It’s Time for Strengths-Based Project Based Learning

Thom Markham

These days, change arrives not through observable cause and effect, as in the days of Newton, but through field-like, quantum shifts that suddenly reveal themselves. What was hidden a moment ago is now obvious.

This is the case with project based learning (PBL). Ten years ago, PBL was regarded as a breakthrough, a method for organizing problem solving and inquiry in the classroom. In the process, students blended academic work with authentic learning. They practiced real-world skills such as collaboration and communication and became more deeply engaged in their education.

PBL still offers those benefits. When done well, it yields a far better experience for students than traditional instruction. Globally, PBL is increasingly popular. And there is a reason: The transmission model of learning is dead, and we need a replacement model. The future of education revolves around exploration, questioning, inquiry, and the application of communal knowledge to solve meaningful problems. PBL is intended for this purpose. It won’t go away.

But PBL does need a radical makeover. It will not survive in its present form as an alternative method for teaching information and content.

Let’s start by noting the other most prominent trend in education worldwide: The rise of social emotional learning (SEL). Because it’s partially true, it’s easy to argue that concerns for emotional wellbeing have always been part of the education conversation. But over the last twenty years, the relentless focus on academic achievement has driven whole child advocates underground.

No longer. Just as with the sudden rise in PBL, we are witnessing an explosive interest in social emotional education in every country. In fact, the global conversation is remarkably similar. The terminology varies slightly from school to school, district to district, state to state, and country to country, but the goal is identical: How do we prepare young people to be empathetic, curious, kind, resilient, or similarly endowed with self-awareness and self-knowledge?

First, let’s acknowledge the difficulty in meeting this challenge. Every parent understands the limitations of shaping character. In an institutional setting, the constraints are more acute. These ‘skills’ can’t be taught directly, or assessed (“Be curious, or I’ll give you a lower grade!”). They don’t map well onto a traditional academic curriculum, where either retention or understanding of information are the chief goals. And, although certain techniques are useful at times, being kind or curious or empathetic is not a skill at all. It’s a disposition or strength or character trait—the kind of behavior about whose origins we know virtually nothing.

However, we do know these strengths emerge under the right conditions, in an environment driven by authentic challenge, passion and purpose, and the opportunity to solve meaningful problems. That’s why PBL is the perfect vehicle to bring out positive strengths.

Strangely, and almost completely unknown to the PBL community, PBL was originally designed for that purpose. It’s a human development model, not an academic mastery model. PBL began in the 1960s, in medical schools in Canada and the Netherlands. Known as “problem based learning,” it was a case-based approach to helping prospective doctors learn to diagnose patients. Reading medical textbooks had not proved effective, so practitioners turned people with symptoms into ‘cases’ that were discussed by an audience of students, who used questioning to narrow down the diagnosis together. The patients were the problem; the method was pure inquiry. The objective was to train more sensitive, relationship-driven doctors. And, it worked. Sixty percent of medical schools still use this approach.

But a backstory exists. In the early 1960s, the human potential movement arrived full force, fueled by the deep cultural shift of those times and by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. This was not just a rebellion against the conformity and norms of the 1950s; the human potential movement sought to redefine human strengths and focus on the internal capacities that enable people to succeed and grow in life.

The early PBL educators were deeply influenced by the human potential conversation. That movement also lives on. Both Maslow and Rogers are considered the forefathers of the positive psychology movement today—a wing of psychology highlighting grit, the growth mindset and strengths such as curiosity, creativity and empathy as keys to quality 21st century education.

In fact, during a PBL ‘experience’ students move in this direction. They grow and mature into better people, discover the joy of learning, experience the deep satisfaction of mastery and feel deeply engaged in their education. They change. As they engage the process of learning, they tap a deeper, more personal level where character and strengths linger until revealed by context and circumstance.

Can education rethink PBL and see it as a human development process that integrates emotional growth and problem solving? Yes. I call it Strengths Based PBL, or People Based Learning. This doesn’t requires throwing out the (many) positive elements of high quality PBL; it means designing projects with the intention to dig into the process of social emotional growth. It’s common among PBL advocates to say that the “process is the product.” Now the process is directly tied to personal growth—to making strengths and challenges visible to the student for reflection and to the teacher for mentoring.

How might this look in the project design process? A few thoughts about implementation:

  • Have students begin a project by inventorying their strengths, challenges and immediate goals for growth.
  • Connect each element of the project design to personal strengths: Understanding a challenge requires curiosity; answering a Driving Question requires persistence and close observation; teamwork requires empathy; designing solutions requires respectful communication and feedback; presenting findings requires self-confidence.
  • In every project, include journaling or a portfolio approach, with opportunity for reflection on emotional growth. Add to the journals over the semester to encourage growth over time.
  • As much as possible, use student friendly tools such as single point rubrics, peer to peer discussion and reflection and performance rubrics that include a blank breakthrough or ‘wow’ column to encourage and reward student innovation and creativity.
  • Make full use of the opportunity provided by student teams in PBL by having students practice deep skills of empathy, listening, respect and curiosity—and build that into the teamwork assessment.
  • Redefine the teacher role as both mentor and co-learner, including using proven coaching protocols that structure the teacher-student relationship around deep listening and attentive observation to a student’s emotional concerns.

Teachers across the globe are developing approaches and methods that promote positive emotional growth. Now it’s time to integrate those approaches with inquiry based projects. Please share any ideas that you have!


Thom Markham, founder of PBL Global, is a leading author, psychologist, and respected international school consultant who has assisted over 400 schools and nearly 6000 teachers across five continents in implementing project based learning, 21st century competencies, and successful inquiry-based systems of teaching and learning. He offers workshops, virtual coaching, online courses, and strategic consulting services through Email or follow @thommarkham.






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