Authentic Projects

March 16, 2017

This blog originally appeared on Magnify Learning.

In my experience with Project-Based Learning, I’ve encountered many teachers who seek out examples of project ideas or projects. When you’re starting out in the process, it’s natural to want examples. In many cases though, they want to use units they haven’t designed or decide to create a project around a made up scenario/problem. While finding project examples and ideas is a good start for the brainstorming process, I am a strong advocate for designing your own projects.  There are several good reasons for this, and I would say these reasons are solid criteria for identifying whether or not a project is authentic. They are personal investment, reinforcement of the PBL process, and real-world problems.

Personal Investment

First, when you don’t design a project yourself you don’t feel as invested or committed to it.  A carefully planned project based upon a problem/topic that you significantly care about or you know students care about makes a difference.  When you take someone else’s project idea or download a premade project, there’s often not as significant a connection to the work being done. Identifying a project idea either personally or one from your students is an important aspect of PBL. I liken it to buying a bag of Chips Ahoy versus making homemade chocolate chip cookies. Chips Ahoy makes a tasty cookie, but it pales in comparison to the time and quality of homemade.  Everyone knows what a homemade chocolate chip cookie tastes like, and it doesn’t come prepackaged. When we take the time to map out, plan, and implement a project built from the ground up it matters more to us. You can be sure students notice the contrast between a project you found online and one you have designed yourself.

“It’s difficult to really understand the complexity and process of a project without building it.”

Reinforcement of the PBL Process

Second, taking a project scenario or premade project from online causes you to miss out on learning and reinforcing the elements of project-based learning yourself. The beauty of PBL is that it is all about the process of putting learning into action. It’s difficult to really understand the complexity and process of a project without building it. If you’re asking students to work through a project, then you first need to know what the elements of a project actually are and how they work together. It’s really not fair to ask students to go through a project if you haven’t gone through one yourself.  Your students will sometimes encounter discomfort and tension in the project process. If you’ve gone through the process yourself, then you can help them work through those issues. Plus it brings credibility to your own practice when you have gone through that same process. Furthermore, you know best what your students need when it comes to content and skills. Building a rich, complex project yourself helps to ensure those pieces of content knowledge and skills are embedded in the project. It’s much more difficult to help students navigate the project if you don’t fully know the ins and outs of it yourself.  You can’t foresee all of the issues students will encounter in the project, but a well-designed project helps you to anticipate many of those struggles. When students were having trouble with any of my projects, I could easily monitor and adjust or revamp different sections of the project because I had created all of the pieces myself.

“One of the goals of PBL is to show students that they live in a world that has needs and requires their active participation to address them.”

Real-World Problems

Finally, there are too many actual problems in the world to make up projects that solve make believe ones.  These are few statistics that I came across covering current local and global issues:

  •   In 2015, 43.1 million (13.5%) of Americans were living in poverty. (Feeding America)
  • “Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.” (Global Issues)
  • 50% of adults, in the United States, cannot read a book written at the 8th grade level. (Literacy Project Foundation)
  • “Water problems affect half of humanity: Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.” (Global Issues)
  • “There are an estimated 20.9 million people trapped in some form of slavery today.” (Global Issues)
  • “An estimated 60,000 victims of slavery are enslaved in the United States.” (The Borgen Project)

When it comes to designing a project, there is no shortage of real-world problems to cover. This is why it is so important to design projects that are authentic. If you’re not addressing actual problems in the world, then you are missing the heart of Project-Based Learning. One of the goals of PBL is to show students that they live in a world that has needs and requires their active participation to address them. They need to see that they have a responsibility to make the world a better place to live in. Their education, gifts, talents, and stories can be utilized not for selfish gain, but to advocate for quality of life for all people. Scenarios or fabricated problems make the work students are doing in the classroom less meaningful. When the problems they are tackling directly impact real people then their work takes on purpose.  We need to put names and faces on the problems that our students are addressing.  There need to be stories and connection to the problem.  Here are a few scenarios (made up project ideas) I came across when searching for project-based learning units. These scenarios struck me because while they were “realistic” they missed the essence of PBL, which is working to solve “real” problems.

“It can and should make a difference when students learn that people are being mistreated to make some of the items they use every day. Part of our job is to teach students to care and be empathetic.”

