Why and How Should Project-Based Learning Be Used in Social Studies?

Project-based learning impacts social studies education by enhancing student engagement, deeper learning, literacy, development of future-ready skills, and more. The article delves into the intersection between PBL and social studies, provides examples of social studies projects, and addresses common concerns about implementing PBL.


Social studies and project-based learning (PBL) go together well. I’ll explain why in a minute. But many teachers are hesitant to use PBL in social studies – I’ll explore the “why” of that too, and give some suggestions for overcoming the perceived barriers.  But first, let’s look at four examples of project-based learning in social studies:

  • K-2 students learn about local charities that have volunteer workers, then create and send thank you cards to them.
  • Upper-elementary students plan a road trip for their state Visitors Bureau that takes people to not only famous places related to state history but also some lesser-known places they find through research.
  • Middle school students learn about basic economics by creating infographics or brochures, to be placed at a local gas station, that explain why gasoline prices go up and down.
  • High school students conduct a mock trial of President Harry Truman to decide if the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was justifiable.

As you can tell, these are not simply “hands-on activities” but rigorous learning experiences. When teachers plan and facilitate them, they can all meet the six criteria for high-quality PBL: intellectual challenge and accomplishment, authenticity, public product, collaboration, project management, and reflection. Keep these projects in mind as we discuss the why and how of PBL in social studies below. (And btw, they are all offered by Defined Learning, along with many others in a variety of social studies courses – which I’ll describe in more detail in a future blog post.)


5 Reasons to Use PBL in Social Studies

The arguments below apply to PBL generally, but I’ll add a social studies spin. PBL should be used in social studies because it:


1. Increases student engagement.

Traditional teaching methods in social studies are often boring. There, I said it–and I’m a former high school social studies teacher. When I was beginning my career, I lectured too much (before I got into active learning and PBL). The dry textbooks and factoid-focused worksheets were boring too. Teachers these days have access to more engaging teaching materials, but the lecture approach still predominates in secondary classrooms. I know some teachers can make lectures come alive, and that’s wonderful for their lucky students, but they’re few and far between.

(A note to elementary teachers: I know you don’t lecture as much, especially in the early grades. But are your teaching methods for social studies engaging your kiddos?)

Traditional teaching is not engaging enough because:

  • It’s based on the belief that learning is like pouring knowledge into an empty head; it doesn’t reflect a modern understanding of how the brain learns.
  • It doesn’t reflect what actual historians and social scientists do.
  • It doesn’t seem connected to the real world or relevant to students’ lives today.

Project-based learning is the opposite; students build knowledge and skills actively, not passively, through “learning by doing” as John Dewey said. Many projects engage students by having them act like professionals, like when they examine primary sources to learn history. Social studies projects often focus on real-world issues, problems, and questions that are important to students (think of the project examples I gave above).


2. Promotes deeper learning and greater retention.

Part of the reason traditional teaching in social studies is not engaging is because it focuses too much on superficial knowledge. Think about the names, dates, and events you memorized for history tests, and forgot soon after. Or the rote learning of definitions of civics terms like “separation of powers” or “rule of law”--is it any wonder that surveys reveal how little knowledge adults have retained about these subjects?

PBL can still be used to teach basic content knowledge, but it also goes deeper into concepts at the heart of social studies disciplines. And because students are emotionally engaged with a topic in projects, they retain knowledge longer.


3. Improves literacy.

Elementary teachers focus on teaching literacy as Job #1. Secondary teachers today are also called upon to teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards. PBL is effective for building these skills because a good project gives students an authentic reason to use them. What’s more, recent research on the “science of reading” has shown that background knowledge is very important for comprehension – the kind of knowledge students gain by doing projects in social studies (and science).


4. Builds future-ready skills like those found in Portraits of a Graduate, and promotes student agency.

Social studies projects provide multiple opportunities for students to build competencies such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, creativity, and citizenship. That last one is especially true of civics projects in which students learn about real-world problems and issues, and perhaps take action as citizens in a democracy. Those kinds of social studies projects give students a sense of agency, too; they believe they can make a difference and contribute to the world they are entering.


