BIE « site menu

Latest Blog

by John R. Mergendoller
Executive Director

Top 10 related resources »

Topic tags: Gold Standard


September 2, 2014
Gold Standard PBL: What is it and Why do we need it?

by John R. Mergendoller
Executive Director

In 1998, the Buck Institute for Education began its quest to change schools and students’ lives with Project Based Learning.  It began humbly enough with the publication of a 34-page booklet entitled, “An Overview of Project Based Learning.” We had seen the power of this instructional method, and its impact on students in progressive school reform efforts of the 1990s, and we wanted to help other teachers use it in their classrooms. At the time, this was not a popular or even a respected point of view. The nation was moving toward No Child Left Behind. Project Based Learning was seen as a time-wasting distraction on the rigorous path to content-heavy standards and high test scores.

But it turns out that No Child Left Behind left many children behind, and educators and policy makers began to ask themselves whether there was a more effective way to help students master the concepts and competencies they needed to thrive in college and career. Teachers, administrators and parents, seeing the limitations of traditional teaching methods, looked for more engaging ways to teach. Calls began to ring out for schools to help students meet the demands of the 21st century workplace, where critical thinking, problem solving, and working in teams are priorities.

Sixteen years later, Project Based Learning has a new cachet and respectability. A Google Search for “Project Based Learning” yields over 800,000 results. Newspapers are filled with back-to-school stories featuring PBL. Parents and school boards are encouraging their schools to adopt PBL. More and more publishers and curriculum providers are producing materials to meet the demand for PBL. Organizations such as New Technology Network, Asia Society, Expeditionary Learning Schools, and Envision Schools, which place PBL at their instructional core, have grown dramatically.  The methodology of AP classes and the nature of the SAT are adapting to meet the movement toward PBL. Momentum is building.

So far, so good.

Popularity, though, has an unavoidable result: variation in quality. Project Based Learning, like any worthwhile instructional method, requires time, thought and careful planning to achieve quality. One of the most serious threats to quality PBL comes from what we call “dessert projects.” Do we really need to see another classroom stocked with sugar-cube pyramids or Styrofoam solar systems? To ensure that PBL doesn’t become another one of yesterday’s innovations (remember Open Classrooms?), we need to make sure that the best PBL practices rise to the top and provide a model for others to follow.

Since publishing that 34-page Overview, the Buck Institute for Education has conducted many thousands of PBL professional development workshops in the United States and abroad. We’ve visited scores of PBL schools, and talked with hundreds of PBL teachers.  We’ve compared notes with our fellow travelers in PBL-oriented organizations such as ConnectEd, CELL, High Tech HS, Big Picture, Engage! Learning and EdVision. We’ve worked in a dozen countries, watching closely to see what refinements our international colleagues bring to the field. We have also had the opportunity to review forty plus years of research on Project Based Learning. These experiences have led us to identify a set of PBL best practices. Used together, we believe these best practices combine to create Gold Standard Project Based Learning.

This work, and the thinking behind it, remains incomplete. Although BIE has begun the work to specify Gold Standard Project Based Learning, and we feel confident that our initial framework makes sense, we don’t believe BIE’s ideas are necessarily the complete or final word. This is where the thousands of innovative educators (i.e., YOU) we work with each year come in. We want your input and critique.

Over the next school year, BIE will be describing our own thinking about best practices in PBL and providing opportunities for your confirmation or questions. We want to learn about your experiences and opinions, so that we may create an inclusive Gold Standard – one that will guide and inspire both kindergarten and college teachers, and will apply to both school and out-of-school settings.

BIE believes that many teachers are doing PBL well, and many more would like to learn how to do so. Please join us in the task of specifying Gold Standard Project Based Learning, and describing the PBL best practices that create powerful student learning experiences.

The conversation begins now. We will collect ideas from around the world, share them on our website and through social media, ask for critical scrutiny from expert practitioners and the public, refine the collective expertise we spent a year gathering, and release Gold Standard PBL next June at PBL World.

We’d first like to hear your thoughts about the need for a Gold Standard for PBL. How could it promote adoption of PBL?  How could it improve your work? Who should be the audience? Who should be brought into the conversation?

Please provide your ideas in the comments below.


  • I am currently working on PD to introduce a faculty to PBL. I am referencing the many of the materials in this site. We are currently working with local businesses as well to incorporate local business problems/issues into the standard course of study to create PBLs in our high schools. A Gold Standard exemplar would be very helpful!

    carolmoore on September 2, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • This is a great idea who’s time has come.  The community of PBL educators now has enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t.  The challenge will be finding a standard that both clearly articulates a standard that can guide practice, but also be flexible enough to allow for the different “flavors” of PBL or perhaps even similar deeper learning experience (i.e. problem based learning, inquiry based instruction, expeditions, quests, etc).  Too broad and it looses power, too narrow and it looses impact.

    PaulSCurtis on September 2, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • PBL will create leaners, not Jeopardy players.

    Mike Donegan on September 2, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • Gold Standard PBL needs to include the following:
    1. Authentic community audience who
    2. Submits to a pool of authentic projects where students have
    3. Authentic and highly accountable results that are
    4. Linked to any of the 1,500 standards expected of k-12 and are
    5. Recorded with various evidences such as video, website, audio, and maker-type creations.

    PBL adoption can begin with inviting community leaders back to the classroom to experience what traditional public education currently looks like.  These leaders need to be asked the question, “Is what you saw enough to prepare students for the real world?” The answer in most cases will be “no”. These community leaders represent the catalyst behind change in public education.

    Furthermore, districts can then dip their toe into PBL by hosting Hackathons where the above 5 Gold Standards are demonstrated by bringing in real community projects that have real consequences and real opportunities to share results at the end of a Hackathon day. The audience at the end of the day should be business leaders, school leaders, and go-get-em parents.

    Most districts would then attempt a pilot. This should be started in a Fall preferably so that the school district can see the evidence from the fall and begin budgeting necessary resources for the fiscal budget that is created in the winter and enacted July 1 (districts vary, but they all need the necessary time to budget for your innovations).

    Gold Standard PBL offers a model, when ramped-up, can prove to be less expensive than traditional education. This is partially accomplished by using common space outside of traditional high school buildings, yet without creating new structures. These common spaces can include co-work spaces, shared space at strategic partner locations, public libraries, and others.

    Troy Miller on September 2, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]

[Leave a new comment]

You must register and login in order to leave comments.

Recommended for You