Getting Smart Blog – 30 Leaders on the Successes and Challenges of Project-Based Learning

Together with colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), the team at Getting Smart is working to support high-quality project-based learning (PBL).

We asked learning experts what’s working in PBL and what needs to improve. We surveyed teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and nonprofit and foundation executives that support high-quality projects in schools and districts.

We’ve already heard from 35 leaders on the successes and challenges of PBL, so here are the ideas and opinions of 30 more education and learning  leaders on effective PBL implementation, what is working and what needs to improve.

How is PBL Implemented Effectively? What’s Working with PBL?

Aaron Brengard (@brengard), Katherine Smith Elementary School: “PBL implementation relies on the adult mirroring the practices and expectations that are put on the students. If students are going to collaborate, so should the adults. If driving questions and inquiry guide instruction, they need to develop the professional development.”

Amber Chandler (@MsAmberChandler), ELA Middle School Teacher: ‘Teachers who implement PBL recognize that project-based learning creates a supportive environment which fosters the whole child–academic, social and emotional. PBL is implemented effectively when there is a culture of collaboration and respect for student interest, strengths and passions. You don’t “do PBL,” but rather create an environment where facilitation can occur.”

antero-garcia-quoteAntero Garcia (@anterobot), Stanford Graduate School of Education: “Choice, adaptability and responsiveness to contextual needs and interests of participants are pushing effective PBL implementation.”

April Miller, MBA Research and Curriculum Center: “As a curriculum designer who also provides PBL training to teachers, I believe that effective PBL involves a variety of components, all working in tandem. Top on this list of components are an emphasis on content standards, a strong driving question, student voice and choice, and an authentic audience such as business professionals and/or members of the local community.”

Carrie Bakken, Avalon School: “PBL works best when it starts with student interest first, and students are the drivers of the projects.”

Curt Allen (@CurtAllen), Agilix: “By a motivated team of educators, parents, and students — with high-quality project templates, delivered through a purpose-built Personalized PBL platform that provides real-time visibility into student agency, ownership, growth and improved learning outcomes.”

Erin Murphy (@murphysmusings5), East Penn School District: “PBL works when the instructor finds the balance between student-centered problem solving and productive struggle, mini-lessons and authentic audiences.”

erin-murphy-quoteMax Silverman (@MaxSilverman),UWCEL: “PBL is implemented effectively when students have access to authentic projects and supportive teaching and technology to produce high-quality work.”

Michelle Cahill, National Center for Civic Innovation: ”When it is designed to engage students deeply in learning concepts, content and practices in academic domains and developing skills and attributes such as problem-solving, decision-making, curiosity and confidence through investigating problems, creating products, or in other ways creating projects that can be assessed for demonstration of this knowledge, skills and attributes. Effectively implemented it requires a professional learning community, smart uses of technology and sophisticated partnerships with workforce, community and cultural organizations.”

Riley Johnson (@rmjohnson45), New Technology High School: “PBL is implemented effectively when we are examining the intersection of context and authenticity. Using Adria Steinberg’s 6 A’s has played a vital role in helping shape and evaluate the quality of PBL implementation.”

Roger Weissberg (@RogerWeissberg), CASEL: “Integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) with PBL.”

Rosie Clayton (@RosieClayton), education consultant: “I would say four main things, from a U.K. perspective: Community (including at policy level) understandings of project-based learning and school redesign – including evidence of how PBL can improve outcomes for all students, within the parameters of the English accountability system and support progression. Teacher training and capacity building across the profession. Ability and/or desire to take risk at a school leadership and governance level (including building a community of risk takers prepared to support each other). Creating spaces for dialogue and connectivity around PBL, including drawing in wider professions and sectors, potentially through technology [such as] digital or virtual spaces.”

Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31), Salisbury Township School District: “PBL is implemented effectively when we show educators that it’s not a pie in the sky initiative, but rather a bunch of best practices that have been strung together: essential questions, student-created rubrics, effective feedback, student reflection, etc.”

Sheila Valencia, University of Washington: “PBL is effective when projects require students to acquire new knowledge and skills and to apply them in meaningful project work under the guidance of a teacher who has deep content knowledge and pedagogical strategies to facilitate that work.”

Virgel Hammonds (@virgelhammonds), KnowledgeWorks: “Including all stakeholders in the design process is important. But including learners from the start, before implementation, is vital.”

Walter Parker, University of Washington: “Effective PBL is aimed squarely at core academic learning goals. There are real-world connections, but these are aimed at powerful conceptual knowledge. This is knowledge that transfers, predicts, illuminates, liberates and continues to grow.”

