What’s the Secret Sauce for High Quality Project Based Learning?

The more I’ve seen of project based learning through observation and discussion with practitioners in my role at the Buck Institute for Education, the more convinced I am that two things are essential to achieve the best project based learning experience for students.

The first essential element is to make student work public to a community outside of the classroom.

The second is to make the project fully authentic, as opposed to a simulation or simply an “engaging task.”

Projects that fall flat, or are not as powerful as they could be, are missing the student investment piece, which is inherent in these two criteria.

Students might be interested in a task, but they don’t deeply care about it. Projects that feel like an “assignment” from a teacher are not going to result in learning that’s as deep and long-lasting.

A Framework for Project Based Learning

Both authenticity and public product are strongly emphasized in the new Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning. The Framework was released in March 2018 and was developed by an international steering committee of representatives from many different project based learning-connected organizations and practitioners.

This committee of educational experts was concerned that low-quality materials and lightweight “projects” might crop up, diluting the promise of project based learning.

The Framework is meant to be widely adopted as a “guarantee of quality” and serve as a guide to teachers, schools and networks, states and nations, academics, organizations and curriculum developers. It describes what you would see in terms of the student experience of high quality project based learning.

The six criteria of high-quality project-based learning.
The six criteria of high quality project based learning. (

The Most Powerful Authentic Projects

“Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives, and their future.” Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning

To assess a project’s level of authenticity, the Framework offers a series of guiding questions. The first is: “To what extent do students engage in work that makes an impact on or otherwise connects to the world beyond school, and to their personal interests and concerns?”

The first part of that question is what has been shown to me to yield the most powerful projects: those that make an impact on the world beyond school.

Simulations are fine, but when students tackle a real-world problem in their community or the wider world, project based learning magic happens. Students are more motivated to learn, find school to be more meaningful, and often are absolutely transformed by the experience.

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I’ve observed through personal experience that the effect is often the most profound; they gain confidence, success skills, and the belief in their own power to change their world.

The Most Powerful Public Products

“Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.” Framework for High Quality Project Based Learning

Public product overlaps with authenticity to some extent, in terms of practical application. When students are creating products in a project that they know will be seen by someone beyond the “usual suspects” in a school, they up their game. So by “public,” the Framework means not just classmates and the teacher, but people beyond the classroom.

Parents, school staff, and other students in the school count as “public,” especially for younger students, but sharing project work with people outside the school creates a more powerful learning experience. Work should be made public at the end of a project, but also during a project to receive feedback on work-in-progress from experts, professionals, clients, and outside audiences.

Examples of Public Products and Authenticity in Action

The following three examples of project based learning units exemplify how instructors can apply the criteria for full authenticity and a public product for stronger project based learning.

A Living, Breathing, Zoo Experience

  • Project objective: Elementary school students learn about habitats.
  • Project product: Rather than the age-old diorama-in-a-box that some teachers might consider a “project” (which I’d call a “dessert” project) you can assign students to design habitats for typical zoo animals. 
  • Enhance public product and authenticity: Help students work with actual zoo staff on a project to propose new habitats for new animals coming to the zoo. A zoo staff member might visit the classroom to launch the project by requesting help, other staff could be reached online to provide information and give students feedback on their ideas, and students could make their final presentations at the zoo.

Resilience in the Real World

  • Project objective: Middle school students learn the meaning of “resilience”.
  • Project product: Students read literature on the theme of “resilience” and compose their own spoken-word poetry about how they themselves show resilience, which they present at a school assembly.
  • Enhance public product and authenticity: Include the entire community. Encourage students to interview local community members, seniors who have shown resilience in their lives. Ask students to combine these interviews with their own reflections, and present their spoken word poetry at a community event honoring the people they interviewed.

A Public Works Proposal For Actual Impact

Project objective: High school students learn about environmental factors on water quality.

Project product: In lieu of reading a textbook or memorizing lecture material about the effects of lead in the human body, lead students in an exercise in which they pretend they are leaders of the city of Flint, Michigan, deciding what should be done to improve the quality of drinking water. 

Enhance public product and authenticity: Help students work with local officials in their own community to study and improve the quality of their drinking water, or water in a local river or lake used for recreation.

Commitment to Gold Standard Projects

The Buck Institute of Education has signed on to the high quality project based learning Framework because we want the world to know that our Gold Standard project based learning model aligns with the Framework.

Our model is written for teachers designing and implementing project based learning, so the Framework serves a complementary purpose.

We look forward to seeing the Framework gain wider and wider adoption. I hope it becomes something like the ISTE standards for the use of technology in education, an international touchstone that will help ensure all students everywhere enjoy the benefits of project based Learning.

About the author

John Larmer
John Larmer is editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), where he oversees all of BIE’s written products and manages its PBL Blog. He wrote and edited BIE’s project-based curriculum units for high school government and economics, and the PBL "Toolkit Series". In 2015 he co-authored "Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning", published by ASCD. For ten years John taught high school social studies and English and co-founded a restructured small high school, and he was a member of the National School Reform Faculty and school coach for the Coalition of Essential Schools.