How We’ve Re-“Defined” Social Studies with Project-Based Learning

In this article, John Larmer discusses the challenges of making social studies engaging for students. Larmer delves into Defined Learning's social studies offerings, providing example tasks across grade bands and units. John also offers tips for incorporating project-based learning and Defined Learning into the classroom.


Social studies should be an exciting subject in school. History is alive with compelling stories of people and change, and it helps students understand how their world today came to be. Civics and government can connect students with real-world issues and problems to address as citizens in a democracy. Learning about world cultures and geography helps students navigate the diverse, often globally interconnected world of work they will soon enter. Economics can teach students lifelong lessons about how the world works.

Unfortunately, social studies is, all too often, boring for students. When learning history is mostly a matter of reading a textbook and copying down lecture notes and regurgitating them on a test, it’s dry and dull. If the emphasis is on memorizing factoids like the definition of “separation of powers” or the causes of World War I, social studies can be stultifying and seen as irrelevant to students’ lives. I’m not blaming teachers - I was a high school social studies teacher myself – it’s just the result of our inherited model of what proper teaching and learning is. And of course, many social studies teachers do enliven their classroom with various activities and assignments.

I explored this issue in a previous post, “Why and How Should Project-Based Learning Be Used in Social Studies?” arguing that PBL is a more engaging and effective approach to social studies. I also discussed the fact that many social studies teachers hesitate to use PBL, citing concerns about covering content for tests, and the challenges they perceive in designing and implementing projects. In this post, I’m bringing some good news – Defined Learning has a solution!


Defined Learning’s New Social Studies Courses 

Defined Learning is well known for its hundreds of performance tasks that share common features with project-based learning. All of Defined’s tasks/projects put students in real-world career roles, where they create authentic products. The tasks involve inquiry and research, and…they’re engaging for students.

Since 2022, we’ve been expanding our K-12 social studies offerings. I’ve written many of the tasks, along with a team of colleagues including Meghan Raftery, Kristy Taylor, and Defined’s Chief Academic Officer David Reese. All the tasks are built around the themes in the national College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework, then aligned with individual state standards based on where the teacher works. Each task features three products that students may create, among which they and their teacher can choose.

Here’s a sampling of what each course contains. Visit our website to find more tasks and see details.


K-2 Social Studies

This course features tasks that are developmentally appropriate for our youngest students. The units are geography, economics, civics, and history. 

Sample Task:

  • Youth Center Director: Welcome to Our Community (Geography)

Students create a map of their community to help welcome newcomers to it, showing important natural and human-made features, along with a list of fun things to do in each season of the year.


3-5 Social Studies

This course features units in geography, economics, civics, and history. (Note: Some current tasks are being replaced with new ones soon.)

Sample Task:

  • Travel Guide: State History Road Trip (History/Geography)

Students plan a road trip that takes people to not only the most well-known historic places in their state but also to less-known places that tell an interesting or important story.


K-5 Program of Inquiry

The course is interdisciplinary and based on the key themes of the International Baccalaureate program. Some of the tasks have a STEM focus, but several also have a social studies emphasis, such as:

Students research the history of immigration to the United States and create a map of the world showing where people have migrated from, interview an immigrant, and write a school newspaper article about immigrants in their community.


MS/HS United States History I: From Early America to Reconstruction

This course is currently being revised, with new tasks on the way. It currently has 14 tasks, such as:

Students become entrepreneurs during the War of 1812 who want to convert merchant ships to warships. They create recruiting advertisements, a research report request for funding to convert a ship, and a scale drawing of the ship.

Students learn about Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman to have ever received the Medal of Honor, our country’s highest military honor for showing bravery on the battlefield. She was a surgeon during the Civil War and became an advocate for women’s rights. Students plan an awareness-raising campaign for the Medal of Honor Society, with a written proposal, a presentation, and sample materials.


MS/HS United States History II: Late 1800s to 21st Century

This is our most-developed social studies course. It has 25 tasks, with a variety of career roles and products. It’s hard to pick my favorites, so here are three samples:

Students explore the real lives of cowboys and uncover the myths in many “cowboy movies'' about the history of the American West. They create promotional posters for a new TV series, and write an “elevator pitch” script to deliver to a potential investor.

Students study the migration of Blacks from the South and its causes and effects, then write either a graphic comic or a piece of historical fiction about the people who experienced it.

Students learn about the end of World War II and the decision by U.S. President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, then create exhibits, a persuasive argument, and a list of questions they would ask witnesses in a mock trial.


