• 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.
  • Help teachers and other educators and other community stakeholders better understand Project-Based Learning, project management, and 21st Century Learning as well as their value as keys to educational success.




“Learning projects, or Project-Based Learning as it has often been called, is a powerful approach to learning that offers a wealth of opportunities to build all of these essential 21st Century Skills, as well as the deeper knowledge and expertise needed for life and work in our times.”
PROJECT MANAGEMENT FOR LEARNING, Bernie Trilling & Project Management Institute Educational Foundation, 2014.


The best Project-Based Learning uses project management methods to help students build skills and knowledge in a variety of subjects through exploration and practice. It is somewhat different from formal project management training, which is designed to train individuals in the specific professional skills of a project manager. Because stakeholders including the employer community and educators at all levels will need to understand PBL in order to move toward implementing it in the classroom, this document gives a brief overview of PBL itself and how it should draw on the project management skills that professionals use daily.


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.

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 live 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.
  • Achieve higher levels of academic performance 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.



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.

To achieve that successful outcome, the project management approach is geared to ensure that the resources, schedule, cost, and worksteps are planned appropriately for the specified project and that all of the work for that project is completed according to those expectations and at a high quality. This includes identifying and managing potential risks and communicating progress to supervisors, project participants, and other stakeholders.


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.

The Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF) defines a well-designed, effective learning project as one that has the following features:

  • Project outcomes are tied to curriculum and learning goals.
  • 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.

To these should also be added that the learning project be designed to help students build 21st Century competencies, that students receive feedback at each stage on the quality of their work, and that students publicly share their knowledge through a product and/or a presentation. Additionally, learning projects can be designed with a clearly defined outcome, or more open-ended with students exploring and “discovering” the desired results.

The separate resource document “Project-Based Learning in Action” includes brief summaries of several well-designed example learning projects.


The Buck Institute for Education has worked with others to develop “Gold Standard Project-Based Learning,” a framework and guide for excellent classroom practice and deep student learning. The two diagrams below summarize this model from both the project design and the teaching practices perspectives, placing student learning goals at the center of each one. Understanding and maintaining these goals and standards will be key to ensuring that learning projects are high-quality and effective.


While trained project managers use a certain shared terminology for the stages of a project, the education community has its own language and concepts. To help “translate” between these different perspectives, the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) and PMIEF have developed the following chart that aligns project life-cycle terms with accessible, teacher- and administrator-friendly terms:


Project managers and other professionals will probably find it helpful to communicate in terms of the four-step educational project cycle while working with teachers and students.


Although true PBL gives students a great deal of agency in planning and managing their learning projects – an essential feature of effective learning projects – teachers remain the central player in students’ learning. Teachers design or select projects to match specific learning goals, co-manage the project planning process with students, provide feedback, assess learning, and fill other important roles. John Mergendoller of the Buck Institute for Education considers teachers in the PBL environment “part jazz orchestra conductor, part batting coach, and part jazz composer. The goal is to perform the score (project), but there is room for improvisation by the orchestra members (students) as well as by the conductor.”

PMIEF also notes that teachers and students will spend differing amounts of time in each of the different stages of the project life cycle above. Teachers will need to use much more of their time in the Define and Plan stages, while students will generally spend most of their time in the Do phase. Additionally, professional project managers can play important roles in supporting both teachers and students – see “Project Managers in the Classroom,” another section in this toolkit, for some ideas.


Since Project-Based Learning occurs in different circumstances and with a different purpose from project management in the workplace, this resource document helpfully defines PBL and project management and discusses the features of well-designed learning projects. It also places PBL in the context of the classroom by sharing a PMIEF/P21 chart that translates project life-cycle terms into educator-friendly language and a brief discussion about how teachers and students co-manage learning projects.

This and related toolkit documents are meant to help all stakeholders to better understand the concepts important to PBL using language and context that are also recognizable by educators.


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