Unlock the passion behind project-based learning

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Teachers are some of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing – this even includes my time as a writer/producer/director in a short-lived film career. Because when it comes to creating engaging, thought-provoking lessons, often times using the most rudimentary of materials (what can’t teachers do with scotch tape, hot glue and an Elmo!), teachers are more like contestants on the latest season of Project Runway than the wide-eyed, crazy-haired fashion designers themselves.

Actually, that comparison is quite fitting. Anyone familiar with the zany yet compelling antics on Project Runway knows Heidi Klum and Co. select approximately 15 inspired designers, skilled in various fashion niches — denim, textiles, outerwear, leather — and have them compete in pressure-cooker design challenges. These challenges place the designers under extreme duress: limited time, limited resources, merciless feedback, snarky peers, the list goes on…

Now, minus the leather and couture, this sounds a lot like the life of a teacher!

Indeed, the new role of an inspired teacher has more to do with creative instructional design than the mundane pedagogy of replication regurgitation, requiring intense problem-solving skills, multitasking expertise and a passion for exploring the unknown. For educators the tip of this instructional design spear is Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Project Runway finalist Amanda Valentine mentors an MHS student on his PBL spacesuit design.
Project Runway finalist Amanda Valentine mentors an MHS student on his PBL spacesuit design.

The Golden Rules

Admittedly, there’s a lot that goes on with PBL. With eight essential project design elements, it’s easy for teachers, who already have a lot on their plate, to quickly get overwhelmed and resort back to a safer, more comfortable albeit archaic teaching style – a little direct instruction, throw in an activity, finish with an exit ticket…viola! See you next class.

However, once we get past the initial fear of adopting a more advanced instructional strategy and truly analyze the elements embedded in PBL, the question instantly shifts from Why am I trying this? to What took me so long to try this?

Think about it:

  1. Student Learning Goals
  2. Challenging Problem or Question
  3. Sustained Inquiry
  4. Authenticity
  5. Student Voice & Choice
  6. Reflection
  7. Critique & Revision
  8. Public Product

The above list is an essential element gauntlet that when properly synthesized purposefully prepares students for the rigors of an ever-demanding, 21st century job market. Yet, PBL isn’t merely an esoteric model for STEM students or high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes.

Not at all.

In fact, as blended learning and other tech-based academic platforms have pushed down to grade-levels as low as kindergarten, PBL proves vital for all learners in terms of capturing the imagination and engagement of connected young minds while providing coveted 21st century standards-based substance, packaged as a cool “project.”

Furthermore, experiential learning serves as counterprogramming in an ever-increasing digital world, where even standardized assessments are taken online. Both Millennial and Centennial students not only crave hands-on learning opportunities but it is increasingly becoming education’s moral imperative to help students balance both the digital and physical world – ensuring students can navigate online platforms and virtual skill sets while providing imperative opportunities and training for students to collaborate, deliver and receive feedback before selling both their idea and themselves.

Passionate Practices

I can get a little passionate about education. Whether it’s utilizing competition to spark urgency and foster student belonging using the CMT or highlighting the digital divide in last month’s blog, my passion for the evolution of quality education beams.

For clarity’s sake, let’s define purposeful passion. The days of using Robin Williams’ approach to engaging reluctant poets by pontificating at length about the ethereal nature of romanticism and James Joyce are over. Sacrilege, right? Well, before you stand on a desk and shout “Oh, Captain, my Captain!” consider the paradigm shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction. As teachers segue from keepers of knowledge to catalysts of discovery, PBL and its teaching practices have usurped other instructional strategies as the tool of choice for infusing much needed passion back into the classroom.

Circling back to Project Runway, the parallels between high fashion and education begin with Design and Planning. Where fashion designers seek inspiration from cityscapes and the eclectic people around them, sketching and visualizing silhouettes while aligning form with function, teachers, on the other hand, “create or adapt a project for their context and students, and plan its implementation from launch to culmination.” (BIE.org)

Thus, the paradigm shift for teachers is perceiving themselves as designers – instructional designers. This visionary approach to indelible learning puts teachers in the proverbial driver’s seat, charting their course, controlling their speed and rerouting as necessary. Today’s passionate teachers invest the bulk of their precious time in the design and planning stage because of the significant impact on culture, activities, engagement and learning – all academic imperatives.

More than a dot on a line graph

The argument around the stressors of standardized testing and its undeniable overuse have been well-documented, with schools, communities, even media outlets warming to the idea that student achievement and positive outcomes take various shapes and forms. No longer do proficiency scores solely tell the story of a school and its learning success. In fact, there’ s a growing trend that the public display of PBL outcomes more accurately showcases a school’s 21st century learning approach, where voice and choice trumps standardization and collaboration frees students from the chains of drill and kill purgatory.

Today’s teachers are channeling their passions, refusing to play the role of test-prep statisticians and instead embracing the PBL framework, designing engaging experiences that culminate in stories worth sharing. This ideology has even positioned teachers as branding experts, as their projects literally give unique insights into the day-to-day awesomeness that occurs throughout schools across the country.

So, whether you’re a third grade teacher designing a PBL that’ll see your students create their own healthy cookbook to combat poor dietary habits in their community or you’re a high school art teacher whose PBL has students designing and creating theoretical spacesuits for a proposed trip to Mars, you are officially an instructional designer.

Now, as Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”

5 thoughts on “Unlock the passion behind project-based learning

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog! As a recent graduate, my fear is more so direct instruction as opposed to student driven inquiry. Facilitating authentic inquiry is what makes sense to me, where student autonomy and interests are the drivers of the process. Teaching separate subjects and leading students through lessons does not always seem to be the most logical and beneficial approach. I think that many of the new teacher graduates have a different mindset, allowing them to not fear learning experiences such as PBL, inquiry, or experiential learning. What are your thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading your blog! As a recent graduate, my fear is direct institution more so then any form of student direct learning. Facilitating authentic inquiry is what makes sense to me, where student autonomy and interest are leading the learning process. Teaching separate subjects and directing students through lessons does not always seem the most logical and beneficial choice. I think that a portion of the new teacher graduates have a different mindset, allowing them to not fear learning experiences such as PBL, inquiry, or experiential learning. What are your thoughts?


    1. In short, I agree. Millennial teachers are inspired to do things differently, as their “school” experiences stand as testaments to the doldrums of didactic, sage-on-the-stage teaching styles. Furthermore, Millennial teachers are connected to other teachers, thus the sense of belonging and connectedness empowers new teachers to take risks knowing their #PLN is just a tweet/Vox away.


  3. I did my first PBLs this week @JE Woodard Elementary! The first two paragraphs after “The Golden Rule” are my thoughts exactly! WHAT TOOK ME SO LONG TO TRY THIS? Great article! Very motivating!

    Liked by 1 person

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