Chapter Three



Chapter 2 outlines a move away from the mindset that the main task of education is to convey a predetermined body of knowledge. Instead, we propose a curriculum that focuses on helping learners acquire a set of broadly applicable skills and Habits of Mind that they can apply flexibly to whatever challenges they might face in their later lives and careers. Students’ high school years should principally be about learning how to learn and acquiring the competencies they need in order to do that effectively.

This change in focus puts emphasis on the learning process itself. The process is no longer just a means of acquiring information; instead, it becomes the endpoint in its own right. As a result, teaching and learning methods – which have always been an important consideration in education – become more important than ever. This chapter sets out guidelines for the practices in teaching and learning methods that are likely to be most effective at achieving our goal of creating agile, creative, self-motivated lifelong learners.

No document should prescribe teaching methods in exact detail, of course, because no single method will work best in every circumstance. The learning process is complex and variable; research has just begun to scratch the surface of the question of what methods will help students learn most effectively.20 It seems clear, though, that different methods have different strengths and weaknesses, especially when taking into account the preferred learning styles of individual learners. Different methods will also be optimal in different cultural contexts. Some methods will be better at conveying facts; others at fostering creative thought. Some will work for the most academically advanced students; others may be superior for those who need more guidance and support. Alert teachers will be able to employ different learning methods as the situation dictates, and modify their approach continually depending on their results (discussed more fully in Chapter 6: Assessment).

Instruction Centred Around Collaborative Projects

High school learners should spend most of their schooling engaged in a series of in-depth inquiry projects, undertaken individually or, more often, in groups. This approach stands out from the rich diversity of pedagogical methods in fostering the skills we seek to develop in the learners of 2030, becauseit favours the “how” of learning rather than the “what.” This makes it an ideal fit for a new curriculum that emphasizes skills rather than factual knowledge, as outlined in Chapter 5. Other instructional methods may be used as appropriate to support this project-based focus.

Why Projects?

Learning through collaborative projects places learners in realistic situations that draw on a much richer set of skills than conventional lessons do.21 This major advantage has led several education groups to advocate this approach to learning. The Buck Institute for Education, for example, points out that:

“To answer a Driving Question and create high-quality work, students need to do much more than remember information. They need to use higher-order thinking skills and learn to work as a team. They must listen to others and make their own ideas clear when speaking, be able to read a variety of material, write or otherwise express themselves in various modes, and make effective presentations.”22

The project-based approach has other advantages, as well, they note:

• Students begin with a real-world problem of interest to them. This provides both context and motivation for them to learn the concepts and skills they need to address the problem.

•  The project format pushes students to take the initiative to identify what they need to know, and then go out and find the information.

• Over the course of a long-term project, students gain experience at giving and receiving feedback, reflecting on this feedback, and revising their project.

•  The project leads to a definite outcome, a new idea, action, or object that is the product of students’ effort.

•  Students learn to present this product to a public audience, gaining valuable experience at public speaking and the arts of presentation. The knowledge that they will present their results in public helps motivate students to do their best work.

One of the great strengths of project-based learning is that students must learn to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. This is one of the essential 21st century skills that many observers have highlighted, and one that is not often taught well today. Well-chosen projects pose open-ended questions whose answers are not fully known, either because the underlying principles have not been worked out yet, or because they have not yet been applied in a particular context.23 As a result, when learners embark upon a project, they do not know precisely where their efforts will lead them. This forces them to learn to “founder intelligently”, as one Equinox Summit participant put it, suggesting and testing possibilities as they move closer to solutions that work. This contributes directly to developing the Habits of Mind outlined in Chapter 1, and in particular the habit of treating failure as a step in the learning process and an opportunity for learning and growth.

Learning through projects also shifts the role of the teacher from that of dispenser of information to that of mentor or guide. In this way, responsibility for learning shifts from teacher to learner as well. Chapter 4 discusses this shift in more detail.

To see how this project-centred approach might work in practice, we now present a suggestion of how such learning might happen.

An Example of Workflow in Project-Centred Learning

Typically, students might begin their day with a roundtable discussion among group members. This discussion, usually facilitated by a teacher, reviews progress on their project and lays out goals for the day. Students then work on their assigned task(s) for the rest of the day, either singly or in groups as appropriate. If a student is involved in multiple projects at the same time, each project will claim part of the day as required.

