Career-Focused Project Based Learning: The Ideal Teaching Approach for Career Preparation

Many of today’s students are floundering after graduation without a clear plan and direction for their future. Our current one-size-fits-all curriculum focuses almost entirely on academic courses that meet state graduation standards in core subjects. Clearly, this doesn’t provide students with new and high level skills they need to successfully navigate today’s economy – whether they are going to college or directly into the workforce. Our economy is increasingly driven by a dependence on innovation, an intensive focus on technology, and a highly educated workforce with collaborative skills. Where is the career development that prepares our students for this new kind of rapid-paced 21st Century workforce?


Often, efforts with career development have involved simply exposing students to a “career fair.” It’s time for a new type of career development –one that develops well-rounded, competent students who appreciate their career path options and build plans, skills, and knowledge to help them be successful. We need career development that makes all of our students future ready.  


Research points to middle school as the ideal kick-off time for getting serious about career exploration. Middle schoolers are developing abilities to think abstractly and prefer to work with peers. At about this age they often disengage from learning. Exploring career pathways can give these students a goal and purpose for learning. They can begin developing concrete plans and tentatively mapping out a possible future. Focusing on their own interests and talents can help them make wise decisions about their course choices and give them added incentives to remain in school. (Much career awareness, of course, begins in earlier grades.)

What if students change their minds about their career choices? No problem. That’s natural as they grow, learn, and mature. However, given the right educational environment, they will be continually building today’s most coveted career skills. According to 90% of CEOs these skills include emotional intelligence, persistence, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, self-efficacy, and communication, for starters.

The ideal teaching approach for career preparation

Normally these competencies are not part of a school’s traditional curricula, which focuses mostly on acquiring content knowledge. The need for rigorous academic content remains a given. In fact, these desired skills are effectively taught only when they are directly connected to rigorous academics.

This description of career-readiness competencies is already familiar to educators who use a dynamic classroom approach known as Project Based Learning (PBL). Simply put, PBL is defined as a teaching/learning method that engages kids in focused, active, real-world learning over an extended period of time. When done well, PBL yields great results. If not done well, what passes for classroom PBL may simply wind up being a series of fun projects.

So how do teachers move from leading conventional projects to implementing PBL that leads to career readiness and academic development? The widely accepted Gold Standard model for PBL tackles that question. This well-researched model contains seven design elements to help teachers stay on track with quality PBL delivery. To understand the Gold Standard and maximize your students’ learning, this article, Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements, is a must read! (Note: If working with STEM projects, be sure to use an engineering design process. This explanation of STEM-based PBL can provide guidance with PBL design extensions for STEM.)

The bottom line: PBL is far-and-away the most effective and equitable way to prepare all students with competencies that will help them be successful in their careers and in life. 

Ways to introduce and maintain an intentional focus on careers

So how can leaders and educators make sure that the project-based learning in your school intentionally includes specific career readiness?  How can you make sure that all students are being challenged to explore possibilities and begin planning for their future?  

First, check out Defined Careers by Defined Learning which provides teachers with an online library of tools and resources they need to help students experience "career pathways " through PBL. It includes a unique online student assessment which looks at each student's interests and shows them which career pathways match those interests/skills. Then Defined Careers offers relevant PBL projects that fit into those pathways. 

As you develop career readiness curriculum for your classes, consider a few practical suggestions:

  • Survey students to determine their needs and areas of interest. You can find free, online career interest surveys for middle or high school, such as this one from Education Planner.
  • Introduce students to a variety of careers, including applied and work-based learning along with college readiness. Expose them to careers reflecting equity, diversity, and accessibility. Check out current career options and descriptions from several sources listed online.
  • Link classroom PBL projects to real world career opportunities. Again, check out Defined Careers for help with this. For additional resources see these Career-Ready Performance Tasks.
  • Give students opportunities and a purpose for using cutting-edge technology. Employers report that students often lag behind in using technologies required for jobs – including office-type applications. PBL projects can be an ideal vehicle for uniting kids and technology to solve problems.
  • Connect students with a variety of employers and workers through internships, job shadowing, and mentorships. When students experience work-based learning they develop connections to industry advisors and learn essential life skills.
  • Give everyone a role in career development. Bring in experts from these fields and invite them to talk with your students. Organize field trips to put student career interests into context. Garner support from parents, local industries and employers, and other community members in exposing students to the world of work in meaningful ways.

In a world in which a company’s workforce is a key to its success . . . K12 career preparation is a crucial support to give students information and authentic direction, and to help them align their strengths and skills with future workforce needs.

About the author:
Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


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