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Project-based learning (PBL) is a vehicle for teaching content and skills using student-centered practices and real-world contexts. PBL is typically designed around a problem or question posed by a teacher who acts more as a guide and facilitator than a content expert. This serves as the entry point to a learning process in which students are given choices about what to learn and how to learn based on their identities and interests. They are typically also given choices about what to produce as a demonstration of learning. 

PBL embodies education schema that have existed throughout human history: complex questions provoked by curiosity about the world, learning that originates from direct experience and efficacy, and meaning generated through real-world contexts. As such, PBL exercises the higher-order cognitive processes defined at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy (see 2001 revision). These are the “any century” skills that students need to navigate the emerging world: PBL gives them the opportunity to develop these skills while doing work that is personally meaningful to them.

PBL is not a one-size-fits-all pedagogy; it is more than an end-of-unit project. Instead, it invites schools to be creative in designing expansive learning opportunities that inspire students to produce work they are intellectually and emotionally invested in. Doing this can create anxiety as students and teachers navigate the ambiguity of projects that do not follow recipes. However, understanding some common features of PBL can provide guidance for schools to use as they engage in design and implementation. 

Features of project-based learning include:

  • Student-centered practices: Students make key decisions throughout projects based on their identities, interests, and preferences. 
  • Inquiry-based learning: Students engage in a process that involves steps like generating questions, discovering new information, and problem-solving.
  • Interdisciplinary research: Students investigate multiple subjects and synthesize what they learn to create content for their projects. 
  • Open-ended design: Students have the time and freedom to explore problems and questions using different perspectives and approaches.
  • Real-world contexts: Projects have direct relevance in the world and include opportunities for learning outside school.
  • Multifaceted assessment: Students demonstrate learning by producing artifacts. Feedback and self-evaluation are formative elements of assessment.
  • Public presentations: Students make their work public by sharing it not only with their teachers, but also with peers, experts, and other people outside the classroom. 
  • Collaboration: Students interact with peers, other teachers, and experts outside the school to learn how to collaborate, even when projects are not team-based.

While the features listed above are nearly always a part of PBL, PBL differs from context to context because teachers adopt features based on preferences and needs. Teachers can also combine PBL with other pedagogies, like social-emotional learning, place-based learning, service learning, and design thinking. The resulting differences may include:

  • Duration: Projects may last a few days or an entire semester, depending on the goals.
  • Personalization: Student interests may determine all aspects of a project or just a few. 
  • Content: The knowledge needed to complete a project will vary based on its scope.  
  • Location: Logistics determine opportunities to incorporate learning outside school.
  • Assessment: The degree of variation in end products can be determined by teachers.
  • Collaboration: Projects can be assigned to teams or to individual students. 

Using a well-researched process to set up project-based learning is very important because there are many variables that can affect the success or failure of projects. School culture, time, how a teacher handles student autonomy, and project design are all factors that may impact outcomes. Following the expert guidance of organizations like PBLWorks or HQPBL can help teachers design an effective learning experience for students. 

What Makes This Innovative?

High Expectations with Unlimited Opportunities

PBL promotes high expectations for learners by giving students more responsibility and accountability in their learning, as well as the support necessary to ensure that those expectations are attainable.


PBL enables students to engage with topics that interest them in ways that align with their identities and helps them solve real problems facing the world and their communities.

Active Self-Direction

Based on what is developmentally appropriate, PBL incorporates some degree of autonomy by enabling learners to make choices around what, how, when, and with whom they learn.

Project-Based Learning Models on The Exchange

The project-based learning models on The Innovative Models Exchange represent diverse approaches to facilitating accessible, deeper learning in schools.

Grades K-12

Big Picture Learning

The Big Picture Learning school design activates deeper student engagement in learning by using interest-driven, real-world contexts as its pedagogical foundation.

Grades PK-12
Building 21

Competency-Based Education

Building 21’s competency-based education model replaces traditional time-based, age-based, and course-based structures with those that focus on readiness, growth, and demonstrations of learning through authentic performance-based assessments.

Grades K-12
formerly Expeditionary Learning

EL Education

EL Education’s comprehensive school model builds student capacity for three Dimensions of high achievement—character, mastery of skills and content, and high-quality student work—through the application of Core Practices centered on real-world learning and teamwork.

Grades 6-8
Embark Education

Embark Education

The Embark Education model supports students to courageously inquire, engage, and discover a sense of self in an environment that is learner-centered, integrated, and embedded in real-world contexts.

Grades K-12
Earth Force

Environmental Action Civics

Environmental Action Civics positions youth to work in partnership with adults to identify a local environmental issue and engage with community members to take action by advocating for systemic changes to policies and practices.

Grades 6-8

Essential Questions of Sustainability (EQS) Model

The Essential Questions of Sustainability (EQS) model empowers students to apply and demonstrate their learning in real-world contexts through interdisciplinary project-based learning.

Grades 9-12
Design Tech High School

Innovation Diploma

The Design Tech Innovation Diploma uses the design thinking process to equip students with the tools and mindsets they need to explore personal purpose and address real-world challenges.

Grades 9-12
Cedar Rapids and College Community School Districts

Iowa BIG

In the Iowa BIG model, students choose a project-based initiative to address problems in the community and develop solutions while earning academic credits.

Grades K-12
High Tech High

Liberatory Project-Based Learning

The liberatory project-based learning model at High Tech High consists of authentic, collaborative, hands-on experiences that help students develop the deeper learning competencies needed in life.

Grades 9-12
One Stone

Living in Beta

Living in Beta is One Stone’s innovative wayfinding program designed to empower high school students to explore their passions and discover their purpose, while helping them develop the tools and mindset to live and learn with intention.

Grades K-12

New Tech Network

The New Tech Network Model is a K-12 systemic approach to creating scalable and sustainable change so that all students are college and career ready.

Grades K-12
TSS Place Network

Place-Based Education

The Place-Based Education model connects learning with the ecological, cultural, and economic context and community that surround it to increase student engagement, boost academic outcomes, and impact communities.

Grades 6-12

Project Invent

Project Invent uses design thinking to empower students with future-ready mindsets and STEM skills to become creative problem-solvers.

Grades K-12
Charlotte Lab School


Quests are an interdisciplinary, challenge-based opportunity for students to research, investigate, and solve real-world problems and create authentic deliverables while building 21st-century skills.

Grades 8-12

Studio Learning

NuVu’s studio learning model engages students and teachers in a hands-on, tool-rich environment where they work on complex real-world challenges using creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Grades 4-12
Gradient Learning

Summit Learning

The Summit Learning program is a research-based approach to teaching and learning designed to drive student engagement, more meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life beyond the classroom.

Resources from Transcend and Beyond

The following resources can help deepen your understanding of project-based learning and support the design and implementation of a high-quality model, whether it’s one from The Innovative Models Exchange or one your community designs.

A Framework for High Quality Project-Based Learning

A set of six criteria for high-quality PBL based on the accumulated experience and research of hundreds of educators. PBLWorks is a contributor.

Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements

A comprehensive, research-informed framework to help teachers, schools, and organizations improve, calibrate, and assess their practice of PBL.

Project-Based Learning

A large collection of articles and resources produced by educators who use PBL in their classrooms.

Project-Based Learning at High Tech High
High Tech High

A searchable repository of dozens of videos about projects that students have done at High Tech High network schools.

Rock by Rock

Library of projects and resources that enable students to learn science standards, reading, writing, and social-emotional skills all through empowering projects that can be taught whole-group, small-group, or self-directed in in-person or remote settings.


A free website with full-year, coherent project-based learning courses for third grade through high school.