“The world runs on projects… Managing and leading projects are essential life skills, learning skills and career skills.”
21ST CENTURY SKILLS MAP –PROJECT MANAGEMENT FOR LEARNING, Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2014

group learning

Students today face a world where a far broader and deeper set of skills are essential for success than ever before. Schools must use new kinds of tools to teach a wider set of topics, and even more to impart the competencies, perspectives, and prac-tices that, alongside academic and technical knowledge, are more and more essential to compete. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a powerful approach to learning that offers a wealth of opportunities to build these essential 21st Century competencies, especially when it provides opportunities to learn and practice the project management skills that will be extremely valuable to students as they enter the workforce.

In most communities, refocusing learning standards around project management and other 21st Century competencies and integrating PBL into classroom instruction will require no less than a transformation of the educational model. Many regions and school districts have active, ongoing discussions about improving education among a wide range of stakeholders (parents, teachers, employers, students, etc.), and some are talking about this kind of transformation. But very few have brought in project managers and other skilled professionals – those with expertise on exactly these areas – to contribute to those conversations.

The Toolkit is intended to bring project management into community conversations about school transformation, by providing tools, definitions and explanations of unfamiliar subjects, and links to other resources that will help project managers, other professionals, and existing stakeholders to better understand their communities, connect to existing dialogues and reform efforts, and navigate the complex world of education. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) – a collaborative partnership among education, business, community and government leaders to position “21st Century readiness” at the center of K-12 education – and the PMI Educational Foundation (PMIEF) – the philanthropic arm of the Project Management Institute that leverages project management for social good – developed each Toolkit section to help community leaders work together to build support for integrating PBL and project management into their local schools and partnering with educators to implement learning projects in the classroom.


This toolkit will equip project managers, other professionals, and other stakeholders with the knowledge and tools to:

  • Add their voices to deeper community conversations about education transformation in their communities and what is necessary to successfully prepare young people for the 21st Century world of work,
  • Work with other groups and leaders to build support among the public and educational decision-makers to bring Project-Based Learning, project management, and 21st Century skills into curricula and teacher training,
  • Assist educators to better understand PBL, and
  • Provide their important expertise inside and outside of the classroom.

Equipping project managers with these resources will help them engage with and add signifi cant value to discussions about education reform and transformation in their communities. These more inclusive and informed conversations will in turn lead to increased awareness of the potential of transformation and support for implementing it in schools. As a result, more students in school districts around the country will graduate with the skills and competencies they will need in college, career, and life.


This Toolkit and the other resource documents will better enable and empower stakeholders, including project managers and other professionals, to accomplish the goals and strategies above.

Specifically, using the Toolkit, project managers and other professionals will:

  • Use Community Resource Mapping and other research to develop knowledge of the existing assets, stakeholders, and connections in communities.
  • Evaluate community readiness to implement PBL in schools.
  • Gain a basic working knowledge of the education community context, language, current education strategies, and student success factors.
  • Become a more thoughtful, contributing participant in community education transformation conversations.
  • Help civic and business leadership in the region to better understand why school districts are engaging in a shift to Project-Based Learning and Work-Based Learning and how that will result in a higher-skilled workforce.
  • Determine target school districts and schools.
  • Identify “educator allies” and possible intermediary organizations to coordinate partnership efforts.
  • Understand the roles and benefits of engaging in a participatory conversation in a collective initiative and how to be an active participant and/or facilitate one if needed.
  • Strategize with community leaders about how to build strong ties between the employer community and local schools.
  • Help teachers and other educators and other community stakeholders better understand Project-Based Learning, project management, and 21st Century Skills, as well as their value as keys to educational success.
  • Utilize a set of key messages to communicate with educators and community leaders.
  • Better understand how project managers can add value as volunteers working with administrators, teachers, and students inside and outside the classroom.


This Overview is intended to supply information about different aspects of how project managers and other professionals can accomplish the goals above. Each section of the Overview offers a brief, summarized description covering only selected topics; much more detailed information is available in the related resource documents. It begins by offering a short definition of PBL and project management skills and their importance, and asserts their importance and relevance to education in the context of college and career readiness. It then turns to a brief affirmation of the need to transform education in the U.S. and the roles of project management, PBL, and project managers in doing so.

