The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What is Project-Based Learning?

on September 29, 2016

Yesterday I read an article about a California elementary school that has changed its basic structure to project learning. Below I will explain what has happened so far and give some details about the school. In addition I will explain my own view of project-based learning.

Five years ago, under the leadership of a new principal, Katherine Smith Elementary School in San José, CA dedicated itself to becoming a hub for 21st century learning. The school, in a high poverty area and with a large percentage of English language learners, was determined to change its traditional structure and teaching methods to project-based learning.  Since then the school has worked hard at involving both teachers and students in collaborative projects and focusing on the skills needed for students to have successful careers, be active citizens, and meet the demands of life in the future.

The new principal, Aaron Brengard, and the many experienced teachers who transferred to the school knew their job would not be easy. But they dedicated themselves to working together and teaching students to do the same.

By traditional measures the school has not improved much. Standardized test scores are still very low, and behavior problems emerge from time to time. On the other hand student and parent surveys show high satisfaction with the projects and teaching methods being used. Also, in frequent presentations of project results observers agree that students exhibit much improved speaking and critical thinking skills.

In a recent economics project for third graders, students designed new products and studied marketing skills. When they had finished their work the results were presented to local residents acting as “sharks” in a “Shark Tank. Afterward there was a fair for parents to examine the products closely and talk to students about manufacturing costs and the design processes.


As I read this article I admired the efforts the school was making, but I also wondered if the principal and teachers had a strong enough grasp of what project learning means. To my mind it is the constant classroom emphasis on student interpretation and expansion of what teachers and learning materials have presented. Below I will list a number of  projects that I have seen in elementary classrooms where students were involved in project learning on a regular basis.

Creating your own math problems based on school or home activities

Writing about a historical event as if you were there and participating

Turning a fairy tale you’ve read into a puppet play

Raising plants in a classroom under different of conditions

Designing your ideal bedroom to scale

Creating birthday cards for the school Principal

Producing a set of original products for the school store, pricing them realistically, and advertising them effectively

Making a video of classmates demonstrating safe playground behaviors

Working with a group of classmates to design a new and better set of classroom rules

Interviewing older family members about the conditions of their youth, then writing about  them

Reading a story aloud to a group of younger children in another classroom

Creating a table game for traveling west on the Oregon Trail

Performing the classroom job of putting books back on the shelves in alphabetical order for one week, and then training another student to do that job

Taking notes on a classroom animal’s daily food consumption

Drawing a map of an imaginary island that shows its mountains, rivers and other physical features; then naming it appropriately


I hope you can see that a school devoted to project learning involves students all the time with imagining, creating, using and even teaching the skills and knowledge their teachers have taught them or invited them to investigate. Actually getting involved with what has been taught is the best way to make it your own.















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