5 Things That Make Project-Based Learning Culturally Responsive

By: Joe Truss

Project-based learning (PBL) is starting to catch on across the country and it’s important that we understand why it works. As we look for answers to close the opportunity gap, for our historically oppressed groups in society, it’s useful to see the connections between PBL and culturally responsive teaching (CRT). Both CRT and PBL push us to teach deeply, be relevant, and develop skills. They also redefine the student to teacher relationship and change the learning process.

But why does it work?

After reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond, 3 years ago, I see the justification for so many of our educational reforms and initiatives. Not all (open court, hyper testing, double Math and English) but PBL is one of them and it is very culturally responsive! Culturally responsive teaching is the ability to “recognize students cultural displays of learning,” the “use of cultural knowledge as a scaffold,” the promotion of “effective information processing,” all while teachers are “being in relationship and having a social-emotional connection” with students (pp 15, Hammond).

However, be advised, PBL can be done in a culturally non-responsive way, such as:

  • The project is tacked in at the end of a unit or made optional
  • The question comes from the teacher or the textbook
  • There is only one answer and diverse viewpoints are suppressed
  • Projects are done individually and overly competitive
  • Students become focused on the product and not the skills
  • Students are not prompted to reflect on their learnings about the process
  • The content is not relevant to youth, students or color, or the present day

Here are 5 Culturally Responsive reasons for doing PBL:


PBL puts student inquiry at the center of the learning, propelled by curiosity. Instead of teachers spoon feeding students, what Paulo Freire would call the banking approach to education, PBL asks students to research and present their learning. Students become the experts and teachers become supporters. Additionally, teachers facilitate these learning spaces, add fuel to the fire, and keep the party going.

Zaretta Hammond writes about engaging students by putting them in a “productive struggle” in order to create more independent learners. Students need to “chew” on the content and use cognitive routines to develop deep understanding.

This directly connects with the High-Quality Project Based Learning Framework (HQPBL). One component is “intellectual challenge” where students “investigate problems” and “focus on concepts, knowledge, and skills.” The days of memorizing dates, facts, and names are long gone.

We have spent decades crippling students and making them dependent on teachers. We have wasted their time with worksheets, fill in the blank questions, and copying definitions. We have dumbed it down, especially for our students of color. But they are capable of much more and PBL can make that happen.


The brain pays attention to, “something relevant, something that stimulates curiosity, or something that elicits a strong emotional response. Picture, puzzles, sound, and other attention getters…” (pp 125) This is the hook, project launch, or entry event. It can be a cultural reference or an artifact.

PBL is best kicked off with a provocative question, a challenge, or better yet, a controversy. This gets students excited, intrigued, and drives the learning. The brain will be locked in. The HQPBL Framework calls this students engaging in “work that makes an impact on or otherwise connects to the world beyond school, and to their personal interests and concerns.” What else matters?

Organizations like NTN call this an entry event or entry task. This should kick off authentic research. It helps to have a crafty essential question or controversial news clip.


“The brain has 5-10 minutes to begin processing the input” and this is where we use “movement, repetition, story, metaphor, or music to help the brain to process.” (pp 126). Later, we have “24-48 hours to revisit, review, and apply…” (pp 127). This is where projects come in! Get them creating!

Further, Bloom’s Taxonomy was recently revised to place creation at the top of the pyramid, instead of evaluation. Why, because it’s where the learning happens. Stop saying you don’t have time for it. That’s like saying you don’t have time to ensure student truly learn the content. This creation connects with Hammond’s discussion of the “elaboration of knowledge”. Our brains want to make meaning by organizing content into existing understanding and doing something new and different with the information.

One goal of PBL is to develop 21st century and common core skills more deeply. Students will need these skills in higher education and their future jobs. The vehicle is PBL and the approach is culturally responsive. Students should do something with their knowledge, and something that doesn’t have an easy answer.


Collaboration is coded into our culture, the way we learn best, and kids already love to socialize. Here’s a contrast between individualism and collectivism, followed by a study of the level of collectivism in various cultures.

This chart would suggest that only some groups benefit from group work, structured student talk, and discussion. However, even our European and Northern Asian descendants will benefit by developing collaboration skills. These are the “soft skills” now desired by today’s workforce and definitely necessary for anyone hoping to lead any group of people.

True PBL requires students to talk, work in groups, and make meaning of academic language. This “chewing on the content” and translating it back and forth between students, allows students to put knowledge in their long-term memory. It also builds literacy and academic vocabulary.

Group work also reduces the “amygdala hijack” caused by having to perform in front of the whole class, at the pace of the students who raise their hands first. We know that kids love to work together and we know that adults are required to do this. Productive teamwork releases oxytocin, priming the brain to learn.

It also builds the relationship between the teacher and students, through partnership and a breakdown in the traditional hierarchy. See this summary of building learning partnerships with students, from Hammond’s ready for rigor framework.


Learning for the sake of learning is not good enough, and not engaging. We’ve seen this. A student with their head down or checked out. Students are demanding to know why any of this matters, especially as they see societal contradictions surrounding them. So let’s get them applying their content and skills!

Critical pedagogues like Freire wrote that we can engage and best educate oppressed students by supported them to act upon their society. PBL, done with a lens towards critical pedagogy pushes/invites students to attempt to solve our most difficult challenges (immigration, poverty, pollution, police brutality, globalization).

This empowers students to take action on their world, with a charge to make it better. Oppressed students just might realize their true power, engage in their learning, and get access to higher education. They can hold our country accountable to its ideals and offer a solution we haven’t considered. What if?


  • Read about Culturally Responsive Teaching, or better yet, attend a workshop
  • Learn about PBL by reading Transforming Schools with PBL by Bob Lenz or attending NTAC or PBL World. (See books and conferences)
  • Check out Cult of Pedagogy’s PBL overview
  • Review the Framework for High-Quality Project Based Learning
  • Try to create your own PBL unit
  • Form a PLC at your school focused on PBL
  • Weave CRT and PBL elements into your staff PD and highlight your pedagogical moves
  • Create space for staff to reflect on the mental models, bias about education, and privilege

For more, see:

This blog was originally published on culturallyresponsiveleadership.com

Joe Truss is Principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School and Blogger at www.culturallyresponsiveleadership.com. Follow him on Twitter @trussleadership.

Stay in-the-know with all things edtech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive our weekly newsletter, Smart Update.

Guest Author

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.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

1 Comment

Ife Damon

Yes, yes, yes! This information is really great!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.