The remaining sections provide concrete advice and tools to help project managers participate in the education discussions happening in their communities. One important topic here is how project managers can determine the readiness of their own communities to move forward with embracing 21st Century Skills and PBL. Through research and a mapping process, they can explore their local context and identify the assets, key players, and existing community change initiatives that will be essential components in this work. Another is how to engage with ongoing community conversations about school transformation, whether those are already robust or need more leadership. The final content section is intended to help project managers to reach out to educators by “speaking their language,” both by better understanding education strategies and jargon and by using a set of key messages that highlight and summarize how PBL can help teachers and administrators reach their goals.


An extensive set of resources follow the Overview and have also been created to supplement this overview and greatly extend the information and tools that the Toolkit provides. In some cases, their content is summarized in this Overview; Toolkit users may not need to use all of the resources depending on local context, but are encouraged to read through each as they prepare to strategically engage with educators and other partners.

The following sections are posted online for reference at different stages of the engagement and school transformation effort:


Related Toolkit sections:

Project-Based Learning

At its core, PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge using project management techniques. They do this by engaging with designed “learning projects,” sequences of learning experiences that give students lots of opportunities to practice and improve all of their skills, while engaging in meaningful, real-world work that addresses compelling questions and problems. Refer to the Toolkit section “Project Management Skills and Project-Based Learning” for a more in-depth look at effective PBL.

Project Management

PMIEF defines project management as “applying knowledge, skills, and resources to accomplish activities that are intended to achieve a specific goal. It includes a set of usual practices and tools, but it is often as much an art as a science, because each project is different and every project is dynamic.” Trained project managers are able to approach a project systematically by breaking it down into different stages and steps, and guide it through its life cycle to successful completion.

Project Management is a Crucial Component of Effective PBL

The best Project-Based Learning gives students the opportunity to build and explore project management skills. Nevertheless, many of the projects used in classrooms, even if called “PBL,” do not allow students to truly utilize project management (for example, projects where the teacher directs the experience and makes most of the decisions). Effective learning projects and PBL curricula should integrate opportunities for learning and practicing project management skills.

PMIEF defines a well-designed, effective learning project as one that has the following features:

  • Project outcomes are tied to curriculum and learning goal
  • Driving challenges that lead students to the central concepts or principles of the topic or subject area.
  • Student investigations and research involve inquiry, problem-solving, and knowledge building.
  • Students are responsible for designing and managing much of their own learning.
  • Projects are based on authentic, real-world problems and questions that students care about.

PBL has proved to be an excellent approach to help students to build the learning and innovation, digital literacy, and career and life skills that are increasingly recognized as essential to work and life today. For example, research in recent years across several academic subjects has shown that PBL is a highly effective method to help students learn content, process, presentation, and problem-solving skills. In a Stanford University review of the accumulated research on learning methods used in projects, PBL has been shown to help students:

  • Learn more deeply when they apply their knowledge to real-world problems.
  • Participate and contribute in tasks that require sustained engagement and collaboration.
  • Student investigations and research involve inquiry, problem-solving, and knowledge building.
  • Achieve higher levels of academic perfomance and personal development, regardless of the student’s background or prior academic record.
  • Become more successful by learning how to learn as well as what to learn.

The benefits of PBL apply as much to the “4C’s” – Critical thinking, Collaborating, Communicating and Creative problem solving – as to the technical mastery, life and career skills, and core subjects that are also part of state standards like the Common Core and P21’s “21st Century Learning Framework.” Perhaps most importantly, project management is a universal business skill that is practiced in all industries and a skill set that is in high demand by employers.

The Toolkit section “Sharing the Value of Project Management with Educators” provides a set of key messages about the potential of PBL that are written with an educator audience in mind, while “Project-Based Learning in Action” includes brief summaries of several well-designed example learning projects.


The demands of the global economy require all students to have essential skills and competencies.

