Project Based Learning in the Secondary Classroom

With Virginia starting to move away from SOL testing and towards more authentic assessments, it's a great time to become more familiar with Project Based Learning (PBL).

I've heard a lot of misunderstanding about what actually is PBL. There's many ways to it can be used in the classroom, but PBL is definitely different from the traditional projects the you might have created in school.

What is PBL?

That's not to say that there's nothing wrong with those kinds of projects. They should definitely be used in classrooms! PBL is just different in that it's not all your students doing the same project. Those kinds of projects where all students create the same poster, video, commercial, podcast, or whatever it might be can be a lot of fun and very engaging for kids.

However, with PBL, each is unique to your students' interests and skills. PBL recognizes that all students have their own interests and talents and we should cultivate those in the classroom to make learning more engaging.

PBL allows my history students to be deeply involved in history and engaging with the content to make it meaningful and relevant for them. PBL gives students choice in their learning while also delving deeper into a topic of World or US History that matters to them. Students have the power of choice to investigate an authentic question based on the Standards of Learning we've covered.

There is a lot of work involved in PBL though, so it is not something that I would use with each unit. In my US History curriculum, for example, I might introduce a PBL assignment in the Early America unit, where there's a lot to select from but use traditional assessments in the units before and after. We might do PBL again a few units later in the Gilded Age.

With World History, I would do something similar where we do a PBL assignment for the Enlightenment in World 2 and then not again until Imperialism or one of the World Wars.

The great part about PBL is how flexible it is. This is because students are required to determine the scope and output of their projects. You don't need to stress out about coming up with some creative thing students need to make.

PBL & Real World Careers

I begin by introducing the idea of PBL and providing my students 25 ideas for real world projects. These are all based on real careers and hobbies that students might be interested in. For example, they include:

  • Architect
  • Clothing Designer
  • Landscape Architect
  • Documentary Filmmaker
  • Website Developer

I tried to think of all the possible creative careers that students might have an interest in and want to try. They have to select one and use that for their project.

For example, in the past I have had a student select Landscape Architect. In his project, he designed a park complete with statues, trees, walkways, and water that represented the fundamental concepts of American democracy. For the same PBL assignment, another student selected Clothing Designer and created a line of stylish t-shirts that reflected the same fundamental concepts of democracy based on the Virginia & US Government Standards.

PBL Topics

Next, students receive the overall topic for their projects. This can be specific like the fundamental concepts of democracy, or something that allows more student choice like anything from the Gilded Age unit you covered.

Ideally, students develop a "driving question" that they want to answer through their project. So, if you are looking at Early America, students could analyze the Alien & Sedition Acts, Marbury v. Madison, the "Rise of the Common Man", Indian Removal Act, or another topic from your standards. They would then ask a question about it that they then answer with the project.

This allows for an infinite number of projects. Even if two students both want to do a project on the Pax Romana in World History 1, their driving questions could differ AND their Real World Roles will differ as well. One student's question could be, "How did the Pax Romana affect Roman government?" While, the other could look at how it affected culture or religion.

Their projects might be told through a Podcast, magazine, video game, broadcast news report, or any other output that matches their interest.

The Projects

You will want to devote a good amount of time to these PBL assignments, especially the first time you do them. There will definitely be some students that are dumbfounded that you're giving them so much freedom. These students will want you to tell them exactly what to do because that's so much of what they're used to. But PBL can really open up their creativity and allow them to express themselves and their interests, so resist giving them too much!

I will talk to students about their hobbies and what they are interested in. Some students have amazing musical talents, interest in video games, or be skilled artists. I tell them, "How can we use your artistic ability to help people understand this topic?"

It might take a little creativity but once students "get it" then they end up devoting a lot of energy into the assignment and it becomes really fun. There are going to be students who struggle, but it also helps them to see what other students are doing, so I allow them to talk and share as much as possible, With the infinite number of project outcomes, there's no way 2 students could end up doing the same one!

Depending on your class, you might need to devote a week's worth of class time or more. I start out with a couple full class periods and then will utilize the last 15-30 minutes of class over the next couple weeks to work on them and check in. I like to give students at least 3 weeks though for the complete project.


Finally, we share the student projects and students complete a self-reflection on how it went. This is a really fun day in class where you get to see the creativity and talents that students have. I have a rubric that is pretty flexible and allows me to grade them all no matter what format they selected.

Hopefully this run through helps you to better understand how to implement PBL in your classroom. If you want to learn more and are in Virginia, I'll be presenting on this at the Virginia Social Studies Conference in Williamsburg in October 2019! I'd love for you to come by and talk about how to best use PBL!

Students of History

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