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Project Based Learning: Building Project People for a More Efficient Future Featured

PBL: Building Project People for a More Efficient Future

It is not a secret that as a society we have dramatically outpaced our ancestors with innovative technology that has increased our standard of living and life expectancy all over the world, yet habitual inefficiency is literally part of our daily lives.

Industrially developed countries extensively waste food, we ship consumer goods that could have been made locally, and as a society we are influenced through culture to consume goods based on desires rather than needs. This reality is not likely to change quickly and neither will larger problems such as global warming, natural disasters, disease, poverty, and famine that exist all over the world. The steps taken thus far have shown limited results, because to overcome these issues we must seek a change in conscious orientation. We must empower the next generation with unconventional thinking and problem solving skills to reach a better tomorrow.

   When faced with a massive issue a person can take one of two paths. They can spend most their efforts retracing steps and wallowing in the unfortunate reality or they can make lists, set goals, and define the success criteria. Both paths are routinely attempted but the second option makes project management practitioners uniquely qualified to support and orient the next generation with the skills needed to collaborate and achieve project success. The aforementioned issues are in fact large projects that require best practices, task lists, risk management as well as other project management notions. Businesses in every sector are made possible through successful project implementation and therefore have spent time refining their project management skills for generations. However, project-based instruction is a relatively foreign concept to most educational institutions, teachers, and parents.

   Project-based learning is regularly defined as a dynamic classroom approach where students gain knowledge and skills by working through real-world problem and developing solutions. In the practice of Project Based Learning (PBL), the teacher is more of a moderator or a facilitator. They are meant to build the lesson into a magical world or captivating situation rather than lecturing on everything known about the topic in the hopes that students will make lasting connections to learning. Their learning story is meant to be authentic, engaging, and complex, so students learn to collaborate with each other, assessing themselves as well as each other along the way. The goal is to allow the kids to discover their own solution, recognizing that students are not standardized and do not necessarily learn in the same way. PBL fosters innovation at an early age which will strengthen the ability to drive change, competitiveness, growth, breakthroughs, and allow our society to flourish in the future.

   The elements of project-based learning range from role-playing, real-world scenarios or expertise, and student collaboration to blended writing genres, authentic assessments, and complex research that employs knowledge of multiple subjects. There are no limits to what can be done in the classroom, so inevitably, like in project management, there are many different models and slight alterations on teaching methodology and approach to the curriculum. In pursuit of the exploration of project-based learning, practitioners predictably run into similar learning based educational models. Most of these alternate learning formats like problem-based learning, case-based learning, team-based learning, inquiry-based learning as well as others look to engage the student, build autonomy, encourage independence, and trigger curiosity.

   PBL can stand for project-based learning or problem-based learning. Problem-based learning is very much like project-based learning. Some would say that they are two different sides of the same coin because any type of project involves solving a problem or problems. Both PBLs focus on open-ended questions, build on modern success skills, and emphasize student independence and inquiry. However, problem-based learning usually has shorter lessons, single subjects, and follows more traditional steps on instruction. Many professionals in the field would say that problem-based learning is really a subset of project-based learning.

   In inquiry and case-based learning models there are slight alterations to the idea of project-based learning, similar to problem-based learning models. Inquiry-based learning looks to teach the student based on what the students want to learn. Where case-based learning focuses on strengthening the students’ analytical skills by reading and discussing real-life scenarios. The teachers in both teaching methods are prepared to firmly maintain face through the blank stares and open ended questioning strategies in hopes of inspiring curiosity and developing skills based on the students own research, presentations, and reflections. Evolutionary biology faces the same issue as these fill in the blank learning platforms. In both arenas, there is “lumpers” and “splitters”. There are those that feel that almost all discoveries are part of a larger movement and then those who feel that each discovery is a unique breakthrough and a divergence from the previous findings. These educational tools are a wonderful challenge to the traditional teaching methodology, but the exact level of abstraction is dependent on the specialist.

A Brief History of Project Based Thinking

   The idea of project-based learning has many different names and variations mostly due to the extensive history behind it. The exact point of conception can never be determined, because it seems plausible that project management and thinking could have occurred in Neanderthal communities some 500,000 years ago. It is not too hard to imagine scenarios as simple as ancient man contemplating when to seek shelter (risk management) or discussing if hunting is more important than resting (prioritization, as well as a task list). Throughout recorded history, concepts of project based thinking have been evolving for so long and in so many different areas that it is surprising humanity isn’t better at it.