Our nation’s schools need to produce graduates in ever-growing numbers who are college-, career-, and citizenship-ready. Students must possess both content knowledge AND the 21st Century Learning and dispositions demanded by employers today. These skills include not only the “4C’s” – Critical thinking, Collaborating, Communicating and Creative problem solving – but also life and career skills, such as leadership and responsibility, self direction, and social and emotional awareness, and the ability to use them across disciplines. Postsecondary education and training (an industry-recognized certificate, apprenticeship, Associate’s degree, or higher degree) will also increasingly be required.

However, the United States is falling far short of these goals nationally. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, 18 million students in the U.S. attend schools in districts that have been identified as in need of improvement, while seven thousand students drop out of high school without a regular diploma every day. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Economy projects that the U.S. economy will have a shortage of at least 3 million postsecondary degrees and 4.7 million postsecondary certificates by 2018. And, the recent long economic downturn has meant that young people have experienced unprecedented difficulty in finding opportunities for workplace and career experience: the 2010 U.S. Census revealed that only 49 percent of Americans ages 16–24 were employed in July of that year, the lowest July rate on record.

“College and career readiness is the new direction for K–12 education. Preparing students to transition without remediation to postsecondary education or to careers that pay a living wage, or both, is the ultimate aim of federal and state education policies, initiatives, and funding.”

“Very few K–12 schools can meet this goal for all students today. Most schools have neither the expectations nor the measures, neither the instructional programs nor the learning environments, to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to compete and succeed in a global economy.”

PARTNERSHIP FOR 21ST CENTURY LEARNING, Association for Career and Technical Education, and National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, 2010

New learning strategies are needed for student success – and project management is a powerful approach Today’s educational system must prepare students for a global, ever changing workplace in which mastery of content knowledge alone is insufficient for success. To do so, students must experience a different kind of learning that more closely mirrors today’s work and life. This means that students participate in an active educational experience, in which real world projects form an important vehicle for engagement. Creating this experience at scale will require a transformation of the standard educational experience in this country. Project-Based Learning (PBL), or using “learning projects” as a part of formal education with strong project management integration, has been proven by experience and research to be an excellent approach to help students to build the learning and innovation, digital literacy, and career and life skills that are increasingly recognized as essential to work and live today. This is because learning projects are sequences of learning experiences that give students lots of opportunities to practice and improve all of their skills, while engaging in meaningful, real-world work that addresses compelling questions and problems. Moreover, PBL as an educational strategy aligns remarkably well with the ambitious, high-quality learning standards, such as Common Core, that have been adopted by many states over the past few years and that emphasize inquiry and mastering diverse competencies.

Implementing PBL in a way that truly imparts the skills that students will need requires teachers, students, and school administrators to develop strong project management skills. However, few educators possess the professional capacity or the tools to manage projects in their classrooms, much less to teach these essential 21st Century Skills to their students.

“The world runs on projects – everyday life projects like planning and planting a garden, school projects like devising and performing experiments for a science fair project, and work-world projects like designing and building a bridge or developing and delivering a community program to reduce energy use. Managing and leading projects are essential life skills, learning skills and career skills.”
PROJECT MANAGEMENT FOR LEARNING, A Foundational Guide to Applying Project Management Principles and Methods to Education, 2014

Project managers and other professionals need to be involved in transforming education

Corporate leaders and wealthy philanthropists, such as Eli Broad, cite the need to reshape the education system as the most pressing issue facing the United States. Students will need to gain a wide range of 21st Century skills and competencies in order to embark on successful careers and fit the needs of a globalized economy. But while many of the big ideas and federal programs coming from the top are intended to effect this transformation, much of the actual work of adapting those policies to local needs, prioritizing resources, and changing school culture must be done locally, at the school district and individual school levels. And all sectors of the larger community must take an active role and a strong voice in those local conversations, debates, and decisions.


Related Toolkit sections:

In order to engage with the ongoing conversations in any community, it is critically important to develop an understanding of the complex systems that it comprises. Effective advocates must discover the assets in their specific local communities – the knowledge, relationships, organizations, leadership, and openness to change – that will be essential for success in the difficult work of transforming schools to prepare students for college and career. These include identifying the schools and educators who are most prepared to implement PBL, the existing coalitions and task forces (or “moving trains”) that are already seeking to address education and career readiness issues, and the organizations that can take on the intermediary tasks that are essential to keeping the initiative moving.

