What is Project-Based Learning?

April 24, 2023 | Waterloo School


Education at Waterloo School is inspired by several different learning models. One of those is well known by some and a bit of a mystery to others: Project-Based Learning (known by those familiar with it as ‘PBL.’)

Just what is project-based learning? How does it work? And what does it look like in practice?

What is PBL?

While the title is, on the one hand, fairly explanatory — Project Based Learning is learning through the learning activity of a student project — quality PBL is a rich, comprehensive, research-based model of learning. PBL Works, formerly the Buck Institute, provides an aptly named ‘Gold Standard’ framework that roots learning in effective, structured, and integrated learning toward the goals of skill development, knowledge acquisition, and real understanding.

Seven design principles drive toward those goals, and as the graphic below suggests, they work together to guide and inform projects across disciplines, grades, and curricula.

The PBL Gold Standard ©2019 The Buck Institute for Education

The benefits of project-based learning

The element of PBL that is at the core of what we love about it: Authenticity. Real work (as opposed to multiple-choice tests), useful knowledge (as opposed to abstract outlines of content), and real audiences (not just a teacher grading student work) are all desperately needed to prepare students for… the real world. This authenticity transforms adolescent students’ relationship to learning and understanding and helps them develop long-lasting, relevant, real-world skills.

“Rote learning isn’t much learning at all. If it’s abstracted from the real world, it just doesn’t stick around. Project-based learning lasts when students actually get to learn and apply skills to accomplish something meaningful. Those experiences are not just lectures and notes; they become memories of the people in the room, the joy, the frustration… that memory is stored in a much more human-integrated way.”

Craig Doerksen

Project-based learning has numerous other benefits for students. For one, it allows them to take ownership of their own learning experience, which can increase engagement and motivation. By working on projects that are relevant to their interests and lives, they are more likely to be invested in the outcome.

PBL also helps students develop critical thinking skills. Through the process of designing and completing complex projects, students learn how to analyze information, solve problems creatively, and work collaboratively with others.

In addition, PBL can help prepare students for the real world by providing opportunities to develop skills highly valued by colleges and employers — or necessary for creating their own businesses in the future. These include communication, time management, and the ability to work effectively in teams.

In the end, project-based learning is all about engaging students in meaningful learning experiences that can help them develop important skills for success inside and outside the classroom.

Where did we learn about PBL?

Waterloo is a school designed by a group of teachers who spent a year researching and networking with educators around the country to inform the design of our school. We put our assumptions and own expertise ‘on the table’ for examination, and in that context, Project Based Learning became a part of what we do.

The Buck Institute for Education of Napa Valley, since renamed PBL Works, was an early resource. For those wanting a narrative introduction, the film “Most Likely to Succeed” provides a great peek into their unique learning model. It introduced us to High Tech High in San Diego, leading to a trip down there and conversations with some of the excellent teachers there who also played a significant role in Waterloo’s version of project-based learning. “They told us if you want to enhance a person’s capacity to meaningfully and joyfully engage with the world out of their strengths and passions, PBL is a great way to do that,” says Craig.

Project-based learning at Waterloo

So, what does this PBL look like at Waterloo? Some will look perhaps similar to projects you’ve seen in other schools. Spanish students wrote, illustrated, and bound children’s picture books in Spanish; History students created a history museum explaining the European history leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to ‘de-Nazify’ it.

Each class at Waterloo culminates in a final project that students can share with the community.

Other projects feature pretty radical student-driven direction. From an idea from students themselves, this fall and winter, students studied the history of Vienna before the outbreak of WWI and wrote and produced a play that told the story of the yet-to-be infamous personalities there like Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler.

“We realized that education has to become more personal. Everybody has their own strengths and passions; they bring something to the table. How do you work with those passions to create something of value? This is how a healthy adult lives and works with others in a community. How can we start practicing that now in school?”

Christina Swan

Digging a little deeper in one example last year in entry-level biology, students were tasked with finding a hypothetical solution to the very real problem of world hunger. They researched the impacts of famine and got to see the faces of real people affected by the problem. Then, they worked with their teacher to figure out what they needed to know to find a solution.

To solve the problem, they dove into their textbooks and other resources to master the subject matter and make an impact. The project culminated in several proposed solutions to the problem, but there were a number of deliverables and moments that showed learning all along the way.

A school experience of regular, frequent projects changes students over time. They begin to take risks, to know the unique strengths of their classmates, and have fun. “Students have to present their whole process: their failures, their successes, and their revisions,” explains Christina. “We’re watching kids learn and grow their confidence in real-time.”

Check out PBL at Waterloo School

The best way to understand project-based learning is to see it in action! At Waterloo, we’re always happy to host prospective students for an “experience day,” and our trimester “student showcase” evenings are open to the public.

Check out our visit page to learn more, and we would love to show you around!

Waterloo School

Waterloo School