PB”What the hel”L?

Project-based learning (PBL) can seem daunting when it comes to implementing it in your school or classroom, but the results of PBL are more than worth it. Students are engaged in content, learning is truly student centered, and most importantly students are learning skills that prepare them for college and career. PBL allows educators and students to engage in deeper learning and last year we published 20 school profiles featuring schools that exemplify deeper learning through PBL.

Thankfully, Riley Johnson, an assistant Principal at New Technology High School, recently simplify PBL in a recent blog post that first appeared on New Tech Network’s blog.

Riley Johnson

There is nothing more scary to me than bad PBL. It can almost have a more negative impact on student learning than bad traditional instruction. Now, I have spent my entire career in project-based learning. As a teacher, as a coach, and now as an administrator, I am constantly trying to examine what is next. As buzzwords like “future ready” and “deeper learning” are making us think about the road ahead, I reflect on what PBL means to me and why I believe quality implementation is the driver into that unknown world.

Process Over Practice

PBL truly is a process. It’s a process for schools to fully understand how to implement with fidelity. It’s a process for teachers to learn how to create meaningful projects. It’s a process for parents to learn how it’s different than how they learned.  It’s a process for students to move from the what to the why.  But it’s a process.  For decades education has been dominated by practices. Whether it be rote memorization or test preparation, these practices have defined student success.

My own education was a product of this. In high school, I learned to memorize Spanish phrases and linguistics to be able to pass the AP exam (don’t get me started on the success rate of passing AP exams). Once I was done, that practice was no longer meaningful to me and now I find myself trying to relearn the language.

PBL provides the context and process for which any content or problem can be accessed. I come to find many colleagues and students applying this process outside the confines of the school building. My friend Kevin Gant taught me that there is a project in everything around us.

In talking with many former students, almost all of them talk about how learning through PBL has made college easier to approach (not easier). By having a process in which content, culture, and skills are married in a certain context, they find it more applicable whether it be in a large lecture hall, a group project, or securing an internship. USA Today just recently published a great piece on connecting school and the real world. This is PBL and it’s not a practice to implement, but a process to live by.

Model the Model

As a school leader, I truly believe it is my job to model everything that is in our core. If my school preaches trust, respect, and responsibility, but those don’t guide my actions and decision-making, then why am I here in the first place. PBL provides a framework in which I, as an adult learner, can actively participate in what I am asking students to do. Just recently, I have begun a series of focus groups with students over key issues at our school. First and foremost, the data collected is invaluable in helping inform decision-making. However, I have found that as my process more closely aligns with the phases of a project, the feedback I get goes much deeper and leads to more tangible solutions.

For example, we have been discussing our school-wide learning outcomes (SWLO) and the relationship between scaffolding and assessing these skills. Instead of just talking about them, we approached the problem with a driving question and knows/need to knows. Modeling the project cycle allowed us to go deeper into what scaffolds were already in place and what the missing pieces we needed to explore more to create a more consistent approach to how we were supporting and assessing the SWLO’s. Our next steps are to know examine what our culminating product looks like for moving forward.

This is just one example of how modeling the PBL process has allowed me to activate a deeper connection to something not related to a classroom project.

Students as Drivers

Student voice and choice is a valuable part of project-based learning. However, so many times that voice and choice is confined to the extent at which educators are capable of providing it. It is sometimes hard for us as educators to think outside the confines of what we have in front of us. I truly believe though that a quality implementation of PBL can take this voice and choice to new levels. I have forever been a believer in the 6 A’s framework from Adria Steinberg. I think that the correct marriage of the 6 A’s and student voice (no matter what the content is) can turn students into the drivers of their learning. Concepts like 20% time or Genius Hour have taken a step in the right direction, but many times, these philosophies are instituted as a piece of the puzzle, or in addition to the regular work that happens. True fidelity to project-based learning means that educators are willing to share the role as drivers with students (and not in the controlling driver’s education way). The schools in the New Tech Network have done an amazing job of providing the framework for allowing students to be the drivers of their learning.

  • Mike Kaechele and the staff have Kent Innovation High have set a great foundation for student-led learning. Mike shares how students took over a water project looking at the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI. They went far deeper than the educators ever could have imagined.
  • Central Coast New Tech in Nipomo, CA recently held a Youth Startup Weekend. Following along from afar, you could tell that this event was student driven. The amount of time, depth, and energy that the students put into their ventures was clearly recognizable. Students were at the center of the work and the focus of the work.
  • Aaron Brengard and the staff at Katherine Smith School in San Jose, CA have re-imagined what the college and career mindset is in elementary-age students. The social impact they have made on their students is indescribable.  They are allowing students (K-5) to develop their own thoughts on what their future looks like, not dictating it for them.
  • At my own school, Napa New Technology High School, our Communication Studies (English 9 and Drama) facilitators allowed students to connect with a tragedy that struck our community. The Napa earthquake last August impacted many of our families. In partnership with Family Services of Napa Valley, the students were allowed to express their feelings by turning rubble into art.


So what the hell is PBL? PBL in its simplest form is a process in which students have a model to drive their own learning. So many times, as adults, we sabotage or hijack this for our students. It is not easy to engrain ourselves in a project-based mindset, but I think for us to truly deepen the meaning of learning and create future-ready schools, than quality implementation of PBL has to be at the forefront of the next phase of education.

For more on PBL, check out:

Riley Johnson is the Assistant Principal at New Technology High School in Napa, California. Follow his blog at Outside the Education Box. 

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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