Voices in Education

Preparing Educators for a Faster Future: The Promise and Challenge of Project-Based Learning
In their book Whiplash, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe talk about how best to prepare for a faster future, a future in which the pace of change will only accelerate.1 They argue for giving individuals more agency and freedom to experiment, to work together to find solutions to increasingly complex problems, and to prototype and iterate more quickly rather than engaging in lengthy planning processes. They also describe the need for more problem-based collaborations, in which people work together to solve a real problem by incorporating their different perspectives and diverse expertise to create a solution. What they describe sounds a lot like a form of education that has come in and out of popularity in the United States—project-based learning.

Our country seems to be caught in a perpetual pendulum swing from more traditional, didactive forms of teaching to more student-centered approaches that emphasize active learning. For the past two decades, the US has been committed to an emphasis on more traditional teaching to the test, motivated in large part by No Child Left Behind and its insistence on test-based accountability.

For those of us who value progressive education, the good news is that there are signs that the pendulum is now shifting to more active and engaged forms of learning. These go by different names—deeper learning, project-based learning (PBL), personalized learning—but none of these approaches are really new. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the earlier iterations of these ideas in large part because of what we might learn from earlier stumbles in implementation and from the research that was done at the time. 

Jerome Bruner was an early advocate of something that resembled what we now call deeper learning. He emphasized the need for intellectually ambitious instruction that represented authentic disciplinary knowledge. Some of us may remember Project Physics, Man: A Course of Study, and other curricula that were developed as part of the 1960s effort to raise standards. One thing we learned from these early efforts is that these curricula were certainly intellectually challenging for both students and teachers, as well as their parents! 

We also learned from this era of ambitious instruction that you can’t teacher-proof a curriculum. The developers of Project Physics and other curricula from the 1960s tried to build curricula that would not require teachers to deeply understand the content. It didn’t work. No matter how rich the curriculum, you need a teacher who actually understands the material and teaching and learning well enough to facilitate learning. 

Project-based learning, too, is not a new idea. Its roots are in the Progressive Era and it has come in and out of favor over the past century. Hailed by John Dewey and others, PBL was seen as a way to engage and motivate students as they put their knowledge to use and learned through work—whether the project be building a bridge, staging a play, creating a robot, or designing a historically accurate monument. The appeal of PBL is easy to see, but it is notoriously difficult to enact successfully. 

Educators are seeing an upswing of interest in project-based learning, particularly project-based learning that integrates design and engineering into the curriculum. The current interest in project-based learning in some ways parallels the advent of makerspaces, Maker Faires, and the rise of design and robotics. As we begin to realize that robots will eventually take over most tasks that run on algorithms and artificial intelligence, we begin to prize the innately human qualities of creativity, curiosity, and generativity. By engaging students in many kinds of projects, PBL aspires to nurture these qualities, while also providing opportunities for students to learn the content.

At the same time, this form of teaching and learning may be uniquely well suited to preparing students for the faster future Ito describes. It favors emergence over authority and compasses over maps, as students must work to define what they need to know in order to be successful and create their own pathways for learning. In a future in which students and teachers will increasingly need to adapt to change and continue to learn rather than relying on past knowledge, everyone will need to develop the skills and mind-sets entailed in project-based learning. 

However, if this form of teaching and learning is to succeed, we will need to think much more seriously about how to prepare teachers for this complex work; this is where work on core practices to support PBL comes in.

At Penn GSE, we have begun to study the practices and stances that teachers need to implement high-quality project-based learning, all organized around the key learning goals for students. Our approach has been to engage accomplished practitioners who have helped us understand the complex work of fostering learning of rich academic content; ensure the authenticity of project-related work and opportunities for students to use their knowledge beyond the classroom; provide opportunities for students to engage in deep revision with opportunities for feedback and reflection; and support student agency and collaboration.

All too often, only the most privileged students have had access to learning environments that support their agency as creators and designers. Our hope is that by better understanding this complex form of teaching we can better prepare more teachers in settings that include under-resourced urban schools to provide these rich learning opportunities for their students to help them thrive in a faster future.


1 Ito, J., & Howe, J. (2019). Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

About the Author: Pam Grossman is the dean of the Graduate School of Education and the George and Diane Weiss Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Teaching Core Practices in Teacher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2018).