Beyond the Textbook: Storylines as Catalysts for Authentic Learning in PBL

In project-based learning (PBL), teacher-created storylines are coherent and engaging narratives that serve as the foundation for organizing and guiding the learning experience. Storylines are designed to provide context and purpose to the project, making it more engaging, meaningful, and relevant for the students. Using storylines creates a positive classroom culture, creating an environment where students are excited about learning. These narratives create a sense of authenticity and connection to the real world, encouraging students to become active participants in their learning process. Storylines also play a crucial role in developing driving questions and turning points in PBL. It becomes more and more evident that the use of compelling storylines is a key foundational element that helps to build authentic, meaningful PBL experiences.

Drafting compelling storylines happens early in the PBL design and planning process. It requires careful consideration and creativity to engage students and make the learning journey meaningful and authentic. Here is a storyline we have used with our students for you to refer to as you review our eight steps to help you create captivating storylines for PBL.


How to Create Captivating Storylines for PBL:

  1. Identify Learning Standards and Objectives: Begin by identifying the standards you will address and defining clear learning objectives for the project. What essential knowledge, skills, and concepts do you want students to explore and understand? This will serve as the foundation for crafting the storyline.
  2. Choose a Real-World Context to Ensure Authenticity: Select a context that relates to the real world and connects with the student's lives. Ideally, we connect it to the needs of our community partners. It could be inspired by current events, historical situations, environmental issues, community challenges, or anything relevant to student interests and experiences.
  3. Create a Central Challenge: Within the storyline, you should have a central challenge or problem within the narrative that students need to address throughout the project. This challenge should be thought-provoking, and require critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  4. Develop Driving Questions: From the storyline’s challenge, you should be able to easily design driving questions that align with the central challenge and the learning objectives. These questions should be open-ended and guide students' inquiry and investigation. The Tubric 2.0 is a tool you can use to assist you in drafting driving questions. A driving question serves the purpose of a “hook” for learners, preparing them for engagement and inquiry.
  5. Develop Turning Points: Turning points are significant stages that students and educators use to mark progress throughout the project. These turning points help to structure the learning experience, provide opportunities for formative assessment, and ensure that the project stays on track toward achieving its goals. Within your storylines identify the key events or phases that align with the project's learning objectives and turning points. In our storylines, we often word them as “you will have to…” or “you will be responsible to complete…”. Often this comes in a bulleted list of outcomes we expect students to complete. These outcomes directly correspond with the turning points throughout the project and connect the driving question to the storyline.
  6. Interdisciplinary Aspects: When drafting storylines, think about how you will use the turning points as opportunities to integrate multiple subject areas into the PBL. Perhaps students will have to ask questions, obtain and evaluate information through research, engage in argument and draft written responses, generate, analyze, and interpret data, conduct hands-on investigations and experiments, fabricate prototypes, etc.  
  7. Consider Student Voice and Choice: In PBL, we allow for autonomous student learning, promoting student voice and choice within the project. Let students also have input on aspects of the storyline, such as project approach, or final product, as this increases ownership and engagement.
  8. Iterate and Refine: Be open to feedback and iteration during the storyline development process. Test the storyline with colleagues or other students to gather insights and make necessary improvements.


How to Use Storylines in PBL:

Teachers can effectively use storylines with their students in PBL by incorporating them into various aspects of the learning experience. Below are some practical ways to integrate storylines into your PBL:

  1. Project Introduction: Begin the PBL experience by introducing the storyline to students. Capture their imagination through the real-world scenario, problem, or challenge that the students will explore and address throughout the project.
  2. Driving Questions: Frame the driving questions around the central challenge presented in the storyline. These questions should ignite curiosity and guide students' inquiry as they delve deeper into the project.
  3. Role-Playing and Immersion: If appropriate for the project, have students take on specific roles or personas related to the storyline. This immersion can enhance their sense of ownership and connection to the project.
  4. Contextualizing Learning Objectives: Connect the learning objectives of the project to the storyline. Help students see how the knowledge and skills they acquire are relevant and applicable in the context of the narrative.
  5. Student Engagement: Encourage students to become active participants in the storyline. Let them explore different perspectives and consider how their decisions and solutions impact the narrative.
  6. Reflection and Revision: Throughout the project, have students reflect on how their understanding of the storyline has evolved. Encourage them to revise their work as they gain new insights and make connections.
  7. Culminating Event: Consider using the storyline to shape the culminating event of the project. Whether it's a presentation, exhibition, or performance, tie it back to the central narrative for a cohesive conclusion.
  8. Authentic Audience: If possible, involve an authentic audience related to the storyline. The learning can be showcased to an authentic audience, especially if the audience was involved in the learning experience. This could be community members, experts, or stakeholders who can provide feedback and add significance to the final products or solutions.
  9. Extend Beyond the Project: Use the storyline to extend learning beyond the project. For instance, explore related topics in future projects or continue the narrative in subsequent activities.

In conclusion, the incorporation of storylines as catalysts for authentic learning in PBL has proven to be a transformative approach. Storylines not only provide a compelling context and purpose to projects, but they also ignite students' curiosity and foster critical thinking. As students immerse themselves in the narratives, taking on roles and responsibilities akin to real-world professionals, they develop a deeper sense of ownership and become active participants in their education. The power of storylines lies in their ability to make learning come alive, bridging the gap between the classroom and the real world, and equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive beyond academic boundaries. As we continue to explore the frontiers of education, storylines stand as a testament to the potency of imagination, creativity, and authentic learning experiences in shaping the future of PBL and nurturing the lifelong learners of tomorrow.






About the Authors:


John Sammon - STEAM Professional Development Specialist. I have been an educator for over two decades. My vision as a Professional Development Specialist is to inspire learning through inquiry and exploration. Through such actions, enact beliefs, and values in the people that I work with to grow beyond what was thought possible. I work with teachers and students to actively engage in the collective subjects known as STEAM. My intentions are to deepen understanding through authentic learning experiences, where children engage with fundamental questions about the world and how humans have investigated and found answers to those questions.

  • Presenter: ISTE Creative Constructor Lab 2020
  • Presenter: NYSCATE Annual Conference Presenter 2020, 2021, 2022
  • Presenter: Curriculum & Associates Symposium, 2023



Tara Koehler - STEAM Professional Development Specialist. I have been an educator for over 20 years. My vision as a Professional Development Specialist is to inspire teachers to incorporate 21st-century skills into their STEAM practices. Students learn best by "doing" rather than being told, with learning not being a one size fits all. Students should be actively engaged in their learning. I work with teachers to create authentic learning experiences for their students that incorporate collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Although I am a teacher, I am a forever student. I am always looking to grow as an educator.

  • Presenter: ISTE Creative Constructor Lab 2020
  • Presenter: NYSCATE Annual Conference Presenter 2020, 2021, 2022
  • Presenter: Curriculum & Associates Symposium 2023


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog