What’s Next? Personalized, Project-Based Learning

It’s easy to do project-based learning, it’s just hard to do it well.

Project-based learning is a great way to engage students, to encourage collaboration and creativity, and to promote authentic work and assessment. But it’s hard to:

  • set a high bar for high quality project deliverables;
  • assess projects objectively especially when they’re all different;
  • help students with low level skills engage in challenging projects;
  • mitigate the free rider problem of loafing team members;
  • provide enough but not too much formative feedback and support; and
  • avoid big knowledge gaps resulting from a string of projects.

A new generation of schools are blending the best of personalized learning and project-based learning to address these challenges. They value deeper learning and development of success skills (growth mindset and social emotional learning) and track competency in all outcome areas. They use a variety of grouping and scheduling strategies to offer a rich and varied learning experience. They provide customized supports to build individualized skill fluency to allow students with learning gaps to fully engage in challenging projects.

Next-Gen Models
Following are 10 U.S. K-12 next generation school networks representing about 275 schools (two thirds of them in school districts). The blended environments combine personalized learning strategies and tools with challenging and integrated projects.

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  • High Tech High is probably the known project-based school in the world. What makes it so successful in serving a diverse population is the twin commitment to equity and deeper learning. At High Tech High, “everyone exercises voice and choice, engages in work that is accessible and challenging and connects with the world beyond school,” said Kelly Wilson. She added, “Multiple rounds of critique and revision of student work throughout the project provide personalized support, enabling students to not only demonstrate transformation of knowledge and application of skills, but growth over time.” Wilson directs the Masters in Leadership at the HTH Graduate School of Education.
  • New Tech Network is a national network of project-based schools (90% district schools) that share a common (and recently updated) learning platform. They continue to improve the skill-building capacity to enable students to fully benefit from challenging project-based work. As a network, they support public school districts that “create vibrant learning organizations where students graduate ready for college and career.” (See feature on Katherine Smith Elementary.)
  • Harmony Public Schools, a Texas network of STEM schools, used a Race to the Top grant to incorporate project-based learning into their blended learning model. With frequent demonstrations of learning, the interdisciplinary model is called Students on Stage (STEM SOS). The online Harmony PBL Showcase is designed to promote and share exemplary student work that can serve as valuable learning and teaching tools for students, parents, teachers and other educators. Three project infographics of the hundreds currently available online are shown below.

  • Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area uses digital playlists to develop knowledge and skills and to prepare students to engage in challenging projects. (See 10 innovative features of the Summit model.)



  • Brooklyn Lab is new blended middle school that, with Summit, is among the best examples of a team simultaneously developing a next generation learning environment and platform (see 2014 trip report). Built on the Ed-Fi data standard with support from the Dell Foundation, the Cortex platform is highly configurable. School head Eric Tucker said, “LAB is increasingly engaging students in authentic, rigorous, relevant, and collaborative projects that are designed for complex learners and students with diverse ability levels. Whether the project is designing the academic program of high school of the future, health bars for disaster relief, treatments for drug-resistant malaria, a supply list for a wilderness survival trek, or a building. LAB increasingly uses projects to fuel learning.” Given the diverse learners LAB serves, each project has multiple access points and distinct roles that enable a fall range of students to engage and succeed. Cortex Playlists, Agenda Book, and Goal Setting help make this possible.
  • Thrive Public Schools founder Dr. Nicole Assisi said there was no risk of learning gaps at Thrive given their approach to blended and personalized learning. While blended learning rotations fill in content gaps, “project-based learning is necessary to engage learners, to build enthusiasm, and support authentic work and exhibition,” said Assisi. She added, “If school is just skills building and no application, where’s the joy?” The following short video explains Thrive’s approach to project-based learning.

  • Workshop School in Philadelphia seeks to “unleash the creative and intellectual potential of young people to solve the world’s toughest problems.” Andy Calkins, NGLC, said, “Workshop is interesting because they are trying to demonstrate that deep, PBL-infused personalized learning can work for 100% high-poverty, very at-risk urban student populations, as a counter to the rigid, behaviorist, almost bootcamp-style “No Excuses” models. Workshop’s leaders are convinced that state-test proficiency in ELA and math is important but wholly inadequate as an enabler (and predictor) of success after high school.” (See their Rethinking the Achievement Gap series the difference between reducing test-score gaps and the imperative to increase deeper learning for the most vulnerable students.)
  • Da Vinci Schools, like Thrive, Brooklyn Lab, Workshop and Summit, is an Next Generation Learning Challenges grant winner. The schools near LAX engage K-12 students in project-based learning that emphasizes depth over breadth, engages students’ interests and motivates them to learn in a personalized learning environment where every student is known, seen and valued. Da Vinci is hosting a summer institute in July focused on building student culture, partnering with industry, project based learning, and mastery based grading.
  • Design Tech High uses design principles to personalize the learning experience for high school students in San Mateo, California. “Competency-based learning means not giving up in a kid until they get it,” said founder Ken Montgomery. Every week teachers mark students as ahead, on track, or off track using multiple forms of formative assessment. Students schedules are flexible to ensure that students get the right support at the right time.
  • SPARK Schools in South Africa, adds design thinking projects to a Rocketship-like blend. The competency-based flex allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery in core subjects. More than half of the students have different reading and math levels and, as a result, benefit from a differentiated approach.