What makes a community ready?

Ultimately, the most important question to answer is whether a community has the right assets to move forward with this work. Schools and education are contentious issues everyplace, and trying to make change in classrooms can often feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. A community that is ripe for this work (or already engaged in it) should have three important factors in place:

  1. a culture of readiness for change,
  2. a community that supports education, and
  3. an organization ready to serve as intermediary or “backbone”.

Outdoor teams

Determining Community Readiness,” a Toolkit section in this toolkit, outlines a set of important local factors that project managers can use to help evaluate their communities’ readiness. “Exemplary Schools and Districts”iconPDF16x16 lists organizations and initiatives that have engaged with specific schools and/ or districts to support them in improving education to prepare students for college and career. Follow the links in that section to determine if a community or school is part of one or more of these initiatives – their inclusion indicates that they are ahead of the curve, and the initiatives often provide important resources to their member communities.

Using Community Resource Mapping to explore assets

One framework that can effectively help to uncover a community’s infrastructure of assets and relationships is Community Resource Mapping. This concept has been around for a long time, but is being used more and more frequently in fields from land-use planning to social-service provision. The National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) at the University of Minnesota defines Community Resource Mapping as “a methodology used to link community resources with an agreed upon vision, organizational goals, strategies, or expected outcomes.” It focuses on the strengths and relationships – the assets – that are already present in a community through a process that builds partnerships with common goals.

The Toolkit section “Community Resource Mapping” describes methods and resources that will help with reaching out to other stakeholders in the community and gathering and organizing the information that is needed. It also gives examples of existing community maps.

Finding key community partners and the “moving trains”

The process of exploring community assets (whether through mapping or other methods) should identify the individuals and groups in the community who will be necessary for moving forward with this work and who often are already engaged in it, including three key groups of players:

  1. An intermediary organization(s) that is already engaged with the education and business sectors and that can bring together needed players, convene ongoing and future conversations, and coordinate partnership efforts (see below).
  2. “Educator allies” – principals, teachers, and administrators who understand the benefits of PBL and will advocate for its inclusion in curricula.
  3. School districts and schools that may be ripe to implement PBL, some of which may already be doing so. These will likely align with the educator allies described above.

These key players will be essential partners moving forward. The remaining sections of this Overview and several of the Toolkit sections are designed to support engagement with these groups around PBL.

An intermediary organization can become a central player in ongoing and future conversations and initiatives. It may be able to take on the daily, essential “backbone” work of planning, managing, and facilitating the coalition involved in this collaborative project. And so, identifying an intermediary, building a relationship with its leadership, and helping them to understand the role that PBL can play in achieving regional education goals are essential tasks. See the “Determining Community Readiness” Toolkit section for a detailed description of the essential activities of intermediary/backbone organizations.

It is also important to note that this likely will be far from the first effort to try to address education and career readiness issues in any community. Nearly every region has seen many ongoing “coalitions,” “initiatives,” “reform projects,” etc., all seeking to solve the challenges of an unprepared workforce. The Forum for Youth Investment calls these types of efforts “moving trains” – the “fragmented and overlapping array of well-intentioned coalitions, networks, partnerships and task forces – each aimed at shaping polices and securing resources for specific… issues or demographic groups.” Identifying the current and past “moving trains” and the organizations and individuals involved in them will be a fundamental way to better understand the existing community conversation on education and to find the community’s key players on these issues.

Project managers as valuable contributors

Transforming education is no easy job. It is not just that students need new skills and teachers need new curricula and capacities to take advantage of the approaches above. In order to create educational systems that produce students ready for the 21st Century’s global economy, new models for learning must be brought forward. This requires that educators, policymakers, and the public all understand and embrace these new models.

Although PBL that incorporates project management skills is an important strategy for schools, lack of understanding and institutional inertia are typical barriers that keep many school districts from adopting and implementing it. And while many education advocates have endorsed PBL as a model practice, most do not have a working knowledge of project management processes or how they work in the “real world.” Project management processes and skills can make the critical difference between success and failure in educational transformation.

So who can bring those missing pieces?

