There has been increasing recognition that in order to address the current and emerging social, environmental, and economic issues facing our world, schools need to prepare a new generation of students who are able to use and apply knowledge in novel ways and work together to solve vexing problems. A challenge for education leaders and practitioners is how to help young people develop the integrated and transferrable knowledge and skills needed for critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making in the 21st century. In this chapter, we examine an instructional format, called project-based learning, that aims to equip students for using and applying knowledge in the real world. To accomplish this, project-based learning engages students in personally relevant real-world situations so that they can learn by applying ideas, tackling problems, and designing solutions. The approach can be incorporated into everyday classroom settings from the earliest grades onward and across a wide range of disciplines including history, science, and mathematics.
The notion of project-based learning is not new. Over the past century, educators have turned to real-world projects, problems, and inquiry as a means to promote learning (e.g., Adderley et al., 1975; Boaler, 2002; Hotchkiss, 1924; Krajcik, Czerniak, & Berger, 1999; Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015). Yet, it is only within the past three decades that education theory and research has shed light on how and why project-based learning environments can provide conditions for students to develop integrated and transferrable knowledge.
We begin by briefly summarizing the history and theoretical underpinnings of project-based learning. Next, we describe key features of project-based learning environments that distinguish them from other instructional settings. We provide an example of an interdisciplinary project-based learning environment that incorporates key features supported by contemporary theory and research. Then, we explore benefits and practical challenges for teachers and students in enacting project-based learning and provide guidance for incorporating the approach into everyday classroom settings. We close by considering current policy trends and future directions for project-based learning environments.