   The project approach in the classroom is sometimes fused with concepts on new technology, but Confucius and Aristotle were big proponents of learning by doing. In the 4th century BC, Confucius developed an educational principle around providing a student with an education that matched their personal aptitude, to inspire them, to encourage independent thought, and instruct oneself by teaching others. Confucius himself was a passionate and conscientiously committed teacher, who did not just lecture his students but instead explored the known world along with them.

   Learning by doing has been part of many different career paths in Europe as well as the rest of the world. Up until the 20th century, education in the medical field was almost solely based on doing. From ancient times into the 1800s most doctors were educated through apprenticeships, since the existing medical schools were widely questioned and not publically validated. The level of detail in the apprenticeships and medical schools varied from place to place as well as from time to time, as medical knowledge grew and changed. An attempt to systemize medical training began in the 9th and 11th centuries with principles and a registration process. Under the shadow of prestigious medical universities, medical professionals were more knowledgeable about the theories of disease rather than actual sick people. The value of a being hands on was reasserted in the 17th and 18th century, but students were mostly listeners and sometimes investigators, sometimes without organization. The history of medical education is filled with ups and downs like general education, but the medical profession has been consciously infusing its own education with project-based learning for decades. If the project-based learning methodology is good enough for saving lives, then no wonder a 20th-century American educational theorist and philosopher argued for all students to be better prepared for the real world by learning through active experiences.

   John Dewey is considered the father of the modern proponents of project-based learning. Starting in the early 20th century, Dewey taught at Columbia University and continued there for more than 24 years. During his career, he was an outspoken advocate of education, domestic and international politics, and numerous social movements. As an active participant of the progressive movement Dewey believed that teachers should teach by appealing to the natural human instincts to investigate and create. He believed the experiences students have outside of school should inspire teachers to transform their methodology to increase interest and engagement. Dewey understood that like in the medical profession, someone that has spent the last decade memorizing massive amounts of information can’t successfully jump straight in and operate competently. Skills and confidence are required to successfully implement this knowledge with clinical precision.

   There have been many more psychologists, child-development specialists, and philosophers that have similarly followed in Dewey’s footsteps since his death. The contemporary resurgence and its modern proponents have resurrected project-based learning in the face of new technology and the understanding that has come from it. The genuine beginning of the rebirth of PBL is tied to advancements in neuroscience and social psychology, in addition to cognitive scientists understanding of how people learn, cultivate expertise, develop higher level thinking, and the ideal learning environments. These experts have used cutting edge technology to come to the conclusion that PBL can be used across disciplines to emphasize active and student-direct learning. Projects engage in higher-order thinking skills by giving students a choice and a voice to personalize, consider, and evaluate multiple solutions.

   An important fact of life is that there is usually not one correct answer and it’s important to shape a learner’s experience in the context of this reality. PBL is presently used in medical, pharmaceutical, engineering, economics, dentistry, optometry, nursing, as well as high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. It is seen in cities, suburban countries, and rural communities. Some privileged professors and educators are currently training in the Center for Problem-Based Learning at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Chicago, the Center for the Study of Problem-Based Learning at Ventures in Education in New York City, the Buck Institute for Education, the George Lucas Educational Foundation as well as many other foundations and organizations.

Classroom Execution of PBL

   In PBL classrooms educators employ active learning strategies, students talk, as well as manage their own activities and educational autonomy. The teacher serves as a guide or facilitator to the learning process, providing the students with an increased level of independence and creativity. However, project-based learning can look different at each level of education. Young adults to pre-teens have a lot of weight on their shoulders. They must earn the best grade, get into the right college, and make the right choices in social situations. A minor slip up can close the door on their ideal future so it is important to build on the lessons learned as a child and focus on the essentials of building and managing projects. Specifically looking at discipline, commitment and teamwork to help them accomplish their objectives and excel before college. Children from five to ten years old are still developing an understanding of what it means to be disciplined and committed, so it is more important to facilitate learning and skills around confidence, control, and self-reliance. The right project can help children develop these skills more so than traditional teaching methods.