The more than 700,000 certified professional project managers in the world have the background and skills to play crucial roles in bringing PBL to the forefront of education discussions. They are likely to be the most passionate about the power of project management and knowledgeable about how to implement meaningful projects. Most have established successful careers, many have the perspective of working in the private sector, and many are parents of students themselves. They can and should contribute these assets of their own to their communities’ larger discussions about education transformation.

What does it mean to “engage in the community discussion about education”?

Determining the readiness of a community for PBL and exploring its assets also leads to identifying its “moving trains,” intermediary organizations, and key potential stakeholder allies. This is then the educational change landscape of that community. Project managers and other professionals who wish to engage in the community’s conversation on that topic should then actively reach out to those different players in order to a) investigate the current momentum and direction of the ongoing conversation, and b) offer their expertise and perspectives. Policymakers and advocates who are seeking better college and career preparation from schools usually welcome the participation of interested and informed professionals.

Once project managers have obtained a “seat at the table,” the next steps will depend on unique local circumstances and should be developed together by the larger, collaborative team. It may also be helpful to put together a short presentation or webinar to introduce the topics of Project-Based Learning and project management to those communities and individual stakeholders who are not familiar with it.

Community Conversations

One tactic for building a coalition and jump starting the push toward education transformation is to convene Community Conversations. A Community Conversation could be a single gathering (or a series of gatherings) that brings together key community leaders to share information, build support for PBL as an effective approach, work through differences of perspective, and determine next steps. While not all relationships and plans will be formed at Community Conversations, they can be crucial events for building a shared understanding of the importance of PBL, the role of 21st Century Skills, and designing the plan of action.

An intermediary organization is likely to be the appropriate group to convene Community Conversations, and is also likely to have access to employees and/or volunteers with facilitation experience. (In fact, convening and facilitation are core skills for most intermediary and backbone organizations.) In that case, project managers can help to plan and participate actively in these conversations as experts on project management and interested community members. They can look to the Toolkit section “Facilitating an Effective Community Conversation” for valuable information about joining participatory conversations and moving toward a shared agreement among all parties. The section also contains an extensive set of advice for the people who plan and facilitate these types of conversations.

Professionals in the field of education work and interact in a context specific to their environment, with perspectives, trends, and a shared jargon of their own – just like project managers. While it is far from a comprehensive review, this section of the Toolkit provides some essential background to help non-experts “speak the language” of education as they research their communities, engaging in community conversations, and working directly with schools and educators.

The sections below refer heavily to related Toolkit sections, because their content is too specific and diverse to summarize here usefully. Reading the Toolkit sections in full will give a much fuller complete picture.

One important note: the term “educators” as used in the Toolkit does not only apply to teachers. While teachers will be perhaps the most important players involved in implementing PBL at the classroom level, at different stages of this project others will also play crucial roles, including: school district administrators, school board members, and especially the principals of individual schools, who are likely to be the key gatekeepers. Those districts and schools in your region that are most likely to have the capacity and willingness to implement PBL are the primary audience for these efforts.

Current education strategies

The Toolkit sections “Understanding Education Strategies” is a relatively short primer on selected current strategies and “school improvement” initiatives related to PBL and career-themed education, including Common Core and the 21st Century Learning framework. Concepts covered include: a) Common Core and other state standards, b) college and career readiness and the 21st Century Learning context, c) College and Career Pathways and Career Academies, d) Work-Based Learning, e) Next Generation Science Standards, and f) Deeper Learning. While not an exhaustive list, these topics are right at the forefront of conversations about education transformation nationally and locally in many places.

The document explains each of these strategies very briefly and offers links to discover more information on each topic. The text lists questions, links, and summaries to help investigate how local school districts are responding to national trends and assist in finding the schools that are most ready to engage with PBL.

Messages and resources for educators

The section above (“Why Project-Based Learning?”) the Toolkit includes a section called “Sharing the Value of Project Management with Educators” that outlines a set of key messages defining project management, the benefits of PBL, how PBL aligns with evolving state education standards, and the value that project managers can bring to the classroom to help them reach their goals. These messages, written with an educator audience in mind, are intended to arm project leaders, other professionals, and intermediary organizations with a set of key messages about PBL that they can use to prepare for focused conversations with educators about Project-Based Learning.