Scenario #1:

It has come to the attention of several community leaders that the working conditions of immigrants in many communities are substandard.  You are a member of a community group that has been asked to investigate these working conditions.  You are in collaboration with several labor unions that wish to organize the workers.  You will present a report containing recommendations to the State Labor Commission.  In that report you will push for enforcement of current laws—and enactment of new laws—to protect the worker

Real-World Problem:

You don’t need a scenario to find stories of workers being mistreated or living in substandard conditions. Many American companies have been reprimanded for the poor treatment of their employees in other countries. I found several articles about a major Apple (Phone) supplier in China that overworks and underpays its employees. Furthermore, the workers are in awful living conditions.  Students may not be as familiar with the issue of substandard working conditions, but they know about iPhones. It can and should make a difference when students learn that people are being mistreated to make some of the items they use every day. Part of our job is to teach students to care and be empathetic.

Here are a few resources to investigate this topic:

Scenario #2

Your task is to create a Human Bill of Rights that other people can follow as a Human Code of Conduct. The Bill of Rights that you create will serve as a guide for other students to learn from and add to the content that you started.  One of your goals should be to obtain thoughts on this matter from other nations so you will have a more universal understanding as to how people would like to be treated around the world.

Real-World Problem: Once again, there is no shortage of incidents in our world where human rights are being violated. As noted earlier there is an estimated 20.9 million people in some form of slavery today.  This is a broad issue that includes child labor, forced labor, and sex trafficking to name a few. There are hundreds of resources and organizations currently addressing this topic. This is unfortunately not an overseas issue either. Here are a few facts from The Polaris Project:  Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris, has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking cases inside the United States. In a 2014 report, the Urban Institute estimated that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here are few resources to explore this problem further:

Scenario #3

The WV Division of Natural Resources has compiled a list of threatened, rare and endangered species. This organization would like creative help from your class. They are looking for a fourth grade class that is interested in researching a plant or animal that is on the endangered list, and then developing a plan of action that will help the recovery efforts for that particular species.

Real-World Problem:

While this scenario gets us a little closer to a real world problem it still lacks the specificity of an actual issue being tackled by students.  In more recent news, one very specific animal/plant population currently being threatened is the honeybee population. According to Greenpeace, every 1 in 3 bites of food we eat is due to the bee population.  This means that losing honeybees will have a major dramatic on all of our lives.  Their website states:

“Honey bees — wild and domestic — perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but bees pollinate fruits, nuts and vegetables. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees.”

Here’s a list of more information about this issue:

Next Steps

Let’s say you come across a project that has already been created, but tackles a real-world problem. In this case you have an authentic problem, but you are still missing out on personal investment and the reiteration of the PBL process through designing it yourself.  If you are going to take the idea, then at least put a personal spin on it and build pieces of it yourself. Find a way to tie it to your local community or to make it applicable to the interests of your students. If you are having trouble coming up with ideas for a project or if you are uncomfortable with the design process, here are a few steps you can take to tackle the problem.

  • Get PBL training! There are a variety of opportunities to get quality training in project-based learning. Trainings such as those offered by, New Tech NetworkMagnify Learning, and Buck Institutetake you through the project design process from start to finish. If you don’t have the time or resources to get training consider some at home learning. You can go through a PBL webinar series or access various resources online that explain the PBL process.
  • Get inspired! Think through your content and what you love to teach the most. What topics are interesting to you? What topics are interesting to your students? Listen to their conversations. Ask them what they are spending their time doing or exploring. How can you hook their attention? This is a great time to look at project ideas or other examples of projects, but only to jump-start your own ideas. Follow some facilitators/schools doing PBL or organizations that advocate PBL on Twitter such as @BIEpbl, @magnifylearning, @newtechnetwork, @edutopia, @TeachThought PD.  Kid President does a great job at reminding people to contribute to the world @iamkidpresident.
  • Research real-world problems
  1. Your Community-Seek out community centers, non-profits, shelters to find out local needs. Investigate what kinds of campaigns already exist in your area and see how you can design a project to partner with their efforts.
  2. Our Nation- Watch the news, scan the Internet, listen to NPR, or even ask current events buffs what is going on the world.
  3. The World- Explore the website Global Issuesfor major issues happening around the world. They never have a shortage of problems to cover when it comes to global news.

As I noted earlier, fully investing in the design process of a project is the best (and I would argue the only) way to go when it comes to PBL. Authentic projects are rooted in authentic problems. If we don’t buy into our own projects, why should we expect students to do so?  It’s important to continue our own PBL practice in order to fine tune and improve it. Furthermore, the world is filled with problems. We should make education about creating a generation of active, problem-solvers rather than passive, apathetic learners.

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