The exact nature of a student’s work will, of course, vary depending on the needs of the particular project. However, a well-chosen project will require learners to research context, gather specific pieces of information with increasing depth and sophistication, present them to the group, integrate information provided by different group members, discuss and debate the importance of different points of view, design practical solutions, and present these solutions to others outside the project. If the project is well chosen, these solutions are likely to be relevant to the learners’ community and may actually be implemented in the real world, adding a further level of significance to the project.

During the course of work on a project, students may occasionally identify missing skills or information – things they do not yet know but need to. For example, students working on a project that involves understanding which tree species grow where may find that they need to know whether the distributions of two tree species actually differ. This will lead to a discussion of ways to compare two distributions, and thus identify a need to learn some statistics.

When such a need arises, students can either learn the material on their own (often from prepackaged instruction available on the Internet) or “contract out” for the information, asking for guidance from a teacher, another student, or even an outside expert. Some students are likely to develop significant expertise in particular fields – for example, in construction techniques, database management, computer-aided design, or entomology – that other groups may draw on repeatedly. This helps build confidence and capability in the student-experts and a sense of collegiality among the entire learning community. By the end of their high school years, learners should have had experience both as experts and as someone in need of an expert. This helps reinforce the notion that these roles are fluid over time, and that everyone both has expertise to offer and has need of others’ expertise.

This approach makes the crucial assumption that high school learners have enough awareness and initiative to take ownership of their own learning process, and that they do not need to be under the direction and control of a teacher at all times. Examples where this is already happening, such as the Independent Project, begun at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Massachusetts, US and the Sudbury Schools in several countries testify that this assumption is a reasonable one.24,25

Examples of Successes With Project-Based Learning

The University of Qatar offers an enrichment program called Al-Bairaq that is open to high school students of any academic standing.29 Participants engage in projects in materials science, engineering, and other sciences, under the guidance of researchers at the University. At the conclusion of their program, the participants prepare and present their results to an audience drawn from the community. Each year, some of the strongest presentations come from students seen as “average” performers in traditional exam-based courses. This achievement of project-based learning is particularly impressive, as one of our central goals is to ensure that groups that have been badly served by current learning models are given tools that allow them to achieve their full potential.

Cne notable example is Canada’s Shad Valley program. This award-winning program, which has been operating for more than 30 years, places high-achieving high school students in a month- long immersion on a university campus, where they undertake major projects, often involving design and prototyping of inventions. In the process, students learn to collaborate, seek out information, fail productively, and test their own ideas. Shad Valley’s success is evident in its high standards for admission. many participants regard the shad experience as the high point of their high school learning.26

Shad Valley draws on the best students nationwide for its programs. It is not surprising, therefore, that these students succeed in drawing a rich experience from the projects they undertake. However, other examples show that even average students find projects of this sort to be engaging, instructive experiences that lead to successful outcomes. Manor New Technology High School, a public high school near Austin, Texas, US, for example, offers exclusively project- based instruction. most of its students come from families that have never attended university, yet 98% of manor students graduate, and every graduating student is accepted to university.27 Similarly, Sammamish High School in Bellevue, Washington, US, is shifting to a curriculum built entirely around collaborative projects with good success, even though a high proportion of its students come from disadvantaged backgrounds

Comparing Project-Based Learning to Conventional Approaches

Few studies have directly compared the outcomes of project- based learning against more conventional approaches for entire courses of study.30 The limited evidence so far, though, suggests that students flourish, performing at least as well as their more conventionally taught peers, if not better. For example, students who took a US Government and Politics class built around 5 in-depth projects were compared against students who took a conventional, lecture-based course from the same teachers. The students who learned via projects proved better than their conventionally-taught peers at the real world skills of understanding and influencing public policy.31

A literature review by Strobel and van Barneveld concluded that problem-based learning, a similar approach to project- based learning, led to better skill development and long-term retention than conventional approaches.32 It also produced greater satisfaction in both teachers and students – an indication of higher engagement.

A particularly impressive, and somewhat counter-intuitive, outcome of the project-based approach is that it does not seem to leave students with “holes” in their education. Though they engage in relatively few project topics, and thus might reasonably be expected to miss out on knowledge covered by a broader approach, research suggests this does not happen.

US Government students who used project-based learning, for example, scored just as well on a standardized Advanced Placement test – that is, they knew just as much material – as students who took the lecture-based course.33 It seems reasonable to expect that, as experience and expertise in delivering project- based learning grows, this method will begin to outstrip the results gained through more traditional methods.