5. Has been shown to be effective in research studies.

There is a lot of research showing PBL’s effectiveness over the years. In two recent studies involving social studies funded by Lucas Education Research, it was found that:

  • 2nd graders in low-income, low-performing schools showed significant growth in social studies and literacy (informational reading) when taught using a PBL curriculum compared to a traditional curriculum.
  • High school students taking Advanced Placement U.S. Government who were taught using a PBL approach scored better on the A.P. test than peers who were taught traditionally.


Common Types of Projects in Social Studies

Let’s move on to the “how”... There are many possible ways to design projects in social studies. Here are some of the classic types, which are reflected in Defined Learning’s social studies tasks:

  • A debate, speech, panel discussion, social media campaign, or multimedia presentation, shared with a public audience, on a current event or controversial issue—the more local and personally relevant to students, the better.
  • A museum exhibit about a historical time, place, person, event, or development.
  • A piece of historical fiction writing about a person or event.
  • A proposal for a monument or memorial that explains a historical event or development.
  • A “mock” event: Supreme Court hearing, a trial, a legislature, an election, etc. 
  • A simulation, role-play, or game that recreates a situation when people in the past, or the present day, must solve a problem, make a decision, advise a leader, or take action.
  • A podcast, guided tour, infographic, article, field guide, signage, or annotated digital map about a historic event, development, person, or place.
  • A civic action-taking or service-learning project to benefit the community or the wider world.


3 Common Concerns About PBL in Social Studies–and Some Reassurance

Teachers might agree with all the above reasons for using PBL, but still hesitate to jump in. Here are some of their most common concerns, and my answers:


1. Projects take a lot of time, and I have to cover a lot of material.

It’s true that projects take more time than, say, lecturing with PowerPoint slides that “cover” a set of content standards. First, I’d say “covering” is not “teaching” - see above comments about retention - but I get that teachers feel pressure about test scores. Not all states or districts have high-stakes tests for social studies, so teachers there are off the hook to some extent. But in middle and high schools they might still feel pressure from their department to make sure they’ve covered the expected material for a course. 

Two thoughts:

  • Not all projects take weeks and weeks. They can be designed for 10-15 days (like Defined Learning’s social studies projects).
  • A project can be designed to include several important content standards and teach them well, which makes it worth the time (see those research studies cited above).


2. PBL seems like it’s challenging to teach, and I’m more comfortable teaching traditionally.

First, I’d reassure these teachers that they can still use the teaching practices they’re familiar with when they do a project. There’s still a place for content knowledge-building lessons, textbooks, and even the (occasional) mini-lecture. They might need to work on managing student teams and independent work time, and perhaps scaffolding students in doing research or making presentations–but PBL doesn’t mean reinventing everything.

When teachers hear about PBL it might indeed sound daunting. The more dedicated PBL practitioners may seem like rock-star educators who design elaborate, multidisciplinary projects that make a real-world impact in their communities, involving outside experts and impressive products and presentations. But they didn’t start out that way! Almost all PBL teachers started out with simpler projects or learned hard lessons after trying to go too big, and too fast at first.

It’s fine to start with shorter, simpler projects that provide more structure than the stereotypical PBL experience. I’ve compared Defined Learning’s projects to “meal kits” that come ready-to-cook, which helps teachers get started on the road to PBL. And teachers do not have to switch to all-PBL all the time; one or two projects per semester are fine to start until they get the hang of it. In their next year of using PBL, they can add more elements of high-quality PBL


3. I don’t think my students are ready for PBL – how can I provide enough scaffolding?

It’s a common, unfortunate myth that PBL should be reserved only for some students; those who have higher test scores, speak English more fluently, or don’t have “behavior issues.” However, the experience of PBL teachers and research shows that PBL can work for ALL students, with the right scaffolding.

For some students, more structured projects may be the way to start, until they learn how to work in a PBL environment. They may need to be taught how to work in teams effectively, do research, and create products as independently as possible. Teachers may need to shift the classroom culture, from teacher-directed, passive learning to more independent, active learning. (And btw, behavior issues lessen when students aren’t bored and their learning feels relevant!) I believe it’s an equity issue; all students deserve the benefits PBL can deliver, so don’t withhold it from some.


In my next post on social studies and project-based learning, I’ll describe the K-12 social studies courses and performance tasks/projects that Defined Learning provides. I’ll also offer some tips for teachers on how to use this resource well.

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.


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