What Needs To Improve?

Christopher Pupik Dean (@cpupikdean), Penn Residency Master’s in Teaching, UPenn Graduate School of Education: “We believe strongly that teacher education and teacher professional development need to focus on supporting teachers to cultivate the core practices of the work of teaching – particularly around enactment in classrooms (where past work has been to focused on planning and adaptation, which, though very important, do not cover the entire spectrum of the work of teaching).”

David Young (@Dyvif), VIF: “Using PBL in teacher professional development models [shows them] what we want them to do with their students. To transform student learning we must transform teacher practices. To transform teacher practices, we must transform teacher learning. That should be done via PBL.”

Jason Lange (@jasonclange), Bloomboard: “PBL is most effectively implemented when the outputs are well-defined and when the projects are well-aligned to specific sets of competencies. The clear need for competency-based learning is helping accelerate the movement towards high-quality PBL and it’s exciting to see the overlap.”

jessie-woolley-wilson-quoteJessie Woolley-Wilson (@jessieww),DreamBox Learning: “We need to showcase where PBL works and why. What are the conditions for success where it is working? How do learning guardians engage? How do students participate in PBL? What are the roles of teachers and students with effective PBL?”

Jim May (@jimamay), New Tech Network: “The support of novice teachers working to learn and implement PBL, particularly in contexts where students have acute knowledge and skill gaps, needs better tools and resources that support both project design and project facilitation. Many resources exist to support the project design phase, but by comparison relatively few tools/resources support the work of facilitation, which is just as crucial to quality PBL. Moreover, for tools and resources to be effective at supporting novice teachers the level of detailed articulation required is very high. Generally speaking, the PBL community has not been consistently effective in supporting this population of teachers in reaching quality project-based learning.”

Joe Thomas (@EvalJAUSA), Junior Achievement: “A student-centered pedagogy is only as effective as the students are engaged psychologically (e.g., motivation and interest) and are provided meaningful and relevant real-world challenges. Sometimes, very clever scenarios (from the curriculum development perspective) are not effective because they don’t match students’ expectations or frameworks.”

Julie Keane, (@juliekeane), VIF: “A policy environment that is shifting back to a focus on PBL in the classroom. This includes new language in the ESSA federal guidelines will be helpful in supporting a pivot towards high-quality PBL and less testing that has been such a barrier to implementation.”

Kelly Wilson (@kwilsonhth), High Tech High Graduate School of Education: “More now than ever, teachers, administrators and district leaders are hungry to try PBL and get better at it. Projects can fall flat when they are treated as an ‘add on’ at the end of a traditional unit, students have little voice and choice to shape their learning, and rather than an authentic audience and exhibition for the final product or presentation, the work is submitted to the teacher for a grade. Having an authentic purpose and audience for the work, cultivates intrinsic curiosity in students and motivation to create beautiful work through multiple rounds of critique and revision.”

Margot Rogers (@mmrogersVA), Parthenon-EY: “Designing meaningful, engaging, challenging projects is not easy. Teachers, at scale, need support to create or access such projects. They also need help understanding how this kind of work builds off of (or doesn’t) the standards they are expected to help students master. In the short term, the work likely needs to nest within, or at least pivot off of, what teachers are expected to do.”

Mary Catherine (MC) Desrosiers (@MaryCDesrosiers), Junior Achievement: “Students need choice in their projects, work yields better engagement and higher interest and success. Educators and volunteers need to know how to facilitate and mentor, rather than tell. Students need to see the connection between their project work as a real-world, authentic task and buy into the project.”

michael-soguero-quoteMichael Soguero (@tiomikel), Eagle Rock Professional Development Center: “Professional development to support teachers is our greatest need. It’s important to scaffold what is expected of teachers as much as it is of students.”

Shannon Buerk (@ShannonKBuerk),engage2learn: “Educators have to be discriminating about the purpose for which they are implementing PBL. If it is just another strategy in the toolbox for Fridays or at the end of a unit or when they have time, it will not work. If you exercise once a month, it is painful every time. On the other hand, if PBL is THE instructional model, then there is the opportunity to change the culture because learners and educators both gain the new skills required to shift from a teaching platform to a learning platform. Fidelity only comes with frequency and true change in behavior/practice which requires job-embedded coaching. All learning service providers for any significant instructional shift like PBL should refuse, like we do, to provide training without coaching. Training without coaching just perpetuates poor quality and spotty implementations which are worse actually than not trying at all because the results give learning platforms like PBL a bad name and give ammunition to opponents of this shift.”