Another document, “Helpful Project-Based Learning Resources for Educators,”iconPDF16x16 is intended as a handout for educators. It lists a set of links to websites and documents with more learning about all of these PBL-related these topics, including the virtual workshops and handbooks that PMIEF has created targeted to teachers.

Supporting PBL in the classroom


Because one possible outcome of this process is for project managers to bring their expertise to planning and implementing learning projects in the classroom, the Toolkit section “Project Managers in the Classroom” offers important information about preparing to work with students and teachers, including ideas for what project managers are likely to actually be asked to do in schools. It also includes recommendations for developing quality internships and other work-based learning experiences.

In addition, another section for teachers, “Project-Based Learning in Action,” defines a well-designed learning project and gives several examples of learning projects that have already been used successfully in schools.

An educators-only convening?

Although a possible Community Convening component, where selected key education leaders would join project managers, intermediary organizations, and other stakeholders, is mentioned above, the Toolkit hasn’t to this point encouraged a separate convening of educators. That is not to say that such a gathering would not necessarily be appropriate, but the usefulness of bringing together educators will depend on the local context and should be determined by the leadership team of the overall community effort.

The purpose of an educator convening will also vary depending on a region’s individual situation. It might range from meeting with district and/or school officials to discuss the benefits of using PBL in the classroom (in which case the information above in this section should be helpful) to working together to develop an implementation strategy. It is worthwhile to consider asking educator allies who are already advocates for PBL – a principal if working with a single school, a superintendent in an individual district, or a respected policy leader in a group of districts – to take the leading role in educator convenings.

Determining the set of educators to invite to a convening requires figuring out the scope of this effort to implement PBL in the classroom: Will it encompass an entire school district? More than one district? One school only? A group of schools? This decision will necessarily impact the group of educators who should be involved. The school district may also want to select one or a few career themed academies or pathways to pilot Project Management training with their teachers.

As stated more than once in the Toolkit, principals will be the key gateway figures in accessing schools, but the targeted invitation list will depend on the context of the schools that the project leadership wishes to engage. They will also need to determine whether and which district officials and/or individual teachers would be appropriate to invite. The Community Resource Mapping outcomes, the discussion at a Community Convening, and further research will help them to identify the right individuals with whom to engage.


The Toolkit was developed by P21, with support from PMIEF, to prepare project managers and other professionals to engage with ongoing conversations about how to prepare students for college and careers in their communities. Project-Based Learning is not an end to itself, but instead a proven approach to teaching and learning the 21st Century Learning and competencies that young people will need and which Common Core and other standards now demand. Because project managers have important expertise and relevant skills to help make PBL successful, they should have a seat at the table in these conversations.

Project Management Toolkit for Teachers. Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2013.

“Project Management for Learning: A Foundational Guide to Applying Project Management Principles and Methods to Education”. Bernie Trilling, Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2014.

“Gold Standard PBL: A Progress Report & Request for Critique”. John Mergendollar, Buck Institute for Education, November 3, 2014. bie.org/blog/gold_standard_pbl_a_progress_report_request_ for_critique

“The Importance of Project Based Teaching.” John Mergendollar, Buck Institute for Education, October 1, 2014. bie.org/blog/the_importance_of_project_based_teaching

“Meeting the Challenge: The Role of School Leaders in Turning Around the Lowest-Performing High Schools” Alliance for Excellent Education, January 2011.

“Project Management for Learning: A Foundational Guide to Applying Project Management Principles and Methods
to Education”. Bernie Trilling, Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2014.

“Up to the Challenge: The Role of Career and Technical Education and 21st Century Skills in College and Career Readiness.” Partnership for 21st Century Learning, Association for Career and Technical Education, and National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, 2010.

“Help wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, Executive Summary.” Carnevale, A., Smith, N., Strohl, J., Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010. Cited in “College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean? A Draft Proposed Conceptual Framework.” ConnectEd: California Center for College and Career, 2011.

“Meeting the Challenge: The Role of School Leaders in Turning Around the Lowest-Performing High Schools” Alliance for Excellent Education, January 2011.

“College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean? A Draft Proposed Conceptual Framework.” ConnectEd: California Center for College and Career, 2011.