Wednesday / May 29

3 Ways to Keep it Real with PBL

Have you read part I? You can check out Why We Need to Keep it Real with PBL here.

The idea behind my two books on project-based learning, Keep It Real With PBL, was to hunker down in the trenches with the teachers who tackle the challenge of implementing PBL in their classrooms. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty details of kick-starting student-driven learning, teachers (and even some PBL experts) are quickly overwhelmed. But PBL isn’t like the weather – it isn’t that fickle, it isn’t so unpredictable, and it won’t change overnight. We can prepare for it! That’s why we need to have honest conversations about the key notions and the difficulties of PBL so that we can actually get down to it and make deeper learning a reality in your classroom. So, let’s continue the #realtalk conversation and take a look at three elements of PBL that help us keep it real: authenticity, enduring understanding, and student engagement.


Authenticity seems to simultaneously underpin hipster coffee shops, street art, self-help psychology, and yes, project-based learning. But pop open a dictionary and you’ll find that authenticity is the “quality of being real or true.” What does that look like in the PBL galaxy? As John Larmer explains, authenticity isn’t all black or white, and “there is a sliding scale of authenticity for projects, which goes from ‘to authentic’ to ‘somewhat authentic’ to ‘fully authentic.’” A “not authentic” project is often a “dessert project” at the end of a module, whereas a “fully authentic” project 1) addresses a real need in the world 2) focuses on an issue or topic relevant to the students, 3) follows a scenario or simulation that is realistic if not necessarily real, and/or 4) involves tools, tasks, and methods used by actual professionals. So, authentic PBL, in just a few words, is both relevant to the students and truly impactful.

“Authenticity and enduring understanding in PBL are at the heart of student engagement.”

Enduring Understanding

When I start project planning for a grade or class, the first question I ask is “Will the students remember this 10 years from now?” If the answer is “Yes!”, that’s what we call Enduring Understanding (EU). In more general terms, EU is about real-world connections (in other words, PBL authenticity!), essential content, and whether students can apply the learning to different contexts. You can assess enduring understanding through its six facets: “the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess.” But if making our students understand is our priority, we must make sure our methods match our goals. We can use the Understanding by Design (UbD)’s backward design framework to ensure this, tackling desired outcomes first, then how these can be measured in real life, and finally focusing on how those outcomes can be achieved. Now, if  you’re about to pour your heart and soul into a project and you want to make sure it’ll work out well, take a look at the questions I laid out here. If at any point you’re tempted to answer “No”, you need to stop where you are and make some changes immediately! You can also find some of my other project brainstorming resources here and here if you want a little extra help.

Student Engagement

A 2015 study by Gallup demonstrated that 50% of students across the U.S. are disengaged. By ninth grade, only a third of students are actively engaged in their learning. This isn’t just sad or concerning, it’s unacceptable. Want to hear something shocking? Authenticity and enduring understanding in PBL are at the heart of student engagement. Students are deeply involved when their work is relevant to them and has real-world impacts. This, in turn, leads to a greater enduring understanding of the content they’re learning. When students have voice and choice in their learning, they are engaged. But why does engagement even matter? According to Gallup’s research, engaged students are 2.5x more likely to report excellent grades than their less-engaged peers and 2x more likely to go to college. Not only that, student engagement significantly increases personal and social development, making it more likely for engaged students to be psychologically healthy throughout their adult life. I would fight tooth and nail to encourage PBL in schools if only half of that were true.

“Students are deeply involved when their work is relevant to them and has real-world impacts. This, in turn, leads to a greater enduring understanding of the content they’re learning.”

Alright, now that we’ve gotten a lot of crucial content out of the way, let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves why we’re all doing this: to see our students interested, motivated, and engaged with what they’re learning. PBL, done right, is extremely rewarding for everybody involved, teachers, parents, and children. There’s nothing like seeing your students genuinely learning and relishing it. If you’ve just dipped your toes into PBL, remember that you’re not alone – there are plenty of people waiting to collaborate with you, whether online or in your surroundings, to help you kick start project-based learning in your own classroom.

Written by

As an educator in schools across the country with a “one-of-a-kind” professional DNA, Dr. Jenny Pieratt prides herself on providing practical PBL tips and tools for teachers, along with authentic #realtalk on the subject of project-based learning. To learn more about her work visit and follow her on social media @crafted_jennyp. Be sure to check out her new book from Corwin: Keep it Real with PBL and her “PBL on-demand” e-courses

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