Setting Students Up for Success with Project-Based Learning

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: John Larmer

Project-Based Learning and John Larmer

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Cognitive Skills, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to John Larmer about what qualifies as gold standard project-based learning.

Larmer is editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education, having also served as director of product development and associate director since joining BIE in 2001. Larmer writes and edits BIE’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) Blog and other website content. He co-authored and/or edited BIE’s project-based curriculum units for high school government and economics, the Project Based Learning Handbook (2003), and the books in BIE’s PBL Toolkit Series. In 2015 he co-authored the ASCD book Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning.

Prior to joining BIE, Larmer was a senior program associate at WestEd, where he was a consultant to middle schools and high schools in the use of standards and assessments. For 10 years, Larmer taught high school social studies and English. He co-founded a restructured small high school, and was a school coach for the Coalition of Essential Schools and a member of its National School Reform Faculty. John received M.A. degrees in educational technology and in educational administration from San Francisco State University, and a B.A. in political science from Stanford University.

The transcript below is a condensed version of John Larmer’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

What factors, environments, and mindsets need to be in place in order for schools to do project-based learning well?

I think first they have to realize it is a different way to teach. It’s not just one more tool you drop into a teacher’s tool box with a workshop and nothing else changes. It really is a different way to think about learning. It’s more of a constructivist approach, where students are actually building their understanding by learning by doing. There’s a lot of investment the school needs to make in professional development for teachers to get them to make that shift.

And then I would say the biggest factor is time. Teachers’ school days need to have more time built in, or at least during the week, there needs to be some time for curriculum planning, getting project resources ready, making those real-world connections for projects and collaborating with each other.

I mentioned collaboration. So having structures in place for a grade level or subject area collaboration or cross subject collaboration time and structures for doing that.

“Not all projects have to be interdisciplinary. But a lot of the most powerful ones are. Because that’s how real-world problems are.”

I think a school really needs to develop a project-based learning culture. It’s not just the same old routines in a project-based learning school. You walk into a project-based learning school, you know it’s different because there’s more of an attitude of we’re all exploring these issues together. The teacher doesn’t have the right answer. The teacher doesn’t always know the solution to the problem, or the best way to do a project. So the teacher is a learner alongside the students.

There’s this attitude of we’re all growing together. So growth mindset is important. And the idea that it’s okay to fail and make mistakes and go down a wrong path and then back up and figure out the solution to this real world problem.

What are key considerations when assessing the transfer of Cognitive Skills across subject areas and grades?

I think when schools assess skills like critical thinking, problem solving, it helps if they’re all on the same page and speaking the same language. So having a common rubric for example across a whole school or a whole grade level. Or maybe a subject area in secondary school. Critical thinking in history might be different that critical thinking in science. But having a , a common set of criteria you’re gonna look for, so all teachers kind of share that common set of guidelines.

I mentioned rubrics across a school or grade level. But actually have it be part of their grading system… that really makes it apparent to a student that you’re serious when it becomes part of a school’s assessment and grading system. And parents get information about how good of a problem solver their kid is. That means you have benchmarks, perhaps portfolio defenses system where at the end of sophomore year in high school, end of senior year, you defend your work with those criterion in mind for showing how good of a problem solver you were, how you used evidence, how you collaborated and so forth.

From your perspective, where does mathematics fit into PBL?

Mathematics is sometimes a difficult fit with PBL. And a lot of the PBL diehards will say you can teach any subject with PBL, and that’s true to an extent. But mathematics, and also I think world languages — when you’re first building the basics in a French 1 class, I think you can’t do PBL all the time…

Problem-based learning is a term often used in math circles… I think making math as real world as possible is still great. But shorter duration problems may be a little more like a simulation…

So, show [students] with a really cool project, at least once or twice a year, how they’re going to use the math. A classic one is build a potato-launching device and have a contest, and you learn about parabolas by shooting potatoes at a target. So it’s fun, but kids learn the math and it’s a real-world application.

What’s the role of the teacher in project-based learning?

We talk about the teacher as coach, teacher as facilitator. There’s also times when the teacher’s still the teacher, still doing some direct instruction, but it’s in the context of the project. The kids need a lesson on some concept in the middle of a project, you teach it. Maybe the same way you always taught it. But it’s now got a real-world purpose for learning that content…

We’ve (BIE) developed a set of 7 project-based teaching practices. Things like: build a culture, align standards, scaffold student learning, assess student learning, engage and coach. So, a lot of practices that teachers do in traditional settings, but now in a project-based setting they shift.

“A lot of teachers, they find that making a shift to PBL is tough at first, if they’ve been used to nothing but direct instruction. But once they do, they don’t want to go back.”

What is one of your favorite examples of a “gold standard,” real-world project for middle- or high-school students?

We describe gold standard PBL as a project that is rigorous; it’s not just a “dessert” project which you do for fun at the end of the unit… it has a lot of elements like authenticity and a public product at the end. And student voice and choice. So when I think of projects that I really love, they often have the most authenticity.

One of my favorite projects I heard about was from metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee, one of our (BIE) partner districts. The laundry facilities were one part of the building near the special education classroom, and athletes would go in there to wash their uniforms. And so the students noticed this and began to say, “Well, why can’t we perform a service for the school and run the laundry facilities?” That expanded to actually doing laundry for the local homeless shelter.

So it became this huge service, almost like running their own business, which the special ed class did. They felt a great sense of accomplishment and pride and they learned math and reading and writing. Plus, of course, self-confidence and the ability to speak confidently in the real world.

(Listeners can find the Resilience Cafe and Grand Rapids Civil Rights Tour projects that Larmer also references in the interview in the BIE project database)

Did you enjoy this episode or have ideas for a future episode? Subscribe to Summit Sparks on iTunes and leave us a review! Also, read about how one math project at a Summit Learning school inspired a dozen architecture careers.

About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.