In higher education, Olin College of Engineering, in western metro Boston, offers an “interdisciplinary, project-based approach emphasizing entrepreneurship, liberal arts, and rigorous science and engineering fundamentals.” A summer Kern Family Foundation sponsored Collaboratory makes lessons learned available to other colleges.

Worcester Politech is a great example of a 150 year old institution transformed by a 40 year commitment to problem-based learning organized in seven week terms. WPI is a member of the Kern sponsored KEEN Network, engineering schools seeking to unleash entrepreneurship.

College for America, a program of nonprofit Southern New Hampshire University, uses a couple dozen projects to help students develop 120 competencies to earn a degree. There is no failure in the competency-based system-just “mastery” and “not yet.” Students can re-submit work and benefit from feedback from the adjunct faculty members. Learners have a coach that serves as an academic advisor and helps construct and monitor an academic plan. There is a fast and slow path with more individualized supports for struggling students.

Stanford physicist Carl Wieman is a leading advocate for project-based learning in HigherEd (listen to his recent NPR interview).

5 Big Advances

All of these next generation models combine blended learning environments with the Buck Institute Gold Standard for project-based learning. They start with learning goals that include core knowledge and include key success skills. They, in unique ways, incorporate Buck’s Essential Project Design Elements: challenging problem, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, and public product.

A combination of five new tools and strategies is powering personalized project-based learning:

1. Diagnostic and adaptive tools.The most important advancement of the last five years is the development and widespread K-8 adoption of adaptive math and reading software including i-Ready and Dreambox.

2. PBL tools. New platforms (New Tech Echo, Summit PLP, LAB Cortex, Empower Learning, Project Foundry) help teachers adapt or develop projects, build assessment rubrics and support the process with personalized learning.

3. Mastery-tracking. Next-gen models combine project and other assessments into competency tracking systems. Some mastery trackers are incorporated into learning platforms (#2) while others incorporate formative assessment (MasteryConnect, Edmodo Snapshot) or are standards-based gradebooks (Engrade, Jumprope, Kickboard).

4. Public product. Producing, publishing, and/or presenting a final product is distinguishing part of project-based learning (and part of the Buck Gold Standard). Collaborative authoring (in Google docs or Office 365) facilitates team projects. Blogging is a great way to express a commitment to writing across the curriculum. Online journals and magazines give students valuable publication experience (see Palo Alto High example).

5. Dynamic scheduling. Schools that feature personalized project-based learning feature big blocks of flexible time. Every day includes a variety of learning experiences, for example:

  • Advisory (heterogeneous group)
  • Personalized learning time (individual)
  • Small group instruction (performance level group)
  • Project time (heterogeneous project team)
  • Literature circle (heterogeneous group)

Inside what looks like a traditional class on the master schedule you’ll also find a combination of personalized learning and project based learning in many next-gen networks. DSISD uses a classroom rotation model where teachers alternate on a weekly basis between facilitating Personal Learning Time (PLT) and Project Based Learning (PBL) using daily formative data to provide small group instruction tailored to students’ Personal Learning Plans.

Class Rotation at DSID

PLT: Students work at their own pace to acquire knowledge and skills through personal playlists including skill building software, online lectures, videos, reading, annotating text, writing, independent projects and enrichment opportunities. PBL: Students work collaboratively applying knowledge and skills from playlists on projects, products and performance demonstrations of learning

Around the Corner
New technologies are making student led inquiry-based approaches more common and more meaningful. Virtual and immersive experiences are powering the growth of exploration-based learning (see Planet3, Google Expeditions). Life science lab simulators (like Labster) utilize immersive 3D virtual worlds to extend exploration (listen to Michael Bodekaer’s TED Talk).

Mapping and data visualization software (see ERSI) and augmented reality (see ecoMOBILE) will power the next generation of place-based learning.

The shift to next-gen models that combine personalized and project-based learning will require big upgrades to the talent development system. New resources include:

Increasingly new school models will be deployed in small units, or microschools, inside other schools or as independent entities. To develop new models, 4.0 Schools is piloting a Tiny Fellowship.

This article was written by Tom Vander Ark.