#166 – Project-Based Learning, with A.J. Juliani

Unpacking Education March 15, 2023 52 min

“Project-based learning is the type of learning we do the rest of our lives, just not necessarily in school. It’s titled PBL, but it’s just how we learn in real life. Right? We have challenges. We have questions. We have inquiry. We have all these things sustained over a period of time. That’s what PBL is, and I’m all about it,” says educator, thought leader, and author A.J. Juliani.

He adds, “It’s just learning through an active experience of doing. And for me, it’s so powerful because that’s how we learn best.” In this episode, A.J. breaks down the benefits of PBL as well as practical ways to get started implementing it in your classroom.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

PBL is truly an approach (and mindset) that encompasses and provides context for so many hard-hitting practices: creating a culture of inquiry, crafting essential questions, providing feedback, assessment literacy, student reflection, and more.

Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, authors, educators, and PBL experts, from their foreword to A.J. Juliani’s book, The PBL Playbook

Making an Impact

“Every teacher impacts kids,” states our guest, A.J. Juliani. “You just choose what type of impact you have.”

The choices that we make as teachers, and the approaches we take to learning, are part of this impact we have in our classrooms. Throughout our conversation, we regularly reflect on the positive impact that project-based learning (PBL) can have on students. “The research is vast,” says A.J., who points out that students who engage in PBL not only gain valuable life and study skills but also perform better on tests. Additionally, PBL makes learning in the classroom authentic, and these student-driven experiences allow teachers more opportunities to build community and connection with their students.

Tune in to hear our full conversation with A.J. The following are a few highlights from this episode:

  • About Our Guest: A.J. Juliani is a former teacher, instructional coach, tech director, and director of learning and innovation for multiple school districts in the Philadelphia area. He is a nationally recognized speaker, thought leader, and author of eight books about learning, including the best-sellers: Empower, Launch, and Adaptable.
  • What Is PBL?: A.J. provides the following definition, “Project-based learning is just learning through an active experience. . . . and for me, it’s so powerful because that’s how we learn best.” He adds, “We learn best by doing, by trying, by experiencing things, reflecting on experience.”
  • The Research: A.J. points out that the research consistently shows “dramatic benefits” of project-based learning. It helps develop both academic and life skills, and students who engage in PBL consistently outscore non-PBL students on tests.
  • What Holds Us Back?: Even though the research indicates that PBL is a more effective approach than traditional instruction, many teachers stay with traditional methods. A.J. has a theory about why this happens. He says, PBL is “a bit more difficult to do and facilitate. It’s pretty easy to teach from a textbook, throw up a PowerPoint, give multiple-choice tests, grade them back in the day with Scantrons, now ZipGrade, or whatever else we want to use. It’s easy to do that. It’s difficult to create a project-based learning, especially the first couple times and go through that process, and I think that’s what holds us back because we have a lot on our plates as educators.”
  • Improved Relationships: Most educators will acknowledge how important relationships are to the learning process. A.J. says, “When you do things like project-based learning—design-based type of things—you actually can build relationships because you have time to talk through problems and challenges and mentor them, rather than just feeding information and grading them on the regurgitation of that information.”
  • Design Thinking: There are many models for project-based learning. A.J.’s favorite is design thinking. He explains, “Design thinking is a structure and framework for creativity in the sense that you don’t start with exactly knowing where you’re going to end. You start with that empathy, “look, listen, and learn” piece, and the learning takes you along a journey. And so I feel like real, authentic project-based learning allows for that, and that’s why I really like design thinking. That’s the process that I use.” That being said, he also encourages teachers to find the model that works best for them. Oftentimes, there will be one that is closely aligned to their subject area. For instance, science has the scientific method, and ELA often works well using the inquiry process.
  • The LAUNCH Cycle: In the book Launch, which A.J. wrote with John Spencer, he outlines a design thinking model around the acronym LAUNCH. It begins with the wonder of look, listen, and learn and ends with the launch of a final product or solution to a real audience. You can learn more about this process in this blog post by A.J.’s co-author, John Spencer.
  • Differentiation and Individualization: PBL is a great way to meet your learners where they are at. In fact, A.J. says, “Project-based learning is almost the perfect UDL approach, Universal Design for Learning.” There are lots of options you can offer for different types of learners. When it’s implemented well, says A.J., “You’re not limiting the amount of learning they can do.” He adds, “Project-based learning is the perfect thing to do if it’s not PBL in a box—if you’re giving real choices in how students learn and what the outcome can be.”
  • Managing the Mess: Because students are all working on their own version of the assignment, teachers may sometimes feel that they lack the same amount of control as they do during a traditional lesson. The key to managing a PBL learning experience is to provide structure in the process. A.J. shares that there are three parts to structuring this effectively. First, have a clear process with flexible outcomes. Second, have students share their goals and progress. Finally, have students create an action plan to hold themselves accountable to the process and desired outcomes.
  • Genius Hour: “Genius Hour is a fancy term for inquiry-based learning, which fits under that PBL umbrella,” says A.J. It’s based on Google’s 20% time, where the company encouraged employees to take one day per week to follow their interests and complete a project centered around these personal interests. Many of Google’s innovative ideas and products eventually sprung from these passion projects.
  • Start With a Sprint: A PBL sprint is a short, two- to three-day project. Sprints are often quite structured and limited in scope. Often, a series of sprints can be more impactful than one, large, multiweek PBL project because students get to practice the process and skills more than once. Sprints can be a manageable way to enter the PBL arena.
  • An Effective Approach in the World of ChatGPT: “If we are only engaging kids with compliance and jumping through hoops, they’re going to find ways to jump through those hoops that are easier ways. This [ChatGPT] provides a way to do that,” shares A.J. He adds, “I think project-based learning is the answer to a lot of these things because you can’t AI your way through a project-based process. Now, can it help with the research and help with the creative outlines? Yes, it’s kind of a partner in crime there, but it can’t do the work for you the same way as on a test.”
  • Imagined Barriers: “A lot of the reasons and barriers we throw up for not doing project-based learning actually don’t exist,” says A.J. He believes the barriers that are often raised to justify avoiding PBL experiences are not as significant as we might make them. He debunks a few of these concerns, listing objections he’s heard along with his typical response. “It doesn’t get kids ready for the test. Yes, it does. How can I add it to my curriculum? Because it’s connected to the standards that’s in your curriculum. I don’t have enough time. Do a two- to three-day sprint. I’m worried about kids being engaged in learning. All the research shows that it’s higher engagement, higher student achievement.” He concludes, “So a lot of those things that are barriers, aren’t really.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How do you define project-based learning?
  • Which PBL model might work best for you?
  • What are some of the advantages of PBL?
  • What are some of the challenges to implementing PBL?
  • How can PBL help you reach all students?
  • How might you structure PBL to make it more manageable?
  • What might PBL look like in your classroom or school?
  • How could you use a PBL sprint in your classroom or school?
  • How can you get started with implementing PBL in your classroom or school?