Thom Markham

Project-Based Learning and Common Core Standards

The first question about Common Core State Standards, What will they look like?,  has been answered. The answer is: Very different. The internationally benchmarked standards will emphasize creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, presentation and demonstration, problem solving, research and inquiry, and career readiness.

The second, more challenging question is, How will we teach these new standards? For several years, the winds of change have been howling in one direction, pointing educators toward greater focus on depth rather than coverage, thinking rather than memorizing or listing, and demonstrating and performing rather than "hand it in and grade it." With 46 states endorsing the Common Core State Standards and half of those planning for full implementation in the next three years, we've moved into hurricane status. Quite soon, we'll land on a distant, unknown shore. Teachers will have to teach differently.

States and professional development organizations recognize that the kind of transformative professional preparation necessary to meet the challenge of teaching the new standards is not yet in place. But for those teachers and schools who want to jump-start the process, I suggest a solution is in place: use project-based learning (PBL).

First, I refer to high-quality PBL, as outlined in a recent post. Successful implementation of the new standards will require innovative best practices that persuade and prepare students to engage in thoughtful problem solving, as well as encourage better performance through more sophisticated, broad-based assessments. PBL, done well, accomplishes those goals. But old-style "projects" won't come close.

The Six Moving Parts

There is an overriding reason that the Common Core State Standards will challenge our professional capability as educators: Teaching inquiry and skillful problem solving is not a simple change of strategy to, let's say, favoring one reading method over another. Instead, success relies on shifting a number of teaching practices simultaneously. When aligned, these practices act synergistically to activate a student's desire to learn, support growth over time, invite deeper engagement, and stimulate the reflective and critical faculties—often in a team-based, collective environment—that lead to superior solutions and analysis.

I call these shifts the six "moving parts" of PBL. They help meet the goals of the Common Core State Standards in the following ways:

  1. Moving from instruction to inquiry. More than ever, curriculum will now start with questions rather than the delivery of information. Subject matter is important, but teachers will now need to know how to apply knowledge through designing a problem-solving process. PBL teachers begin by posing a significant challenge to students and capturing the challenge in a manageable problem statement or driving question. The question frames the project; the problem sets the solution process into motion. Choosing and crafting a suitable problem requires experience, curiosity, and passion, as well as thorough knowledge of the discipline.
  2. Balancing knowledge and skills. The Common Core State Standards rebalance the equation between content and skills. In every subject, the emphasis is now on a blend of knowing/doing and learning/demonstrating, in which students apply what they know and demonstrate mastery of 21st century skills, such as presentation and collaboration. This shift changes expectations for student mastery, rearranges assessments and grading systems, and relies on coaching students (more on that in a minute) for better performance. These represent the core skill set for PBL teachers and are backed by a well-developed set of PBL tools.
  3. Going deep. Deep thinking sounds good in theory but takes time, making it problematic in the context of a 48-minute period or a 180-day school year. Deep thinking also conflicts with current testing requirements, which do not reward insight and analysis. PBL approaches this challenge by assessing fewer standards (the goal of the Common Core), using a variety of proven thinking tools, and designing a controlled process that helps students focus their thinking on the driving question.
  4. Teaching teamwork. The Common Core State Standards identify collaboration and teamwork as a 21st century skill to be taught. This is laudable, but something bigger is under way. As the outside world shows us, we're moving into a collaborative culture of continuous learning within networked communities. The Common Core State Standards implicitly recognize this fact, but PBL teachers give it life in the classroom by using team contracts, peer collaboration rubrics, and work ethic rubrics to turn group work into effective teams. This guidance is a necessity for a curriculum that emphasizes problem solving and inquiry, now generally done in the real world in project teams.
  5. Establishing a culture of inquiry. This moving part determines the fate of a project in a PBL classroom—and it will be central to the success of the Common Core State Standards. The challenge can be stated simply: When you're no longer standing in front of the room, giving instruction, it's hard to be in charge. And, when you're implementing problem solving and inquiry, you're usually not standing in front of the room. The only way to remain in charge (and sane) is to teach students how to take charge of themselves, to respect the inquiry process, and to become self-directed learners. This requires time, patience, a dose of psychology, and a careful blend of assessments and tools that promote the development of self-awareness, respect, self-control, and other attributes of a functioning community. PBL has led the way in developing and using these tools.
  6. Blending coaching with teaching. Finally, high-quality PBL demands coaching skills as well as teaching skills. In PBL, a teacher often works shoulder to shoulder with students, giving them feedback, questioning them, and urging them on to the next level of achievement. It is a collaborative, communal form of teaching and learning that requires good listening, appropriate praise, and focused criticism. The same will be true of the Common Core State Standards.

Thom Markham is a psychologist and author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert Tools for Inquiry and Innovation for K–12 Educators, and the forthcoming book, Redefining Smart: The Return of the Heart. Download tools for project-based learning on his website,, or contact him by e-mail at

Comments (5)

Jason Feig

February 29, 2012

Mr. Markham,
A terrific read. Your section on establishing a culture of inquiry perfectly states the importance of teaching students to think for themselves. Our 7th grade team is in the midst of transforming the environment through PBL and Skills4Success. We will be patient and offer the necessary time to teach the skills necessary.


April 25, 2013

It’s important to make that connection between how teaching techniques can support the standards.  Based on the evidence you have provided here I believe PBL is a good teaching technique to support the Common Core Standards.  There are so many life skills supported by PBL and the CCS that is important for students to know and understand.  As you have stated, our culture is moving and changing to a more collaborative teammork oriented world, both locally and internationally.  We must learn to work together, so why not start learning those skills in the classroom through PBL?

Leslie Maniotes

April 29, 2013

Hello Mr Markham,
I would love to connect with you on this topic.  My co-authors and I have written two books on this topic and our thinking is very aligned with yours.  It’s wonderful to find colleagues working at the same educational reform!  I believe that PBL and inquiry approaches are mutually informing and within an inquiry frame like the one we explain PBL is highly enriched.  The books are entitled Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century (2007) and Guided Inquiry Design: A Framework for Inquiry in your school (2012).  I’d love to connect with you on the topic and perhaps join forces in this movement!  Best, Leslie Maniotes @lesliemaniotes twitter

Denise Pawlewicz

December 5, 2013

Mr. Markham

I firmly believe PBL is the best practice to bringing the Common Core Standards to life, however, teachers need training and support in implementing PBL. Districts need to understand that training in PBL is not a one-shot deal. Teachers will need on-going training and support to make the shifts you mentioned as well as implementing and refining projects. Additionally, time to collaborate with peers is critical. Ideally, PBL should be used across disciplines. For example, Grade 9 ELA and Global Studies could create a PBL where are collaborating and constructing knowledge in both disciplines. How can I convince my administrators that PBL supports CCLS and prepares students for State Assessments?

Thom Markham

December 5, 2013

Denise, I agree with all your observations. My first response: If all your administrators care about is State Assessments, nothing will happen. PBL does a fine job of preparing students for tests, PLUS it has value-added: It teaches 21st century skills and encourages the development of all of a child’s resources, cognitive and emotional. Check for stories and methods. Look at or have them call me—I will supply ideas for them. If all else fails, take matters in your own hands and become a great PBL teacher on your own. Lead by example!

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