It’s Time for PBL to Change the World

Thom Markham

Is there any educator in the world who wouldn’t want his or her students to demonstrate the following qualities: Committed, Creative, Confident, Courageous, and Curious? Or to see students leave school at the end of the term and describe themselves as Skillful, Passionate, and Humble? Or have students working hard to make communities happier?

Here’s the dilemma: Formal schooling, delivered through an obsession with standards, pacing guides, and end of course tests will not deliver this result. A curriculum confined within the four walls of a classroom lacks the firepower to arouse the heart, infuse the gut with stamina, and reach into the mind to draw forth the hero lurking in everyone.

Before everyone begins to sputter, it’s a given that formal schooling has great value. It teaches core knowledge, binds a culture, requires daily practice in logic and critical thinking, exposes students to deep thoughts, and offers the necessary breadth required of an educated person.

So, let’s keep the curriculum, but be smart. Teach formally but intentionally designate time to engage students in solving problems in their community or globally—the kind of approach that puts a zing in the step of every student, even those who ordinarily keep their heads down.

And, let’s double down on smart: Use a sophisticated, community-change version of Project Based Learning that blends passion with intellectual growth, tests and develops skillfulness, builds inner strengths and leaves students with the clear sense that this world—their world—needs more solution-oriented, curious, passionate adults. It’s time to recruit more first responders, not compliant grade-seekers. Within a mile of every campus, 20 important projects lie waiting. Let’s get going.

Beyond commitment, there are a few adjustments necessary to move PBL out into the world to do serious problem solving and maximize community impact. Think of these as a seamless integration of PBL best practices and a purpose-driven project design:

Don’t settle for Service Learning. Service learning projects generate engagement, but generally lack rigor, while too many PBL projects settle for teaching content at the expense of authentic engagement. A well-designed community-based project ignites the passion, but requires students to master concepts, vocabulary, literacy, and evidence-based thinking.

Use engineering to capture the problem. It’s easy to default to a question such as, ‘How can we keep people healthy in our community?’ Problems are never this easy and always include constraints, just as they do in engineering. So, ‘How do we create a successful outreach vaccination program for low-income families who lack access to medical facilities’ will drive deeper thinking, plus more closely replicate the authentic tasks of health advocates in the community.

Don’t reach for the low hanging fruit. It hurts to say this, but the world doesn’t need another student project on habitats or animals. Map the community. Identify pressing issues that affect people’s lives and need attention. Look for ways to act locally and affect globally.

Go interdisciplinary. Now, for the challenge: Problems don’t fit into subjects. The ideal solution is to work across disciplines, but this is not always possible. Borrow standards from other teachers. Step across subject boundaries. Make up standards. Do anything but stay between the lines of your own standards. They won’t be enough.

Embrace slow learning. Setting milestones and meeting deadlines in PBL is critical, but solving problems is slow, tedious work. It takes time to figure out potential answers, and even those can lead to dead ends. Moving PBL into the world requires space in the curriculum, always at a premium, plus the ability to take a deep breath when things go too slowly. Two thoughts about this: If your students aren’t tested this year, you can cheat on the time a bit. Or, simply highlight standards that are far less important to students than having an authentic problem-solving experience—and then ‘cover’ them or consign them to a worksheet to save time.

Co-create the project. PBL is a student-centered method but a community project is a co-created endeavor. Lots of discussion, analysis, and speculation take place at the beginning of the project. Teachers know some of the content but are on equal terms when it comes to solving. Be ready to facilitate and enter the discussion as a novice.

Put the 4 C’s first. PBL is not really meant to teach content; it’s designed to teach skills. Community projects should include explicit performance expectations around teamwork, communication, and critical thinking. Use solid rubrics. Guide and remind students that their problem-solving experience will be transferable into adulthood because they are learning core 21st century skills.

Teach students to stand up. Problems in the community often don’t get resolved because of money, time, or expertise—but they also usually involve community opposition. In a divided society, there will be arguments, but it is imperative to teach students respectful argument and ethical, persuasive techniques.

Tell a story at the end. PBL requires a public deliverable and offering solutions to a problem is the key deliverable. While there are many ways to package and share a solution, a community problem always lends itself to a story that fits the local culture and build a sense of place. That story should include the main characters: The students who have taken on a serious problem and contributed to a better world.


About the Author

Considered to be a PBL pioneer, thought leader, and global educator, Thom has shared his expertise in project-based learning with over 6000 teachers worldwide. He blends inquiry, positive psychology, 21st century skills, and innovation into a high performance, service-oriented model of PBL designed to help students become flexible, resilient, committed thinkers. In addition to offering online PBL courses through PBL Global, he is the author of two best-selling books on project-based learning, the Buck Institute for Education’s Handbook on Project Based Learning and the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K – 12 Educators, as well as Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World, which forecasts the attitudes and beliefs necessary for young people to build a positive vision for the future.








Recent Articles


We have come a long way since we taught readin’ and writin.’ But even with the amazing progress we have made in the science of literacy, it is still sometimes more of an art than a science


Learning is at a crossroads, and the decisions we make today may well set the course for the coming years in educational instruction


“True Leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.” --Jim Collins

Mac Bogert