Learning Gets Real: PBL in the Classroom

Educators work with students. We get to know them and design instructional experiences to advance their learning. Doctors and nurses work with patients. They develop an understanding of their patients’ needs and create a plan to improve their health and wellness. Each situation can be viewed as a problem or a case to solve.


Landscapers and contractors have different clients, each with a desired outcome for each project. They have to manage each project and differentiate between the needs and interests of those they are serving. Those who work in food service have lots of clients, they plan menus, create recipes, and serve customers with a goal of satisfaction and enjoyment in the experience.


Architects, engineers, and video game designers identify needs, conflicts, or problems. They may zero in on a specific area or a more broad issue. They work with a team to ask and answer questions about the problem they are trying to solve. Their questions may be about a software issue, a building dilemma, or about designing a feature to enhance a game.


These “real-world” examples begin to demonstrate the connections between the work that is essential to careers and the ways that our students are learning within our schools. Classrooms that are embracing project-based learning (PBL) have incorporated many future ready skills that will prepare students for potential jobs in the future. These classrooms use tools and strategies to promote new learning for students.


A Foundation for Work


Within every classroom (whether in-person or virtual), educators are working to engage learners in content that will not only prepare them for the next grade level, but also for life. The foundation that is built within the classroom fosters skills and dispositions that will enable young people to find success in college, career, and beyond. When teachers choose PBL as an instructional approach, students can benefit further through the opportunity to participate in real-world learning that applies to a variety of jobs, both locally and globally.


The Buck Institute for Education defines project-based learning as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” These challenges align with the problems faced by many of the career paths discussed in the opening of this post.


PBL experiences provide many challenges as students use important skills to access and accomplish learning. Learners are required to utilize critical thinking and collaboration skills. They need to apply techniques to research information and determine importance while building knowledge within different content areas, especially in the STEM fields. PBL allows the learner to build a foundation of skills that will help them to solve problems in future work.


Features of PBL


Project-based learning is at the heart of many classrooms. Projects are the centerpiece of curriculum as opposed to an add-on. PBL is not something that happens at the end of the “real curriculum”, it IS the curriculum. Presented through a driving question, students research and learn to find answers to problems. When students engage in real-world activities they are able to work collaboratively with others. This includes opportunities to give and receive feedback about the work they are doing. Students gain ownership over their own learning as they solve problems that matter to them. A quality PBL learning experience culminates with a presentation to an authentic audience. This learning experience can be made even more meaningful when we can frame it in terms of a potential career or job-based scenario.


In the table below, you will find a list of common job categories that students may be interested in. The real roles from the workforce align with the actual work that individuals engage in on a daily basis. The real work also aligns with the work that can happen inside a classroom that is effectively implementing PBL.


Table 1


Real-World PBL Connections

Real Roles

Real Work


Planning, creating blueprint, designing 3-D models, drafting proposals, communicating and presenting plans to others.

Health sciences

Clear communication and listening skills when interacting with others, written and oral presentations of recommendations, conduct research and read reports.


Understanding systems, identifying inefficiencies, designing solutions. Communicating processes and sharing information with others. Hands-on tasks and working with specialized equipment.

Government officials

Creating and implementing comprehensive plans, writing and delivering speeches, communicating with multiple stakeholder group and understanding each audience.


Understanding problems around conservation, pollution, and sustainability and designing a variety of potential solutions. Communicating with different interest groups including citizens, government, and scientists.

Information Technology

Create graphics, multimedia applications, using a variety of tools. Connecting networks, creating code, and troubleshooting within systems.


Build skills and knowledge related to management, marketing, and operations of restaurants, lodging, attractions, and travel-related services.   Possible skill development to creating brochures, websites or apps to communicate information.


Create small and large-scale plans, complete written reports, report to clients or investors, understanding mathematical concepts and applying those to situations.


Develop skills related to planning, managing and moving people. Understand roads, air, water, and railway design, services, adn technology.

Public Safety

Understand and respond to emergency and fire services, legal and protective services, or homeland security.   Knowledge of laws, processes, and procedures.

What Might This Look Like In The Classroom?

Students at any grade level can begin to explore future career opportunities. This exploration starts as early as kindergarten and begins with a driving question to focus the learning. As a class, begin the conversation around careers and work by developing a driving question such as:

If you had to select a career for yourself now, what would it be and how it is relevant to your life?


In 2035 (or whatever year makes sense for your students) you will be entering the workforce. What jobs might exist at that time and what job type would be the right fit for you?


What jobs are needed now and how might we prepare young people for the workforce?

Students can engage in small group discussion and conduct research on the topic. They can work independently on career topics or areas of personal interest. They can access relevant content on local jobs or global trends on education, pay, potential new jobs, and projected growth rates. Students can explore job inventories and other tools that provide career direction. They can connect with experts in the fields that they are researching including those in Table 1 or others that are relevant to the regions where students live.

Within the classroom, it is important to provide students with regular opportunities to give and receive feedback about their PBL work. This can occur in both formal and informal ways throughout the project. The culmination of any PBL experience should include some type of sharing or presentation to an authentic audience. Students can present their findings in using the tools and materials that work best for them. Whether a multimedia presentation, a poster, or a speech students can access their strengths to share what they’ve learned with others.

As jobs and the future of work continue to evolve, so will the interests and needs of our students. By aligning project-based learning with real-world jobs, we can prepare students for career possibilities while also building the essential skills that students will need in school, career, and beyond.



About the author:
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at steam-makers.com.




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