   The Keller Independent School District has been exploring non-traditional teaching methods like project-based learning for the last few years with a model called ELM or Engage Learning model. In ELM units, students are generally put into small groups and given a challenge to complete or a problem to solve. Each student in the group has a specific job they are responsible for, such as Team Leader, Communications Manager, Materials Manager, and Time Manager. Student are presented the problem through what is called a challenge brief. The challenge brief outlines the Challenge for the unit, the driving question for the students to focus their research on, the project requirements, as well as a TEKS based rubric for students to assess their own understanding after the unit is completed. After evaluating the challenge brief students create a set of norms and they must sign a contract agreeing the group’s norms for communication and effective problem solving during the unit.

   ELM is used from kindergarten through 12th grade in Keller ISD. Students in one first grade class have recently completed an ELM unit where they were asked to teach other kids their own age about holiday traditions in other countries. They were responsible for researching the holiday traditions and customs of the country, creating a presentation and delivering their new learning to others. Further challenges include creating a haunted house out of 3D shapes, building animal habitats for student created animals, creating working flotation devices for action figures, and building a working ping-pong ball roller coaster using only straws and painters tape. In fifth grade ELM students were given the challenge to create thematic restaurants while learning about literature themes that authors use. At the high school level students in Biology learned about gene expressions, DNA, and genetic outcomes while researching all the possible results of designer babies. Teacher facilitators even invited professional genetic councilors to talk to their classes about genetic design and the possible outcomes of various gene combinations.

   The different focus for each age group is paralleled with the existence of slight variations between educational institutions on the representation of PBL. An excellent example exists with Grapevine Colleyville Independent School District (GCISD) and Keller ISD. These two institutions exist mere miles from each other but due partly to size and growth, stakeholders look at practicing PBL differently. GCISD began its journey towards project-based learning in 2011 with a 10-year plan to personalize learning plans for students, better prepare students for college, transition from a teaching to an instructional learning platform, enhance the knowledge of citizenship towards local, state, and global societies, as well as provide relevant and resourceful technology to students. Keller ISD had a similar move towards a PBL model called the Engage Learning Model. ELM is a proven collaborative, problem based design on thinking. It is a model where the teacher leads, designs, facilitates, asks questions, provides small group instruction and evaluates learning. Students are actively engaged in mastering knowledge content and skills while applying them to real world problems utilizing available technology tools to prepare them for life beyond school. Students of ELM are taught collaboration skills, time management, problem analysis, responsibility, team work, research skills, and conflict resolution.

   The significant difference between the two is the focus. ELM at Keller ISD focuses strongly on reaching high levels of critical thinking based on real problems in the community across each subject. Whereas GCISD focuses on real world problems, but aims to infuse technology with digital classrooms to increase innovation and proficiency within projects and assignments across all grade levels. GCISD looks to utilize PBL strategies across all subjects, but focuses more on subjects in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM). Nevertheless, both institutions look to engage the students at a higher level, while aligning instruction to state knowledge and skills standards and to provide the best education possible.

Requirements for Future Implementation

   A regular criticism for project-based learning is that it is demanding on the students as well as teachers. Particularly the teacher, since many have never experienced PBL in their own education before and the projects require planning and management skills that maybe unfamiliar to them. For project-based learning to be successful in the classroom the students, as well as the teachers, need to feel empowered, but it is difficult for many educators to be emboldened in the face of reduced funding, high-stakes state testing, as well as critical parents and administrators. Nevertheless, for those willing to persevere through there is an ever-growing community of faithful practitioners that seek to offer encouragement, collaboration, and ideas. For educators that are unable to get professionally certified, there’s a multitude of books and online sources to aid their understanding on the subject, but true and long lasting change requires continuous support from the whole community, especially the business and project management communities that have so much experience with project based skills.

   There is an existing effort to coordinate between project management and educational professionals with the PMI Educational Foundation and the Project Learning Partnership. The movement includes the Oracle Educational Foundation, George Lucas Educational Foundation, Global SchoolNet, and Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as well as individual contributors directly responsible for building formal plans for implementing project-based learning as a standard in K-12 curriculum. Yet, even with the multitude of information and tools available to the education there is requirements to solidify the adoption of project-based learning.

   Any change or project management professional will tell you that there is no organization in the twenty-first century that would boast an unwavering status quo, constancy, or solid uniformity for significant period because in the business world, the only thing more frightening than change is the uncertainty of staying the same. Therefore, the errors made in change management in the business world are invaluable to solidifying PBL in the world of education. According to John P. Kotter, there are at least eight strategic messages to a successful change effort; a high sense of urgency is necessary to drive change. Change champions are mandatory leaders. A clear vision for the future is essential and continuous routine communication to all stakeholders is vital. Naysayers and obstacles must be removed, short-term wins builds momentum, declaring victory too soon can destroy a transformation, and change must become rooted deep in the company’s culture.