MS/HS World History I: From Ancient Times to 1500

We’re still adding more tasks to this new course, but here are two you can find on our website:

Students decide where they would recommend a new “interactive dig” that explores an early civilization on the website of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Students research the scientific, mathematical, literary, and artistic accomplishments of the Islamic World during the time when Europe was in the “Dark Ages” and then create an infographic and a social media campaign.


MS/HS World History II: The Modern World

This is another brand-new course we’re still working on – there are a lot of possible topics in the last few centuries in world history! Two sample tasks are:

Students learn how the European colonization of Asia, Africa, and South America affected the crops farmers grew, as they create a podcast for the website of a TV cooking show.

Students examine post-war Germany, Italy, and Japan to determine the extent to which they became successful nations after losing World War II, then create data displays and a blog post to share their conclusions.


MS/HS Civics and Government

The course aims to make the sometimes-neglected subject of civics come alive with real-world scenarios, plus projects where students can take action on authentic issues in our society. Here are two examples:

Students evaluate various proposed reforms to U.S. voting and elections, including ranked-choice voting, direct election of the president, and giving 16-year-olds the right to vote–then make a persuasive presentation or write a letter to someone in their state government.

Students identify an issue or problem they want to address in their community, develop a proposal to their local government and, if possible, take real-world action.


MS/HS Economics

Many states now require a course in economics, and teachers will find Defined’s tasks to be a handy supplement to the often-dry textbooks found in traditional instruction. Here are two sample tasks:

Students examine the effects of minimum wage laws and the views various stakeholders have of them, conducting a community survey and then writing and presenting a policy recommendation to a state legislator.

Students learn how and where common consumer products they buy are produced and distributed, then create an infographic and a social media campaign to raise awareness about any issues they uncover, and perhaps an exhibit at a “product fair” for their school and community.


Now don’t those tasks sound more engaging for students than daily lectures, textbooks, and worksheets? And as you can tell, they teach important content – they’re not just “fun activities.” They’re clearly not your old-fashioned social studies assignments.



Tips for Using Defined Learning Social Studies Tasks/Projects

If you’re considering using one or more of our courses, I’d offer this advice:

  • Build teacher buy-in and plan how they will be supported right from the start.

Tap into Defined’s professional learning services to get your PBL effort off to a smooth start. Teachers will need support in using our platform, of course, but also in using PBL. If you’re a school or district leader, be sure teachers understand the what and why of PBL and include them in decision-making.

  • Start by trying 1-2 projects per semester.

Unless you and your students are already experienced with PBL, don’t jump into the deep end too fast. Get everyone used to what it’s like to teach and learn PBL-style. Assuming it goes well, you and your students will want to do more projects in the future!

  • Use the projects “as is” when you and your students are first learning how to use Defined’s platform, and add more PBL features later.

If you’re not a veteran PBL teacher who already knows what to add, you can build in more features of high-quality PBL in the second semester or second year. Think of the Defined tasks asmeal kitsthat help you get started on the path to becoming a PBL chef.

  • Use the tasks/projects as “side dishes,” end-of-unit applied learning experiences, or as “main course” PBL.

By side dish I mean the project focuses on a topic that is connected to but not at the heart of a curriculum unit. For example, the U.S. History task I listed above about the myth and reality of the cowboy could be done as an enrichment activity within a larger unit on the history of the American West. The “Travel Guide: State History Road Trip” task for grades 3-5 could be an end-of-course project that brings together and applies the knowledge and skills students have gained. Some of our projects can be used to teach the major content of a unit - for example, the “Community Organizer/Citizen: Act Locally!” civics project could be the “main course” that teaches most of the content in a unit about local government.

  • Read over the “Teacher Notes” section of the “Resources” for a task to gather tips and ideas.

The Teacher Notes contain an introduction to the topic, resources, and tips for teaching it, and suggestions for involving real-world experts and public audiences. For those who find them valuable, we provide an Essential Question, Big Idea, and Driving Question to guide reflection and discussion. We also give guidance in facilitating student research and teaching information literacy.

  • Check out Defined’s “Knowledge Base” to learn more about how to use PBL.

Knowledge Base is a special feature of Defined’s website, where teachers can find articles and activities that build their knowledge and skill in using PBL and other classroom practices that enhance the experience for students. For example, we suggest that our tasks/projects be done in small teams, so there are several resources in Knowledge Base to help teachers facilitate collaboration.


I encourage you to stay tuned as we update all our social studies courses and add more tasks. And if you have any questions – or ideas for a topic we could write a project about! – please let me know. You can email me at




About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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