Project-Based Learning Models the Work World

Blog Series, Good Work, Leadership, Mission-Driven Work

“Everybody’s life feels like a series of projects,” said Chris Gagnon, who oversees McKinsey’s organizational health research. On a podcast about organizations Going From Fragile to Agile Chris talked about project-based organizations. He said projects are how leading organizations develop new products, bring things to market, approach customers in different ways, and reduce costs.

There are no longer easy to follow models for organizational design, the world is changing too fast. In both the public and private sector a rule that appears to have sustainability is maintaining a lean core structure that adaptively adds new projects.

In addition to fast-paced organizations, a growing number of freelancers make a career of a portfolio of project work. There are already 53 million Americans (34% of the workforce) that fall into this category and that’s likely to increase to 40% by 2020. 

Leading education organizations, particularly those focused on project-based learning, organize their work as a series of projects.  “That’s our default thinking,” said Lydia Dobyns, New Tech Network. She added that projects are the way they work with schools and drive collective learning and collaboration. (See more on the NTN Learning Organization framework).

Projects break complexity into chunks small enough for a team to get their arms around and link the parts together in a thoughtful progression to create something where nothing had been.

Here’s how New Tech Network describes a project-based learning environment:

In PBL, learning is contextual, creative, and shared.  Students collaborate on meaningful projects that require critical thinking, creativity, and communication in order for them to answer challenging questions or solve complex problems. By making learning relevant to them in this way, students see a purpose for mastering state-required skills and content concepts. Students aren’t just assessed on their understanding of academic content, but on their ability to successfully apply that content when solving authentic problems.  Through this process, project based learning gives students the opportunity to develop the real life skills required for success in today’s world.

The two most important job skills for young people beyond basic communication skills are marketing and project management—getting work and delivering value. A project-based learning environment engages students in authentic work and prepares them for the project-based world they will inherit.  

We recently visited the Katherine Smith School in San Jose, a great example of a project-based elementary school. Students frame projects by defining driving questions, they work in teams, manage timelines, and produce and present high quality products. Projects are assessed by common rubrics.

KSmith PBL

A 5th grade class we visited was developing video games based on ancient Greece (pictured above).  Our tour guide (featured image) show us examples of quality work products (below) saved in a portfolio.

KSmith papers

Whether inside a big organization or working on their own, most young people will be managing projects after leaving school. We need to do a better job of preparing kids for a project-based world.

PBL Resources

Here are few project-based learning (PBL) resources:

For more on PBL, see these dozen Getting Smart blogs:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.