Project Based Learning


Project Based LearningProject Based Learning (PBL) is the prominent learning model at Phantom Knight.  Students earn all elective credit and most of their core credits through this type of learning. Project Based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real problems and challenges they are interested in. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying. Research indicates that students are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional textbook-centered learning. In addition, students develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work. In the process of completing their projects, students also hone their organizational and research skills, develop better communication with their peers and adults, and often work within their community while seeing the positive effect of their work.

Because students are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparatively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports, assessment of project-based work is often more meaningful to them. They quickly see how academic work can connect to real-life issues -- and may even be inspired to pursue a career or engage in activism that relates to the project they developed.

Elements of Project Based Learning

Rigorous and in-depth Project Based Learning:

is organized around open-ended Essential Questions. These focus students’ work and deepen their learning by centering on significant issues, debates, questions and/or problems.

creates a need to know essential content and skills. Typical projects (and most instruction) begin by presenting students with knowledge and concepts and then, once learned, give them the opportunity to apply them. PBL begins with the vision of an end product or presentation which requires learning specific knowledge and concepts, thus creating a context and reason to learn and understand the information and concepts.

requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new. Not all learning has to be based on inquiry, but some should. And this inquiry should lead students to construct something new – an idea, an interpretation, a new way of displaying what they have learned.

requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication. Students need to do much more than remember information—they need to use higher-order thinking skills. They also have to learn to work as a team and contribute to a group effort. They must listen to others and make their own ideas clear when speaking, be able to read a variety of material, write or otherwise express themselves in various modes, and make effective presentations. These skills, competencies and habits of mind are often known as "21st Century Skills".

allows some degree of student voice and choice. Students learn to work independently and take responsibility when they are asked to make choices. The opportunity to make choices, and to express their learning in their own voice, also helps to increase students’ educational engagement.

incorporates feedback and revision. Students use peer critique to improve their work to create higher quality products.

results in a publicly presented product or performance. What you know is demonstrated by what you do, and what you do must be open to public scrutiny and critique.

Project Topic Examples

  • How do I become a published author?
  • Why do wars start?
  • How do I design and sew a dress?
  • Does free speech mean you can say anything?
  • How do I learn to dance?
  • What is the cultural significance of The Beatles?
  • Are aliens real?
  • How do I become famous on the Internet?
  • How do I learn sign language?
  • Why is Greek and Roman Mythology important today?
  • Who spends more: Democrats or Republicans?
  • How do I design and build a kitchen?
  • How can somebody cope with anxiety?
  • Is the world really going to end in 2012?
  • What goes on at a farm?

PBL at Phantom Knight

Projects at Phantom Knight generally last 4-6 weeks and students are expected to document approximately 100 hours of work time for each project credit. Students begin by completing a Project Proposal Form and writing a rationale, which are presented to their advisor. The proposal must include the Common Core and state standards which will be satisfied upon completion of the project. In addition, the student must describe the connection of his/her project to one or more of the following thematic areas:

  • Self Discovery
  • Empathy and Caring
  • Collaboration and Competition
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • The Natural World
  • Service for the Common Good
  • History’s Relevance to Contemporary Issues
  • Community and Global Interdependence
  • Productive Worker
  • How Things Work
  • Life Planning

After acceptance of the proposal, students complete the project by following the steps outlined in the Project Manual. Students collaborate with advisors, each other, and a “community consultant” to seek assistance in problem in problem areas. After students complete the project checklists, they present their finished work to the proposal team for evaluation and credit.


Benefits of PBL

Many studies have proven that PBL has positive effects on student academic achievement, mastery of 21st century competences such as problem-solving and critical thinking, addressing the needs of diverse learners and closing achievement gaps, and increasing students' motivation to learn.  See a summary of the research. 

Myths about Project Based Learning and Self-Directed Schools

Source: Bernard Bull, Assistant Vice President of Academics at Concordia University Wisconsin

Myth #1 – “These types of environments are just for the advanced students.” – I hear this often as people argue that certain students need more direction and structure. In reality, this has nothing to do with academic giftedness. I’ve seen many types of learners thrive in project-based and self-directed environments. What seems to be more important is whether students are willing to embrace a school culture that focuses upon learning and not earning grades, credentials and traditional accolades. Are they willing to learn about asking great questions, developing strong research and communication skills, and growing in their skill with self-monitoring, self-direction and time-management? If so, then they can thrive in a project-based or self-directed learning environment. It is true that some students may enter such a school more or less prepared. That is where some scaffolding may be necessary to help students cultivate some of these skills and perspectives.

Myth #2 – “Project-based Learning and Self-directed learning schools are all basically the same thing.” – There are hundreds of ways that people come together to envision and start a project-based or self-directed learning environment. There are multiple approaches to and working definitions for both project-based learning and self-directed learning. Some project-based schools emphasize team-based shared projects while others are largely individual projects. Some self-directed schools have lengthy processes for planning and proposing projects, while others are almost entirely student-directed (including the process). Some have teachers and learning coaches who still play a large role in directing students each step of the way, while others leave more of that to individuals or groups of learners.

Myth #3 – “Traditional schools are better at helping students develop breadth of knowledge where these schools may be better at depth of knowledge.” – Students are exposed to a systematically broad body of knowledge in different content areas in a traditional school. And yet, if we interview learners from different types of schools in their mid-twenties, we are unlikely to find a significant difference in the breadth of knowledge among the learners. Part of this has to do with the minimal knowledge retained by many in the traditional schools, so the real myth is that exposure or “covering material” results in retaining it.

Myth #4 – “If students don’t experience traditional schooling now, they will be at a disadvantage at the next level.” I’ve yet to find any strong evidence to support this claim. Instead, project-based and self-directed environments give learners a chance to develop the skills that we know make a difference in life after school, things like critical thinking, time-management, follow through on projects, research skills, the ability to learn something in teams and with little direction, initiative, and self-discipline.

Myth #5 – “These alternatives are not as rigorous as traditional schooling.” It is true that they have fewer or no tests, that they don’t force students to all do things in a similar way, and that there is more student choice in the experience. However, these approaches, when done well, promote a level of depth that we rarely find in traditional classroom environments. Over a four-year high school experience, many students are developing a collection of eight to sixteen projects that more closely resemble a college research paper or senior project than the typical work in a traditional high school. In addition, these students often have the challenge of presenting and defending their work to an audience of peers and/or community members. That can be quite rigorous. In fact, one can earn an entire master’s degree or doctorate by research (without attending any classes) at some of the oldest and most distinguished Universities in the world…basically using a model similar to what we see in many project-based or self-directed learning environments.

A Leader in PBL

Phantom Knight is proud to be a leader in the Wisconsin Project Based Learning movement. We have had the privilege of hosting numbers of visiting educators, counselors and business leaders interested in learning more about PBL. These individuals leave Phantom Knight excited about what project based learning has to offer. 


For more information on Project Based Learning, please visit the Buck Institute for Education or Edutopia.