Project-Based Learning Can Show Students That What They Study Matters in the ‘Real World’

Originally published in Education Post – January 30, 2020

Both formal research and experience suggest that when students have fun, they are more likely to be engaged and retain the material they learn. But in recent years—in part due to an overfocus on testing—play has dropped as a priority in many American classrooms, even for our youngest kids. 

If our youngest learners aren’t getting enough time to play, that means our older learners definitely aren’t. Lunch shouldn’t be the only time where high school students can enjoy themselves in school—learning in and of itself can and should be a joyful experience. That’s why I’m a huge advocate for an instructional approach called project-based learning (PBL), through which students explore the world by playing a role (often of a professional) to complete a complex challenge. 

Projects often cross the boundaries of multiple school subjects and allow students to acquire, practice, and deploy new learning and skills as they work through them. Sometimes these projects are centered on a community issue they want to see improved, current events, topics of student interest and/or work that students hope to do someday. 


A project-based learning approach makes it easy to structure learning through play. Students are invited to assume the role of an adult who might do the work of the project in real, everyday life. For example, students in a marketing course might be asked to imagine they are working for a marketing firm as they develop a new social media marketing plan for a client.

By taking on such a role, students may be willing to try something new, something they wouldn’t have otherwise tried as just a student. They may also get to practice their professional skills, especially those related to collaboration and professional communication.

studying really does matter out there in “the real world.” That’s especially true when we embed project-based learning within a broader “Career Readiness” approach.


In addition to the subjects we know are so important—math, science, English, history, etc.—career readiness education offers elective classes that let students explore different industries such as healthcare, IT, agriculture, manufacturing and business. If any excite them, students can choose to take a pathway of classes covering topics specific to that industry, which not only helps them get a head start on their potential career, but also helps them make a sound decision about whether they need to invest in a four-year degree, two-year degree or simply complete training certifications once they get their diploma. 

Career readiness education also leaves plenty of room for play. Career classes are designed with input from industry experts, some of which also offer opportunities for work-based learning. Through job shadow, internship, externship and apprenticeship opportunities, students can put their newly learned skills to the test. Combining education with application, they can see themselves in these roles. Students can more clearly visualize their future, and certainly increase their odds of finding career success soon after graduation.

It’s a bit like playing dress-up, but instead of putting on clothes resembling a firefighter, a scientist, or a doctor and having no idea what kind of work comes with the uniform, students in career readiness education know exactly what kind of work awaits them if they continue down each career path. 

How we live is not, and should not be, drastically different from how we learn. We all want to have fun—students, teachers, all of us—and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make learning enjoyable when there are obvious benefits from us doing so. When what students learn in school mirrors what students will eventually do in the world, educators can be confident they’ve fulfilled their purpose—making learning fun and giving students the tools they need to succeed.

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