PBL Insights

Stressing the Importance of Meaningful, Active Learning Within a Project

At Wildlands, we stress independent learning and developing functional skills as a learner across grade levels. Over the years we have found students don’t always recognize these attributes and abilities, especially when they first enter the project-learning environment. Our students generally come from the control and compliance of more traditional school environment. Uncertain of how to move themselves forward as a project-based learner, we needed strategies to help students strive for independence and lifelong learning.

We have developed a set of tools to share with students as they plan, implement, and debrief or assess their work. Keep in mind these are not “introductory” tools and we don’t roll them out right away. These are for project learners who are starting to really understand their role as the driver of their own education, and the evaluator of their own quality. The last thing a teacher should do is hand these out and ask the students to use them without building up to what each and every topic contained within these documents really means in the project environment. 

With that said, the best way to get independent, active learners is to model, group, team, and make sure students are participating in project experiences that illustrate these ideas. By all means, do not put them in a PowerPoint and lecture about them! Show, do, experience, and model.

Active Learning Strategies

The first tool is a simple but effective list of Active Learning Strategies. In the age of Google, some project learning defaults to the web, and a very narrow set of learning strategies. Rich project learning requires students to function in a wide variety of modes, develop many skills, and apply knowledge to situations. Thus, we have our students strive for designing, implementing, and evaluating projects in the context of “Active Learning." 

This list was generated by students and staff, and is constantly being modified and improved as new ideas surface. Adapt, adopt, and use it as you see fit. One simple warning; Don’t just hand it out, you need to lead up to it, model these strategies, use them with group projects, and help the students own them instead of being required to do them.

Essential Project Elements

The second tool is what we call “Project Elements." This list is again a way to illustrate to students the nature of project learning in a structured, but flexible way. We have adapted these ideas from resource materials we found over the years, and quite honestly can’t remember who to credit for creating the first versions.

The way we use this is to work with students in project situations and discuss and think about how to create rich projects that contain many of these elements. This is another strategy to take students out of the digital knowledge generation mode and begin to move them toward authentic, independent, and community connected learning.

Project Elements can also be helpful to the new project learner if used in small amounts and built into early project opportunities. Measure success one step at a time, reward the failures and restarts with opportunities to change and improve. Most of all help the students realize the learning is in the journey, not the destination.

Both of these lists seem to be “checkbox” oriented, however we don't stop at checking them off. The real goal for this Project Element list and the Active Learning Strategies list is to create meaningful conversations and reflective learning. Whether it be verbal, or written communication from the students, we work to help them discover the metacognition of their learning. Thinking about thinking, and thinking about process.  

Sometimes projects are based more on content areas, sometimes projects take students outside of our walls, and sometimes projects have a deep connection to a community need. Regardless of the project, our goal is for every student to have learning experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and authentic. It’s more than just a project. When given the opportunity to make their own choices, build on their own talents, and own their learning students understand that it’s not an assignment, it’s a contribution.

For additional insight into Wildlands, we invite you to read our book, An Improbable School, which documents the creation of a teacher-powered, student-centered, project-based learning environment.

Creating Strong Questions

Posted by Jennifer Williams


As part of creating strong projects, students need to develop thought-provoking questions that encourage deep thinking. To assist our students at Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) with this process, we use the Question Matrix. The Question Matrix guides students in creating questions that require more thought and research. We require students to have a driving question and four supporting questions (aka guiding questions) . The driving question should be one that encompasses the entire project and will show the big picture. The supporting questions are those that need to be answered to successfully answer the driving question. Students develop their thought-provoking questions by sliding across and down the Question Matrix.

The further across and down students move in the Question Matrix, the more involved the questions become. For example, a question such as “What is the formula for the area of a kite?” would be a simplistic and easy to find the answer. However, if we slide across and down the Question Matrix we could create the more complex question “How might the area of a kite influence how long it stays in the air and the height it reaches?” The second question allows students to not only find out the formula for the area of a kite, but also apply it using prototypes and testing. Students get to create models and see how the area affects the flight of a kite.

We have the Question Matrix linked in our Project Foundry Project Request Form for students to quickly reference as they are writing up their project proposals. Teachers also have printed copies posted in their rooms to remind students of the complexity of questions that are expected in their projects. Another way that the question matrix can be used is to have some laminated copies that students can write on with dry erase markers as they brainstorm their project idea and the questions they want to answer. The Question Matrix is a great tool for getting students to challenge themselves and their level of thinking.