Project-Based Learning Done Right: Aligning Academics, Skills and Careers
When I was in seventh grade, my middle school class was tasked with raising funds for our end-of-the-year field trip. Since the school had a garden, and tomatoes and peppers grow well in the South, we decided to make and sell salsa.
Once the decision was made, our teacher let us divide ourselves into four groups. The first group tended to the garden and harvested the vegetables, the second made the salsa in the school’s kitchen, the third marketed and sold the product, and the last group tracked the expenses and earnings.
Because I loved (and still do) art and design, I joined the marketing group. We came up with witty slogans and wrote them in big, colorful letters on poster boards which we displayed around the school. We set up a booth where parents, staff, and students could purchase the glass jars of fresh salsa, and passed the money collected along to the fourth group to count and log it.
Until recently, I saw this experience as a great example of project-based learning. And it did have some important components. We had voice and choice in how we would raise the funds. The task was clear—we each knew our roles and responsibilities, and what the product itself would be. By selling to parents and staff, we produced something that extended beyond our classroom. But as I learn more about the potential project-based learning has to drive deep learning and career readiness, I’ve come to realize that several key elements were missing from our salsa project.
For one thing, success skills, including around career exploration, were lacking. I joined the marketing group because it was something I was familiar with and liked, but I wasn’t introduced to the range of careers in this field, professional role models, best practices, or the core competencies needed. I didn’t learn how to balance an expense sheet, the science behind vegetable planting and harvesting, or emerging technologies for doing this work at scale. Likewise, the other groups didn’t get to hone their communication or creativity skills. We were not provided an explicit opportunity to deepen existing or develop new skills and our learning about in-demand careers and our communities was limited.
Sustained inquiry was also missing—the task was clear but linear, without opportunities to go deeper through activities like analyzing sales strategies, setting goals and benchmarks, and reflecting on our work. While the project felt authentic because we were making a product and raising money for a real-life experience, there was no challenging problem or question. For example, we might have been asked to identify three different business strategies, implement each one, and analyze what worked and what didn’t. However, we didn’t have to struggle with anything.
Project-based learning can be one of the most promising instructional strategies to drive career readiness. Through effective PBL, students have the opportunity to discover new strengths and interests, dive deeper into academics and real-world contexts, and develop key cross-sector competencies like communication, critical thinking, and collaboration.
But many projects that schools take on—like my salsa-making experience—only include a few of the essentials design principles needed for PBL to reach its full potential. What’s more, these sorts of projects often lack equity and accessibility—they enable some students to really dig in and flourish (especially where they have access to robust social networks and community resources) but leave others with more basic, meaningless tasks.
So how can you, as a leader and educator, make sure that the project-based learning in your school is driving at something more than projects for projects’ sake? How can you make sure that all of your students are being challenged, developing skills they can take out of the classroom and into the real world, and are set up for success in their careers and lives?
First, it’s crucial to have a vision of what success looks like. What does a career-ready graduate know and what are they able to do? What skills, dispositions, and character traits do they possess? How are these things measures, and how is equity ensured? Are stakeholders like parents, teachers, community members, and students themselves invested in this vision?
Over the years, we’ve worked with educators to develop a series of free resources, design principles and performance tasks to help those planning for effective PBL. Once the vision is set, it’s time to plan how to use project-based learning to drive that vision. Key considerations might be:
- Does the task have clear learning goals that align with core academics, economic trends, career exploration, and career and life success skills as defined by your vision?
- Is the task based on a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer?
- Does the task have a real-world context? Does it require real-world processes? Is it connected to students’ concerns, interests, identities, and communities?
- Is the task is free from bias and insensitive? Does it allow all students to meaningfully participate and demonstrate learning? Does it engage and promote diverse perspectives?
- Are students supported to continuously reflect on what and how they are learning?
Project-based learning has the potential to drive career readiness for all students—it’s up to you to ensure this potential is realized.