Project Selection

Learning is most effective when learners care about the subject.34 Therefore, topics for projects should be selected by the learning partners – that is, students and learning professionals should develop the scope of the projects together. Where possible, the topics should be of practical relevance to the students’ lives and communities. Students are likely to select a range of projects throughout the year that they find attractive for any of several, perhaps overlapping, reasons.

Possibilities include:

•            Projects of Interest – appeal to students’ sense of curiosity or eagerness to acquire new skills (e.g., a science experiment, learning a musical instrument, or writing software)

•            Projects of Importance – have broader social impact in the school, community, or world (e.g., gathering and distributing food to needy families, or lobbying for social change)

•            Projects of Discipline – develop or refine Habits of Mind (e.g., deepening understanding of mathematics, learning to work like a writer or editor, or learning to think like a scientist)

•            Projects of Consultancy – fill needs of local businesses (e.g., designing software for a nonprofit, writing training manual for a new product)

To get maximum value from any project, it must be challenging yet within students’ capabilities, and it should demand a rich set of new knowledge. Therefore, significant input and guidance from teachers and other learning professionals will be crucial in helping students choose high-quality projects. In particular, teachers will be responsible for helping students develop projects that test and expand students’ repertoire of skills and knowledge, avoiding closed-ended projects with trivial answers and “safe” projects that merely rework familiar ground. Teachers and other learning professionals, as well as outside mentors, are in a good position to help students broaden projects to consider new dimensions that the students may not have been aware of initially. Students searching for projects of importance or projects of consultancy should also be encouraged to seek guidance from relevant members of the larger community, including peers who have embarked on similar projects. The process of project selection and design is treated in more detail elsewhere.35

To add further depth and engagement to students’ learning, each year’s projects could be built around a broad theme. Examples might include “water,” “growth,” or “equality,” or “change.” This allows for overlap and synergy between the several projects that each student is involved with over the course of the year, and between the projects of different groups. It also serves to build community among the learners and connect them to their broader community in a way that a series of unrelated projects would not. Schools may choose to have the learners who will graduate at the end of the coming year select the theme for that year’s projects. This allows the year’s theme to most fully reflect the interests of the most senior and most experienced students, serving as a capstone to their high school years and giving them the opportunity to present themselves to the post-secondary world in a way that reflects their own priorities.

Other Pedagogies

We regard our project-based approach as the organizing principle for high school education. It provides an umbrella under which teachers can easily include other pedagogies whenever required. In essence, the project framework provides the big picture, motivating learners to acquire particular pieces of knowledge. Once they have identified a knowledge objective, learners and their teachers can work together to determine the best way to attain that objective. Sometimes the most effective way to do this may be simply to have the teacher present a lecture. However, most of the time, learning should be student-centered, where the students direct the learning – both individually and in groups – with support from the educator. We know that students learn best when they are engaged in meaningful experiences that are aligned to their ability and that challenge them to construct their own understanding.36 This type of learning is non-linear, with exploration, play and “safe failure” as key components. All of these approaches, and others, are compatible with the basic structure of the projects.

This allows for a great deal of flexibility in instructional methods. Attentive teachers and self-aware students can tailor each group’s methodology to the particular strengths and learning styles of its members and the needs of the moment, adopting whatever method seems most appropriate. Indeed, groups may sometimes choose to experiment with different learning styles, which gives learners a broader exposure to ways of learning and improves self-awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. This flexibility is a major strength of our approach.

A Note on the Role of Technology

Technology is a valuable part of education, and schools should embrace it to the extent they can. In a wired classroom – or a wired home, for learning outside of school – students have instant access to information on whatever topic is most relevant to their needs of the moment. Through online resources such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and iTunes University, they can view and review lessons presented by exceptional teachers at their own pace using the power of “pause” and “rewind.” They can reach out to ask questions of experts outside the walls of their school, or collaborate with learners elsewhere in the world to address problems in a global context. Educational games such as Making History and the Radix Endeavor provide structured immersive worlds in which learners can explore the complexities and dynamics of world history and science/technology/math, respectively.37,38 Such games offer learning experiences that would not be possible in real life and provide an opportunity for learners to engage deeply in concepts in new ways.

