A Teacher’s Guide to Project Based Learning

As you know, education is constantly evolving, and the latest paradigm shift is Project Based Learning.  As this method gains popularity as a student-led approach (similar to Montessori), educators need support and understanding before implementation. Today at Book Oblivion, we have the privilege of interviewing  Mary Miller, a passionate and experienced educator. Mary has experience both in the United States and abroad where she has worked along side many diverse educators.  Today, she is our guide for explaining why Project Based Learning  is the new gold standard in education.

Tell our readers more about your teaching experience.

This is my 15th year of teaching and my background includes Baltimore City Public School for 6 years, and teaching overseas in Egypt, Latvia, and Colombia for 8 years. I am currently teaching at a charter school in Atlanta GA. In these schools, I have used a number of different teaching frameworks/methodologies. These include traditional based, International Baccalaureate, and Project Based Learning. I have a MA in Education from University of Maryland. I also have post-grad certificates in data/tech education from Johns Hopkins, and literacy from Pacific Lutheran.

What motivated you to adopt PBL and move away from traditional textbook and test based instruction?

The school that I currently work at uses PBL as its framework for teaching. I was excited about being able to work in a PBL school because this style of teaching gives students a purpose for learning.  It allows for integration of all subjects into a real-world topic that connects to the lives of the students. Traditional textbook style teaching tends to compartmentalize subjects and doesn’t give students a chance to see the connections between what we learn, why we learn it, and how it is used in the real world.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work at a startup charter school which allowed me to participate in Buck Institute professional development sessions. This has given me a solid understanding of PBL and how it works in the classroom.

How does PBL program compare to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program? How do they differ?

PBL and the IB PYP (primary years program K-5) have many elements in common. Both frameworks try to integrate all of the different subject areas and encourage students to ask questions and seek answers independent of the teacher. They both want students to see the connection the topics being studied to themselves and the world around them, especially topics that they can relate to or topics that are currently in the news or important to where they live.

While both PBL and the IB PYP programs are driven by inquiry, PBL has more structure than the PYP. Students start out the process with a driving question that they are tasked with answering.  Throughout the process the students learn about the topic so that by the end of their product in some way answers the questions.

A good example of this is the question, “How can I be a good friend to nature?”. In order for students to answer this question they must learn about the structure of ecosystems and how they work, animal taxonomy and structure. Additionally, they will learn the impact that humans have on different types of ecosystems. After the students have learned this information, they can be tasked with coming up with a plan to help the environment.  As students go through the process of learning the information they need to answer the question they are given a series of smaller assignments to prepare them for the final product.

All of the subject areas touched on must inlcude reading non-fiction text, note taking, write expository text, and a variety of math topics including measurement and computation. When it is time for students to work independently on the final project, they are able to use the skills and knowledge they have acquired to answer a real-world problem.

It’s important to keep in mind that PBL has structure. For the first 3/4 of the project, students are learning the information they need to answer the driving question. This can be done through lessons that are similar in structure to a traditional science or social studies lesson. As the students progress through the topic there is a gradual decline in direct instruction and more responsibility is given to the students. They are responsible to direct their own learning until they are tasked with completing the final product independently and in small groups.

Do you feel your students are being better prepared for college, careers, and active citizenship through PBL?

PBL is an excellent way to prepare students for life in the real world because the process weaves the learning and use of 21st century skills. What are 21st century skills? They are defined as a set of abilities that students need to develop in order to succeed in the information age. They are divided into three areas:

Learning Skills – critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication

Literacy Skills – Information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy

Life Skills – flexibility, initiative, social skills, productivity, leadership

These skills are particularly important in our information based society. In order to be successful in the modern-day workforce students must learn to solve problems creatively, work well with others, communicate clearly, and deal with a large amount of information. They must be flexible and know when they should take on the role of leader and be able to identify their own strengths and weakness. When these skills are explicitly taught and the students are given the chance to practice them in a safe environment they become a natural part of the learning process.

Do you feel your students are more engaged by using the PBL method?

I believe students are far more engaged when they are in a PBL classroom. It takes time for them to adjust to the expectation that they responsible for their own learning, but when they do, there is a remarkable difference in their active participation in lessons. Because they are given the driving question at the beginning of the project the students know the goal that they are working towards and have a purpose for learning. They are able to see the connection between the different subject areas and apply their knowledge in new and creative ways.

As an avid reader and literacy specialist, how have you seen the PBL method encouraging your students to read?

PBL is a great way to get students about reading and writing. I have found that once they are hooked by a topic, they want to read everything they can find. Having a variety of fiction and nonfiction titles available for students to choose from in your classroom library is imperative. I also encourage students to bring in books from home that they may have that is connected to the topic. I have found that after a while students no longer need the encouragement to bring in and share resources and will begin to do it independently.

Are you able to connect learning beyond the classroom?

The goal of PBL is for students to take their learning beyond the classroom. Each project they undertake should include field trips. This allow students to make connections between what they are learning and what is happening in the world around them. Guest speakers are also vital for each project. The question that students are answering should be constructed in a way that gives them an immediate connection to what is happening in their own lives and communities. Their final product should have a purpose. The students should know that they are not participating in the project just for an arbitrary grade at the end of their learning. They should be able to take what they have done and implement it in their school community or their town.

How do you write lesson plans with the PBL approach (outcomes, goals, etc.)?

