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How to Implement PBL while Reaching the School Standards?

By: Dr. Isabel Cristina Fernandes Auler (Middle School Principal at Our Lady of Mercy School, RJ-Brazil)

Every year, school principals and teachers face the responsibility of implementing new educational trends. This is not an unfavorable endeavor since we do know how student-centered activities, and especially inquiry-based ones, contribute to the development of higher-level skills and abilities. Project-based learning (PBL) engages the class in real-life problems, which not only develops deep content knowledge but also, and most importantly, helps students develop twenty-first century skills, such as emotional intelligence, communication skills and complex thinking. In a world where nothing is certain anymore, where jobs may appear and disappear in a blink of an eye, teaching our students creative and critical thinking instead of memorization and reproduction of knowledge, seems the right thing to do. Taking our kids out of their comfort zone and in order to be able to show them how to connect their school learning with real life situations will definitely make them more prepared for adulthood.

Most principals think that the most challenging aspect while beginning to implement this kind of mindset in schools will be motivating the staff to do something different than usual. It is true that initially, for some teachers more accustomed with traditional methods, adapting classes will be a challenge. However, when principals work alongside with their group, not only evaluating but also assisting, giving examples, studying with them and providing suggestions when it feels that they are stuck, this initial refusal tends to disappear. Not even the lack of technology is an obstacle for that kind of learning methodology. Even in schools with few resources, such as those where teachers do not have internet and laptops in the classroom, it is possible to create inquiry-based projects using newspapers, and real-life situations. Working together and promoting weekly meetings where teachers feel comfortable to discuss among each other, sharing examples and their main difficulties are the keys for the success of PBL in schools.

If all of these statements are really true, what is stopping schools from promoting these kinds of PBL activities throughout the entire year? Why do most classes remain traditional and why are teachers only able to sprinkle some novelties during the quarter without really transforming their class into a student-centered environment? The obstacle that lies in front of that kind of school transformation is very simple to identify and yet incredibly difficult to surpass: school standards.

When we are dealing with topic-neutral standards, it is definitely easier to create a successful PBL project. Take this English Language and Arts standard for instance: “CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” It does not matter if a student decides to write about football, music or arts, as long as he or she reaches the skill above. 

This kind of standard allows teachers to create interest-driven projects, which motivates students by giving them the autonomy to choose the topic that most inspires them. On the other hand, when we are facing a specific conceptual standard, it becomes harder to let students choose topics that relate to their own lives and interests. For a case like that, a problem-driven project will be a possible solution, and instead of having the liberty to choose the theme, students will have the autonomy to pick the method of demonstration.

John Spencer in his article How do you Teach to Standards when Doing Project- Based Learning, states that instead of being stuck in the middle of the duality of process-driving and product-driven, we should consider a third option: learning-driven. According to Spencer, if teachers were able to connect the type of standard you have to teach to the corresponding PBL approach, it will be easier to transform our teaching methodology in a more substantial way. He has created a table that shows how to do that kind of correlation:

There is always going to be an overlap in regards to PBL projects, but the important thing to keep in mind is that teachers should not add an additional project to their strategic plan for the school year. They should instead rearrange their plans in order to substitute expository classes and subsequent class activities or tests with process-based learning methodologies. Students will learn while they are in the process of doing the project proposal and not before. That is why the pedagogical staff must be incredibly prepared for the task. If the project proposal is too loose, students will feel lost and may not reach the skills teachers expect them to acquire. Having guidelines to help them manage their time, help them divide the tasks amongst the entire group and deal with unexpected situations will increase the possibility of success.

Will teachers be able to create PBL projects for all the standards requested by the school? Unfortunately, no. Not because it is impossible to think creatively and propose a student-centered approach for a particular subject or topic, but rather due to the fact that process-based learning projects take time to be developed. Schools nowadays demand so many standards in each subject that it becomes impossible for a teacher to take the time needed to reach just a few of them through PBL. If school administration really thinks that student-centered is the best learning style for twenty-first century students, it is imperative for them to reflect upon the educational state standards, and with the help and assistance of the whole school community, reevaluate which they want to emphasize and from which skills they think we are able to divert attention.

In order to function properly, schools depend on a qualified management organization structured according to the social reality for which it is intended. It also depends on a curriculum based on the educational needs of its community and, therefore, the curriculum cannot be seen only as the set of standards to be developed in classrooms. Through the communion of parents, teachers and managers, it becomes necessary to reflect on the reality of the community for which the curriculum is intended and, based on these reflections, decide how to reduce content in order to favor the development of high-level skills and abilities through PBL.


Spencer, John. (2018, February 9). How do you Teach to Standards when Doing Project- Based Learning. Retrieved from

Dr. Isabel Cristina Fernandes Auler (Middle School Principal at Our Lady of Mercy School, RJ- Brazil) has a Masters Degree in Contemporary History (PUC-Rio), a PhD in Literature Theory and Comparative Literature (PUC-Rio), a postgraduate in Education and Technology and another one in School Administration (UCAM). She also published a book in 2011, entitled Memórias de Carlos Lacerda. Evocações de um Passado Presente. E-mail:


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