The effective use of technology has less obvious payoffs in the classroom, too. Games and online review modules can provide rapid, individualized feedback to teachers about each learner’s progress, particularly with the emerging power of learning analytics. They can identify which concepts need additional work, either through additional online modules or through direct, one-on-one sessions with the teacher or another learning coach. Researchers are also developing technologies that can monitor each learner’s attentiveness through the course of the day, which gives teachers immediate feedback about what holds students’ attention and what does not. This lets teachers assess and abandon ineffective experiments quickly – a crucial step in fostering a culture of trial-and-error innovation. At a larger scale, Internet applications can help teachers pool the results of their experiments across many different classes, schools, and even countries. This, too, can speed up the innovation process through collaboration. Too often, teachers are reluctant to experiment because by the time exam scores reveal that an approach has not worked, students have lost valuable weeks or months of learning.

By shortening the feedback cycle and making it easier for teachers to pool their experiments and compare notes, technology can dramatically reduce the cost of failure and encourage innovation.

Despite these many benefits that accrue to technology, we are also aware that for many schools, especially those in less developed countries, there is not enough money or access to make full use of technology. Indeed, some rural regions may lack reliable Internet access entirely. This problem is likely to diminish over time, as infrastructure improves. Rwanda, for example, expects to have nationwide high-speed Internet available nationwide for cellular phones within three years.39

As communications technology and infrastructure become more widely available, even the poorest schools may be able to add technology to their repertoire, even if it is only shared Internet access over a single cell phone or computer. This gives students an opportunity to seek out their own information just as students in wealthier schools can. No matter how limited or rudimentary the technology, it is still of educational value. Examples such as José Urbina López Primary School in Mexico show how schools can use technology sparingly to great effect.40 International aid should also support poorer countries in harnessing the power of technology for learning.

The great value of a project-based approach is that it does not hinge on technological support. Students can still draw on knowledge from teachers, fellow students, and other members of the community. Projects are likely to be more locally focused in this case and can yield real community benefits, particularly when other resources for community improvement are limited.


High school learning should take place mostly within the context of in-depth projects on topics of relevance to the learners and their local community. In the course of completing a project, learners will have to identify what they need to learn, learn it, discuss and integrate their findings, draw conclusions, and present their results, all in a collaborative setting.

These diverse demands help students develop a wide range of essential skills, as well as the flexibility to apply those skills in new contexts.

This change in the focus of education from information transfer to project-based inquiry will require significant changes in the role of teachers within the classroom, as discussed in the next chapter.


20. Koedinger K et al, 2013. “Using Data-Driven Discovery of Better Student Models to Improve Student Learning.”

21. For a discussion of the benefits of collaboration, see Clive Thompson, 2013. Smarter Than You Think (Penguin), p 194

22. Buck Institute for Education. “What is Project Based Learning (PBL).”

23. Edutopia. “Project-Based Learning Research Review: Evidence-Based Components of Success.”

24. Levin, S, 2011. “The Independent Project White Paper.”

25. Sudbury Valley School.

26. Shad Valley. 

27. Nobori, M. “What Makes Project-Based Learning a Success?.” 

28. Dickinson, A, 2013. “Re-Imagining the Comprehensive High School.” 

29. Al-Bairaq World, Qatar University. 

30. Mergendoller, J. R. , Maxwell, N. L. , & Bellisimo, Y., 2006. “The Effectiveness of Problem-Based Instruction: A Comparative Study of Instructional Methods and Student Characteristics.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1(2).

31. Parker, W. C, Mosborg, S., Bransford, J. D., Vye, N. J., Wilkerson, J., & Abbott, R., 2011. “Rethinking Advanced High School Coursework: Tacking the Depth/Breadth problem in AP U.S. Government and Politics.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43:4 (2011): 533-559.

32. Strobel, J. , & Van Barneveld, A., 2009. “When is PBL more Effective? A Meta-Synthesis of Meta-Analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1).

33. Parker, W. C, Mosborg, S., Bransford, J. D., Vye, N. J., Wilkerson, J., & Abbott, R., 2011. “Rethinking Advanced High School Coursework: Tacking the Depth/Breadth problem in AP U.S. Government and Politics.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43:4 (2011): 533-559.

34. According to Richard D. Jones of the International Center for Leadership in Education, “students invest more of themselves, work harder, and learn better when the topic is interesting and connected to something that they already know.” Strengthening Student Engagement, November 2008.

35. Enquiring Minds.

36. Edutopia. “Project-Based Learning Research Review: Evidence-Based Components of Success.”

37. OECD, 2010. “The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice.”

38. Making History.

39. The Radix Endeavor.

40. Kagire, E, 2013. “Rwanda to roll out LTE Network.” 

41. Davis, J, 2013. “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.”

“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”

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