Each PBL project should be grounded in state or common core standards. Start by choosing 2 or 3 science or social studies standards that you would like to work from. This would be the key knowledge that you want the students to understand by the end of the project. Although other standards and learning might be addressed throughout the project, this is your starting point.

From here, you need to come up with a driving question for your students to answer related to the standards that you have chosen. This question should be open-ended and should not have a clear answer. The question should be based on a meaningful problem to solve that the student can make a connection to. It should challenge the students at their appropriate learning level.  It is a good idea to ask yourself if the question will sustain inquiry over time and encourage students to generate questions, find and use resources, ask further questions, and develop their own answers.

Based on the driving question, you will need to develop a final project that allows the students to demonstrate their learning. The final product should be something that the can be presented or offered to people beyond the classroom. The product should be something that the students can complete with the teacher only as a guide. Have the students do a two-part product – one part they complete independently and one part they complete with the group. There should also be opportunity for student voice and choice in the final product. Think about how they students can make some choices about how the they work, use their time, or the particular area they would like to focus on.

Finally, think about the 21st century skills that you would like the students to practice or demonstrate during the creation of their product. Make sure to include these skills in your teaching throughout the project learning.

Next, start thinking of a way to introduce the project to your students! The intro event gets students excited about the project and starts them thinking. Some intro events that I have used are letters from community members asking for the students help, videos that shock the students into asking questions, or a nature hike around the school to observe the world around them. The intro event doesn’t have to be complicated, the goal is to get the students excited and asking questions.Now that you have the beginning and the end of the project break down what you want them to know into smaller pieces and make a plan.

A PBL project should be at least 4 weeks long. It is a good idea to create a calendar that plans out the amount of time you will spend on different topics and different lessons that you will teach during that time. Make sure to include some time for the students to reflect on their learning throughout their learning and their product creation.

How has the PBL approach changed your classroom management style?

PBL and classroom management can be a bit tricky. There is a lot of freedom for the students so the best way to start is to spend some time at the beginning of the year building a solid classroom community. I like to start with doing team building activities and reflection. It is also a good idea to work with the students to come up with teamwork agreements and conservation agreements that they all agree to follow. Make sure to review these agreements often and task the students to reflect on their ability to follow them. Encourage them to remind others about them.

If you are used to a silent classroom, PBL might be a bit of a change for you. In a PBL classroom students are often working independently and in small groups, so there will be more noise. It’s important that the teacher circulate throughout the classroom during student work time. Monitoring the student’s behavior to ensure they are remaining on task is important.

How do you set up classroom furniture to meet the needs of a PBL classroom?

You do not need any special classroom furniture arrangements for a PBL classroom. It truly depends on what works best for your students. You may want to change the layout during the final part of the project.

Has the PBL approach changed how you communicate with parents?

The chance to PBL might be difficult for parents who are used to a more traditional teaching model. However, with clear communication about how PBL works and what is being taught, parents will have a better understanding of the benefits for their children. Communicate the driving question and the standards that you will be addressing often. Make sure that they understand that the final product is completed at school.  Try asking parents to help you so they can be involved with the process and understand it further. They can be a great resource as a guest speaker, chaperone learning excursions, and advertising your students’ product publicly.

How do you utilize community resources for the PBL method of learning?

Reaching out to parents in your school for suggestions or help is a great place to start. (These parents may not be from your classroom only.) For example, if you are studying American government, invite a lawyer parent to communicate the law-making process. If you are researching the human body,  find a doctor in your community. For biology or ecology, the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Forestry is an excellent resource. If requested, major organizations will often send free resources to teachers. Think outside the box and spend a little time searching around the internet for resources. It will pay off enormously for more in-depth learning.

What kind of artifacts do you keep for student portfolios of learning?

It is vital to keep samples of student’s independent and group work throughout the process. This does not mean keeping everything, but having a variety of artifacts to show growth of the student’s learning. This will be conducive for student reflection as well as parent teacher conferences. I like to have the students create a timeline of their learning at the end of the project. This shows where they began and the process they went through to the final product. This can be displayed in the school accented by student’s artifacts. Ask students to guide their parents through the timeline as a part of parent/ teacher or student led conferences.

How can you educate and communicate with parents about the benefits of their child being educated with the PBL method?

I would suggest explain PBL to parents in the simplest way possible. Do not overburden them with too much information. Make clear the integration of the subject areas and the standards and 21st century skills being addressed. At the beginning of each project, create a handout  for parents. This should inlcude the driving question, standards, skills, and a brief overview of the unit. Ask parents for help in the form of guest speakers, etc. Have a student exhibition to present their products and guide parents through their learning timeline. This allows them to see how PBL engages their students. It will also show their deeper and more connected understanding of their learning.

Are there any books/resources/professional development courses you recommend for teachers/schools interested in implementing PBL?

The Buck Institute is the leading resource for PBL. Their website has sample project, planning guides, research, and parent resources for implementing PBL in your classroom.

Learning Reviews give many excellent resources for teachers. These include project ideas, lesson plans, exemplars, and templates to make your PBL planning easier.

Learning in Hand is a collection of PBL end projects and additional resources

West Virginia Department of Education has a great PBL website to search for projects by subject or grade level.

I do not suggest using any of these projects exactly as they are planned. These resources are a great place to start for setting up your first PBL project!


We hope you have been inspired by Mary to try incorporating the PBL methods into your classroom. Please feel free to leave further questions you may have below.


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