Tony Wan (@tonywan), EdSurge: “Training and development for teachers, and empowering them to have greater flexibility about how to conduct PBL exercises.”

The High-Quality PBL Advisory Team

The High-Quality PBL Advisory Team includes those listed above and additional people we’ve quoted in a previous blog post here. They are:

Andrew Rothstein, NAF

Bailey Thompson (@baileythomson), Spark Schools

Chris Lehmann (@chrislehmann), Science Leadership Academy

Chris Sturgis (@sturgis_chris), Competency Works

David Conley (@drdavidtconley), EdImagine

Jaime Casap (@jcasap), Google

James Campbell (@therealjamcam), Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

Karla Phillips (@azkarla), Foundation for Excellence in Education

Michael Golden (@Educurious), Educurious

Dr. Michael J. Martirano (@mjmsuper), West Virginia Department of Education

Nicole Assisi (@thriveps), Thrive Public Schools

Ray Pecheone (@Stanford_SCALE), Stanford SCALE

Shane Krukowski (@pblhq), Project Foundry

Susan Enfield (@Suptenfield), Highline Public Schools

Tommy Chang (@SuptChang), Boston Public Schools

Tom Vander Ark (@TVanderArk), Getting Smart

Andy Calkins (@andrewcalkins), NGLC

Annette Diefenthaler (@annette_di), IDEO

Blossom Johnston, Albertson Family Foundation

Ben Kornell (@benkornell), Envision Schools

Burak Yilmaz (@HarmonyEdu), Harmony Public Schools

Corey Scholes (@AKASMOM), Kauffman Foundation

David Ruff (@GSPDavid), Great Schools Partnership

David Ross (@davidPBLross), Partnership for 21st Century Learning

Eric Sheninger (@E_Sheninger), author of Digital Leadership

Emily Hassel, Public Impact

Juan Cabrera (@jecabrera), El Paso Independent School District

Maria Langworthy, Microsoft

Mari Ullman (@MariUllmann), World Federation of United Nations Associations

Ron Berger (@RonBergerEL), EL Education

Scott Benson (@scottb_edu), New School Venture Fund

Shawn Rubin (@shawncrubin), Highlander Institute

Thea Sahr (@TheaSahr), DiscoverE

Tom Murray (@thomascmurray), Future Ready Schools

Tony Wagner (@drtonywagner), Harvard Innovation Lab

(There are also additional steering committee team members from other organizations including the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) and Getting Smart).

This blog is part of the High-Quality PBL project. This project is supported by Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF) and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more, see and follow @BIEpbl for all the latest news and resources on high-quality project-based learning and use hashtag #PBL.

Support Our Graduate Fund During Giving Tuesday


Greetings from Eagle Rock! I hope this note finds you doing well as we approach the end of 2015.  In the spirit of Giving Tuesday I’m asking you to support our Eagle Rock Graduate Higher Education Fund.

As a consumer of our web content, you are well aware of the challenges facing high school graduates. Difficulty entering the job market and soaring costs of higher education dampen the outlook of our otherwise optimistic, hopeful, and prepared graduates. With your help, we can build on the momentum of the Eagle Rock experience by supporting our graduates as they pursue their dreams.

I could go on and on about the impact of the Fund but what better way to understand it than by hearing directly from our graduates.   I recently asked a few of them to report on how they are using the funds. Here’s what they had to say.

Bern Lee, 2006 ER graduate. “I have used the money toward tuition; it has been instrumental in allowing me to gain my BA and MA (to be conferred this year) in psychology, and has helped me as I continue on to pursue my doctorate in this field. I have been very lucky to receive these funds as they have allowed me to pursue a field where I am able to help others clinically, help the scientific community through published peer reviewed research, and further my education through teaching courses at the college level.

Morgan Dolak, 2013 ER graduate. “I will be using it for tuition as I start school this fall at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, where I will be majoring in sustainability. I also used it to become a certified yoga teacher this past year.”

Amelia Horne, 2014 ER graduate. “I am going into my second year at Antioch College. I have used it this past year to pay for my laptop and books, and this coming year it will help pay for my room and board!” 

Nicole Bau, 2014 ER graduate. “I will be attending Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge this fall and will be using the grad fund to help pay my tuition, and have used the funds this year to get a computer for online courses to prepare for college, and to get my Wilderness First Responder certification.” 

Mimi Huynh, 2012 ER graduate. “I’m a student at Housatonic Community College, and I’m using the grad fund to take my pre-requisites in working towards my nursing major. I was also able to use the fund to get a laptop so that I was able to take all of my necessary courses. Thank you!”