   Significant change is not easy, especially when factoring in the bureaucracy of the public educational systems. Many of the schools in America are crushed under decades of legislation and union mandates, so long lasting change will be dependent on the level of willpower and perseverance of the stakeholders within each state and district. To improve the educational system, it needs to first be understood that the implementation of project-based learning will almost never end because for it to be even close to fully adopted, all teachers would be properly trained in PBL, each school, parent, as well as child would be sufficiently supported in an understanding of PBL, and the culture of educating children would no longer be the image a teacher lecturing in front of a class. The change champions for PBL needs to be in it for the long run, because it is not going to happen overnight.

   Still the more significant message to focus on involves the reality of one of PBLs most significant players, the modern teacher. A public-school educator has a million things to worry about from parents to principles to standardized state testing to a rather pathetic paycheck. On top of that a teacher has very little interaction with a student that is not over shadowed with legal implications. Teacher can’t comfort a crying child, restrain a violent student, or defend themselves against physical violence because schools are under a constant threat of being sued by the community they’re serving. For successful teaching and transformation to occur, the sole concern of teachers should be on how to effectively and succinctly communicate the lesson to their students. For traditional methods of teaching to change, these dark realities of misconduct and mistreatment need to be used to create a sense of urgency throughout the global society. Without a more significant push towards the necessity of PBL, it will fall flat before it even comes close to adoption.

   Even in the face of the criticisms, project-based learning is a chance to unify professionals and build a better future for our children. That alone should be enough of a reason for PBL’s long term implementation. Yet the reality is that humans are not built for efficiency and error is unchangeably part of our nature, so significant change is a difficult endeavor that requires a great deal of commitment and dedication not just from educator, but from students, parents, business professionals, project managers, as well as the rest of the global society.


   The goal of an effective education is to prepare students for the future. PBL recognizes that the future business room or family room is not going to have a set of directions with talking points. For a better future, all children need to have the self-reliance and confidence to assess the situation and attack it straight on. Having the ability to memorize and learn is no longer sufficient, the modern student must be able to navigate and analyze vast stores of information. Technology in education needs to be embraced, along with critical thinking skills because fluency in those areas are our contribution to the innovations and success of the future generation.

   The project-based learning methodology is more than a vehicle to drive important skills for kids before college. It offers students the opportunity gain the necessary skills to make sense of the worlds evermore complex local and global community. A community where knowing how to solve problems, work collaboratively, and think innovatively are essential skills in business as well as tackling world issues such as global warming, natural disasters, disease, poverty, and famine. A growing number of institutions have adopted project-based learning but is going to take the global community to sustain the transformation so that future project–based learners can build a better tomorrow by fixing our problems and inefficiencies of today.


Common ELM Misconceptions. Keller Independent School District.

Delisle, Robert (1997).How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.¢.aspx

Gregg, Alan, Edward Lewis Turner, Harold Scarborough (2017) Medical Education.Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc.

Howard, Philip K. (2012) To Fix America’s Education Bureacrac, We Need to Destroy it. The Atlantic.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Larmer, John. (2014). Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Edutopia.

Lead 2021 (2016). Grapevine Colleyville Independent School District

Liegel, K. M. (2007). Empowering kids through project skills. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2007—North America, Atlanta, GA. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Wolpert-Gawron, Heather (2015). What the Heck Is Project-Based Learning?. George Lucas Educational Foundation. Edutopia.






Last modified onMonday, 26 June 2017 15:05
Lauren Davis

Lauren Davis, a sought-after author, speaker and evangelist of Continuous Performance Improvement is the Lead Consultant at pmNERDS supporting the CPI course, and deployment of CPI Initiatives. She travels around the World facilitating CPI Initiatives and research into better Integrated PM practices.  As Lead consultant Lauren has worked on hundreds of process improvement projects in the Marketing, and IT industries and has focused on methods of process training, skills coaching, and performance mentoring. She is a certified Workfront Consultant. Her professional interests lie in the support and development of emerging markets, international projects, globally distributed development and manufacturing, competency development, and capacity planning.


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