Making Real World Connections for Your Students – Project based Learning

There are so many issues facing young people today.  From poverty to climate change it will take creative problem solving to come up with viable solutions in the next millennium.  To prepare students for this type of challenge requires innovative, cutting edge pedagogy designed to encourage critical thinking while teaching life skills.    Project Based Learning (PBL) is such a pedagogy.  While many educators struggle to teach in the No Child Left Behind Era of standardized testing PBL offers a refreshing approach.


PBL is increasing in popularity & gaining momentum in the out of school time space.  The magic of PBL lies in its fluidity, that is the creation of learning environments which are student centered and student led, emphasizing student independence and engagement.

How is PBL different from other Learning Approaches?

Project-based learning goes beyond theoretical learning.  With PBL, teachers become more like facilitators allowing students to take control and by extension responsibility for their learning.   Students are at the forefront of both the planning and implementation with coaching and guidance from their teacher/group leader.


Unlike in a traditional classroom set up where all information begins and ends with the teacher, PBL provides an alternative approach that allows for the transfer of knowledge through experiential learning.  Want to learn about sustainable ways to address poverty in the community?  Students seek out the answer to these and other such meaningful questions on their own terms while coming up with a viable solution that is unique to their local community and environment.  Students have the ability to incorporate local and national experts while conducting research giving the process a “real world” feel.  Such projects can occur over the course of one month or several depending upon the project.


Unlike other teaching methods, PBL allows young learners to demonstrate both their knowledge as well as skills. Students design presentations or in some cases a product which can assist in addressing the issue.


The PBL process deepens student’s content knowledge, creativity, communication skills, and critical thinking.  Working in teams which mirror the corporate world, students have the opportunity to learn about issues within real-life contexts as they perform meaningful research during the lifespan of the project.   Educators believe that project-based learning is a great way to unleash children’s creative energy and potential.  It also serves to provide exposure to new career paths.

Importance of Project-based Learning

When referring to 21st century learning skills, it is often noted that as educators we are tasked with the challenging mission of preparing students for careers that haven’t even been created.  This is quite a task indeed!  The best course of action in this case is to focus on skill building.  According to research, critical thinking, collaboration, team work, etc. are preferable skills.  Since we know that students learn best through doing, PBL is ideal in this regard.


From a practical perspective, PBL processes are in alignment with best teaching practices, namely student engagement, problem solving, collaboration and reflection.  Such higher order teaching is critical specifically for those who work with students in low income/under resourced communities.

Gold Standard PBL Model

The Buck Institute for Education, the premier institution for all things PBL created a comprehensive research-based model to support educators serious about high quality PBL. They refer to this as “Gold Standard”.  I would encourage you to read the article, Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements for further information.  The link can be found below.  For your convenience a brief summary of the elements follows.

Learning Goals for Students

The model begins with setting various learning goals for students. It focuses on skill development while preparing them for healthy and successful academic learning and life experiences.

Key Knowledge

PBL is designed to teach students key concepts with in-depth-knowledge that is fundamental to practice academic discipline and improve concepts. This phase is all about providing knowledge to students that they will use to answer questions and effectively problem solve.

 Success Skills

PBL recommends teachers to include success skills in their teaching and learning methods. These skills incorporate self-management, problem-solving skills, and collaboration. Teachers can teach these skills through content knowledge and activities.

Students should be prompted to think critically about the subject they are learning. All these skills are critically important to make students successful problem solvers.

PBL Design Elements

This outline is very helpful to design successful project-based learning activities that can maximize student engagement and learning.

Challenging Questions and Problems

A core concept of PBL.  If students are not prompted with a stirring problem or question, he/she will never be able to think beyond bookish or unreal issues. Whether the question is precise or abstract, if it fails to engage students, it will not facilitate learning.

To put it simply, a challenging question not only engages the mind, but makes learning meaningful. The purpose is beyond knowledge transfer to rather encourage skills implementation to solve real world issues.  Projects should be designed with challenging yet friendly open-ended questions to trigger student thinking.

 Sustained Inquiry

This step refers to triggering inquisitiveness in students by making them curious to explore more information. It goes beyond just finding answers in a book. It is a process in which students inquire, investigate and find the resources to help them answer questions.

Through a series of questions, students explore facts. Traditional ideas, information sources, field-based interviews, and surveys can be part of this phase.


In PBL, authenticity refers to the use of real equipment, concepts, tools, and contexts to solve a problem or answer a question. The project is deemed authentic if it uses real context, like students interviewing and meeting people to find answers.

Student Choice

The designed project must give students some sense of ownership and control. If students are not allowed to use their judgment to answer the question, it won’t help them relate to the problem. They should be given tasks as team members to solve problems collaboratively.


This is one of the most important parts of this model where both teachers and students are required to reflect on their learning. Additionally, students should know why they are learning any specific concept. Reflection can be incorporated in a number of ways, such as classroom discussion or by keeping records in project journals.

Critique and Revision

Constructive critique is essential to the PBL process.  This incorporates peer to peer as well as teacher feedback.

Final Thoughts

If implemented appropriately, PBL offers great promise. The key elements of the PBL model can aid teaching staff to adopt this teaching method and execute it successfully in their teaching and learning practices.


By Tinnycua Williams, Master Trainer, Dignity of Children, Inc.


At Dignity of Children, we hold the health and safety of all in the highest regard. With that said, we are now transitioning all of our programming to an online platform while the world navigates through the current COVID-19 pandemic.

While kids are at home, we remind parents that it is important to keep your children stimulated on an emotional, physical and cognitive basis. Over the coming days and weeks, we will be posting mindful activities on our social media pages to help kids continue to learn while also being able to express their feelings. Remember to create a daily routine for your children that will help them remain excited and engaged!

Additionally, we want to encourage educators and afterschool staff members to take advantage of our online programs for professional development. For questions about DOC programming, call us at (646) 639-7711.

Please remember to take care of yourselves, wash your hands, be safe and stay healthy!

View Programming