This is not project-based learning –

Which of the following scenarios is truly project-based learning (PPL)?

  • A student needs to create a website about her favorite aquatic species found in Hainan waters.

  • Students test different potted vegetables to see which conditions result in the best yield in a structured science experiment.

  • A teacher asks her class how students can help solve the problem of bullying in their own school, by helping the bully and the bullied.

If you don’t know which to choose, you’re part of a group of schools, teachers, and parents who don’t know how to identify and create meaningful APP experiences.

We asked Kyle Wagner, Hong Kong-based learning experience co-designer and former high-tech teacher, to explain to our readers what makes PBL unique. Wagner has made it his professional mission to help walk alongside over a thousand educators around the world to bring APP theory into the classroom. By the end of this article, readers should be able to examine the first three scenarios and distinguish which is a first step for PBL.

Image via Kyle Wagner

“There are three major differences between a simple project you undertake and PBL,” says Wagner. These three things are all connected and can be summed up as real audience, continuous thinking, agency, and purpose.

“One of the biggest components of the APP is that you have a real audience to share with, beyond just the teacher.” A real audience will lead to real-world feedback, with small successes or failures indicating that the student’s work needs to be adjusted to continue progressing towards success. This cannot be quantified by a grade and is closer to what students will experience beyond school and in their careers and lives after being students.

“A really good project-based experience is going to last forever, and it’s going to be something that [students] keep consistent feedback and reflection throughout the process. Wagner points out that real-world projects require multiple drafts and multiple iterations to solve a problem. APP does not result in a type of learning project, nor does it reflect learning that has already taken place, to prove that a student has learned something. “The project-based experience is something deeper. It’s something that isn’t just a single result that everyone is going to do together. It is something that is guided by a process and a question.

IMG_7276.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

Teachers who give students the project to make a book about their summer vacation would not be an example of APP. Wagner juxtaposes clear examples. “If the question is, ‘How can we build a love of travel in our community through digital media?’ then you’re going to have a lot more deviation and divergence from what the students might produce.

Through orientation, students will produce meaningful answers in response. “Yes, some students may produce a book, but others may produce a video that they want to share. Some might produce an event in which they share all the places in the community to potentially visit and how to make the most of the vacation Student choice or agency to determine both medium and response separates projects from project-based learning.

“Maybe some work with a travel agency, and the travel agency is struggling to become relevant. Or they set up a blog of all their travels. There are several different products because there was a question that was open-ended enough, but focused enough to be about summer travel, to give students several ways to answer it. Wagner adds, “What’s most important about PPA isn’t the project itself. itself, but the learning that ensues.”

Leading-Workshop.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

Wagner describes her professional development work as a “privilege to serve thinking schools and educators and to design more socially, globally, and emotionally aware citizens. The professional development provided by Wagner is different in that it is immersive for the educator, taking theory into real practice as they jointly design PBL experiences to implement. It also requires the teacher to assume the role of a student going through a PBL experience so that he or she can also understand the problems that the students will face.

Unlike many teacher trainings which are a kind of “fire hose of different strategies”, Wagner accompanies educators in a long-term relationship which he describes as a “complete transformation” that will require commitment and school and teacher work. “There are always dilemmas that arise. Whether it’s better connecting to the community or asking questions about standards and curriculum integration, evaluating a complex learning method or encouraging parent engagement. Through Wagner’s platform, he connects educators with others around the world to help them through these dilemmas.

Wagner warns schools to say they are interested in APP unless they all agree. “If the school wants it to be the primary vehicle for learning, it can’t be something just done on the side.” If you’d like to learn more about implementing PBL or Wagner’s offerings, visit or email him at [email protected]

IMG_7284-copy.jpgImage via Kyle Wagner

[Cover image via Kyle Wagner]