As the old adage goes, “it takes a village…” I know that supporting our graduates requires a collective effort. When I make my donation, I do so knowing that I am part of a group of very committed Eagle Rock supporters – people who appreciate the distance our graduates have traveled and who believe in the power of our grads’ dreams. Will you join us?

Your gift of $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000 or more can make all the difference. Currently each graduate is eligible for a $14,000 scholarship from our Fund. We are very close to increasing that amount. With a good showing on Giving Tuesday, I’m confident we will indeed be able to increase each student’s scholarship.

Please consider giving as much as you’re comfortable by making out a tax-deductible donation to the Fund online at

Thank you so much for investing in our future. Your support makes a difference.


Jeff Liddle, Head of School

Colgate University News – Alumna at Gates Foundation Focuses On Education Reform

by Tim O’Keeffe

Yee-Ann Cho ’90 manages a $200 million portfolio for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropic foundation with $60 billion in resources.

Listen In

Go to our podcast page to hear Yee-Ann Cho ’90 discuss her work.

The big numbers boggle the mind, and the grants awarded by the foundation have a big-time impact.

Cho, though, also recognizes the power a $2,000 grant can possess, and how similar the process can be for awarding a grant that size or one with lots more zeros.

That’s where her experience as a senior program officer for education at the Gates Foundation has proved to be an invaluable resource for Colgate students taking part in the Student Philanthropy Council, a service-learning program run through the university’s Upstate Institute.

The undergraduates learn about philanthropy from experts such as Cho and then transition into a working foundation that awards $10,000 in grants to local organizations.

Yee-Ann Cho '90 majored in international relations at Colgate, going on to earn a masters from Stanford.
Yee-Ann Cho ’90 majored in international relations at Colgate, going on to earn a masters from Stanford.

Cho has spoken twice to students involved in the non-credit program, sharing best practices she’s learned in her nearly five years at the Gates Foundation.

“I work at a big foundation, to put it mildly, but a lot of the processes, guidelines, and tools are transferable,” she said.

Cho talks about her work with students and at the foundation in the latest episode of Colgate Conversations, a series of podcast interviews with members of the Colgate community.

Her focus at the foundation is on improving the nation’s high schools and on reducing the high dropout rate.

“Bill and Melinda feel that education is one of the biggest levers we have to reducing inequities in our society,” she said.

Cho manages 37 existing grants and is constantly looking for initiatives the foundation might want to invest in.

“We support folks who start or support high schools, small high schools by and large, but high school reform in general,” she said.

Cho, who has a masters from Stanford’s School of Education and an MBA from Yale’s School of Management, also has solid experience in what it takes to start a new school.

In 1993 she helped launch the Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colo., which is funded by the American Honda Motor Co.

“Since my time there I’ve really been like a dog with a bone, focusing on high school reform,” she said. “That was a life-changing experience for me.”

Working at the Gates Foundation, which in 2006 received a multibillion-dollar pledge from Warren Buffett, provides her with amazing resources. But there are many organizations with genuine needs, and an exhaustive evaluation process is required to determine which is most deserving.

A frustration for Cho is that once her foundation appears on the scene, other philanthropic agencies often step aside, figuring they are not needed.

“Our dollars have always been meant to be catalytic dollars,” she said. “Hopefully over time we leverage public dollars or we get other foundations involved. We do need partners in this effort.”

Her division has started to work with larger schools, looking at models that make learning relevant and more personal. It is also looking at education policies, from the district to national levels, and at what types of legislation might bolster reform efforts.

Cho spends a lot of time visiting high school classrooms, and when she sees progress, when she sees students who never dreamed of attending college with acceptance letters in their hands, she feels incredibly energized.

“It’s so gratifying to see kids realizing their potential,” she said.

Watch Former Staff Member On ‘Last Comic Standing’

Watch former Eagle Rock School intern Chris Meehan and his brothers on Last Comic Standing (Clip 1) (Clip 2). LCS is an American reality television talent show that premiered in 2003. The objective of the program is to select a comedian from a group, who will receive a development contract with the NBC television network and a special first to air on the cable-TV network Comedy Central and later on the cable network Bravo. Last Comic Standing are already underway and are taking place in the USA and Toronto, Canada. Bill Bellamy will once again host, with British television host Fearne Cotton joining him as co-host. Season 6 semi-final rounds will be held and filmed in Las Vegas at the Paris Hotel & Casino. The season finale will also be aired from Las Vegas. The season premiered on May 22, 2008.