How project-based learning can prepare students for the 21st century

Pam Grossman, dean of Penn’s Graduate School of EducationZachary Herrmann, director of the Project-Based Learning Certificate Program; Sarah Schneider Kavanagh, assistant professor; and Christopher Pupik Dean, senior fellow, spent years examining one teaching approach that can answer two questions: how to transform teaching and learning to prepare students for the 21st century, and how to move forward in a way that increases equity across education.

A group of educators in training work on a project building a tower of wooden sticks on a table.
Students in a project-based learning certificate program class collaborate to find a solution to a problem. (Image: Courtesy of Penn GSE)

Their new book, “Core Practices for Project-Based Learning,” from Harvard Education Press, takes a deep dive into how a student-centered approach has the potential to empower students to be engaged citizens and take on modern challenges.

Grossman has dedicated her career to improving teacher training and professional development. This collaboration with fellow Penn GSE researchers is her latest effort to push the field of education to think about how teachers are prepared before they enter the classroom, and how they can continue to refine their skills.

Grossman and her colleagues lay out the practices and supports educators need to create deep learning experiences for their students. And they make an argument for why this is the time to bring project-based learning (PBL) to the from specialty schools to the center of American education.

Broadly defined, project-based learning is a method of instruction that identifies a project or problem that students work on (often with peers), engages sustained inquiry, gets feedback and critiques that support revisions, shares the work with a wider audience, and then reflects on the learning that happened across the whole process.

As more jobs require teamwork and collaboration, PBL can provide an opportunity to develop these capacities alongside the cultivation of more traditional academic goals, including content knowledge and the development of academic skills. 

While schools serving affluent students have been more likely to use PBL methods, the authors believe the approach can used to drive equity in American education. Through their research, they found examples in different cities, including Philadelphia, of students in poverty-impacted schools succeeding when offered these kinds of opportunities.

Read more at Penn GSE.