistic, not school-like.

Perhaps most importantly, Thomas states, "PBL incorporates real-life challenges where the focus is on authentic (not simulated) problems or questions and where solutions have the potential to be implemented." Because of this, PBL inherently encompasses 21st century teaching and learning.

See the video below for an example that encompasses these five tenets.

What Skills Do Kids Need?

The Pew Research Center

"Pew Research Center recently asked a national sample of adults to select among a list of 10 skills: 'Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have, which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?'

...Across the board, more respondents said communication skills were most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic."

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The WHY & The HOW of PBL

It's just validation that these kids have ideas, and they're brilliant, and they work.

And they matter.

--Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton Keynote - PBL World 2014

Reflective Questions

What state-mandated standards (and in which content areas) do you think the students learned while completing the community chicken coop project? (begins at 12:07 in the video)

What about the library? (beings at 24:29 in the video)

Through these projects, how are the students now prepared for their future?

Through these projects, how is the community better?

How can you guide students as they better themselves and their communities?

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Designing a PBL

Here are few resources that could help you pursue project-based learning in
your classroom or at your campus.

Essential Project Design Elements Checklist

What is it? The Essential Project Design Elements Checklist can be used for a quick evaluation of a project's design, to see if it includes all the essential elements of rigorous, effective PBL.


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Driving Question Tubric 2.0

What is it? The DQ Tubric 2.0 helps you practice writing Driving Questions by framing initial words, person or entity, action or challenge, and audience/purpose.


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More Resources

Word Cloud Generators

Tagul.com (Used in opening graphic)



*Answer Garden allows for real-time student/participant input in order to create the word cloud.

Google Chrome Extension

Buck Institute for Education

Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is "a mission-driven nonprofit organization [that] creates, gathers, and shares high-quality PBL instructional practices and products and provides highly effective services to teachers, schools, and districts."

For Teachers: http://bie.org/for/teachers

For Instructional Coaches: http://bie.org/for/coaches

For Principals: http://bie.org/for/principals

For District Leaders: http://bie.org/for/district_leaders


iEarn is an organization dedicated to "learning with the world, not just about it." You will fine more than 100 active global projects.



In this post, Edutopia writer, Suzie Boss, relays 20 projects that could spark your own PBL imagination.



NEA Research Spotlight on Project-Based Learning; Reviews of the Research on Best Practices in Education: http://www.nea.org/tools/16963.htm


The Pew Research Center: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/19/skills-for-success/

Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdial, M., & Palincsar, A. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, 26 (3&4), 369-398.

Jones, B. F., Rasmussen, C. M., & Moffitt, M. C. (1997). Real-life problem solving.: A collaborative approach to interdisciplinary learning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Thomas, J. W., Mergendoller, J. R., and Michaelson, A. (1999). Project-based learning: A handbook for middle and high school teachers. Novato, CA: The Buck Institute for Education.

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. Novato, CA: The Buck Institute for Education. http://www.newtechnetwork.org.590elmp01.blackmesh.com/sites/default/files/dr/pblresearch2.pdf