31 Days of Deeper Learning & PBL Blog Series | 2: What is DL and PBL?

In my first post of this series I launched the reasons for why I need to discuss at length the topic of Deeper Learning and PBL. I want to move from this stage to a basic understanding of what exactly I will be using as my cornerstone to all future conversations and posts in this series.

A major problem when it comes to project based learning is how loosely the term is used. I have clicked on many links referencing project based learning to see a misguided attempt at what a true project based learning opportunity really is and should be. Often times I read about fun, playful ACTIVITIES(which there is nothing wrong with these types of learning moments), but I don’t want these to be confused with what I am after in my train of thought. Additionally, I have also seen a lot of project oriented units where teachers front load everything and then they give a project. Well, if you have spoon-fed everything to the student, then what is the point of the project at the end? It is just a cutesy way of showing their learning and becomes a time filler in the classroom(sorry, just being honest and YES I have done this type of activity many times as an educator so I don’t have a halo on my head).

So, let us take one step back and define Deeper Learning first before we dive into PBL. Deeper Learning is the framework for what we are after in education and learning for learners.** Once we give a very brief overview of the Deeper Learning I will provide a short context for Project Based Learning because in order to achieve Deeper Learning you must utilize project based learning in some capacity.

In my next post I will cover the problems with education, but I think it is safe to say that we still have things to work out in the bigger context of public education. People are working hard, but the powers that be really make the job tough. Because we can all agree for the sake of this post that there are issues to be resolved there is a need to put together a vision for what is needed for learners to learn. This is where Deeper Learning comes in to play. It is not a packaged curriculum, there is not specific step by step model(there are resources to help you find your school needs like the Planning Guide), but this is not a cookie cutter approach. I want to make that very clear. I oppose all cookie cutter methods because they don’t work. They do put money in the pockets of people in power, but once you dig past the surface you find yourself moving from one mess to another. Guides like the one mentioned above are a tool that can help guide and facilitate conversation among educators and admin which is much different than a cookie cutter model of change.

Deeper Learning can be defined as the following according to the book Deeper Learning by Monica Martinez

Deeper learning is the process of preparing and empowering students to master essential academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, have an academic mindset, and be self-directed in their education.

You can see from this definition that these all seem like DUH! This is what we need. The problem lies in the fact that we are missing some or all of these elements in schools and classrooms. How can we make this work in classroom? This is what this series will hopefully help with.

In the 21st century all students no matter your school conditions, visions, programs, materials, etc. should be able to ensure that learners can(the six main ideas of Deeper Learning)

  • master core academic content
  • think critically and solve complex problems
  • work collaboratively
  • communicate effectively
  • learn how to learn
  • develop academic mindsets(Camille Farrington will be referenced quite a bit in the future!)

This list is simple in understanding but complex in moving into action. This is a big day of learning. This is a big year of development and throughout the course of 13 years of schooling schools should be able to help learners accomplish these skills. The goals of deeper learning are to develop self directed learners that can problem solve and come up with solutions to various situations and dilemmas whether in school, after school, or when they grow up to face the wonderful world of being an adult.

Unfortunately, many of these things are not really being executed and developed properly as schools are being pressured to get kids ready to pass standardized tests that focus on rote memorization, how to take a test, and how to learn what is needed for the tests.(problems to be discussed in future post)

One way to develop these skills is through the use of project based learning. Let me very clear here as well. Project Based Learning is nothing new. The idea has been around forever and incorporated in multiple schools settings, education networks, and classrooms around the world. The key here is to make sure we identify what PBL is and components to deliver a high quality project.

Project Based Learning can be defined as the following according to BIE(an powerful resource for PBL)

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.

Successful Projects require the following elements(this is a mix from various resources and several years developing projects at the school where I work)

  • Arise from a meaningful question
  • Take time
  • Require investigation
  • Are semi-structured, requiring substantial student input
  • Follow a timeline with articulated milestones to be reached along the way
  • Require a tangible end product
  • Include presentation for a real audience
  • Include moments of reflection
  • Blur subject area boundaries?
  • Emphasize issues, skills, concepts
  • Blur line between slow and fast learners
  • Create a culture of accomplishment
  • Connect students with adult mentors
  • Conceive of teachers as coaches/facilitators and students as colleagues

You can see how PBL can help develop opportunities for learners to have deeper learning moments in the classroom. PBL is not the only way and is not the end all be all, but it is one required tool among others to develop these education opportunities to radically shift public education to be an environment to transform learners to be ready for whatever their future holds.


This is very brief intro into both Deeper Learning and PBL. Now that we have a baseline established I will be digging into specific issues, topics, and methods to figure out ways to make it happen. I hope this post gives you a sense for wrapping your brain around these terms.

Like the first post I want to remind everyone that I do not have THE answers. These are just ideas from my reading, research, and experience with developing these ideas in the school where I work. Please leave a comment or reach out to me on social media about your ideas you have based on this post, questions you have, things I should have included, resources, etc. I want these posts to inspire thought and conversation.

In my next post I will be taking a look at the problems with education and how these elements can be the catalyst for proper change.

Last, I have created a Google + Community for us to have private conversations. This is where I will post all blog posts and we can start to share our own ideas, blogs, resources, and more. I hope you will join and make this a powerful group of learning.

I look forward to hearing from you and making this an incredible journey into exploring education.

Until the next post…..



**From here on out I want to make a conscious effort to label kids as learners, not students after reading the book Make Learning Personal where they state that “all of us our learners” I LOVE this mindset because we were all born curious and ready to learn the moment we came out alive and kicking. “We were not born students – we were born learners.” When you use the word students the emphasis of responsibility becomes centered on the teacher instead of thinking in terms of a learner where the focus becomes on them.

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One thought on “31 Days of Deeper Learning & PBL Blog Series | 2: What is DL and PBL?

  1. Thank you for your reflections. They resonate deeply with me.

    Due to a deadline, I’ve resorted to spoon feeding my students with information to complete a “project.” It’s so unsatisfying for both the students and I. It’s called a project only because it was complex, took time and will end in a student presentation of their products. But it has been almost entirely teacher-directed with no student buy-in. What is needed to make this a real project is to allow students to take control of their own learning process.

    I’d love for you and your readers to reflect on these two practical challenges that come to mind:

    1. The challenge of community buy-in – i.e. winning hearts and minds. The challenge arises because allowing students to take control of their own learning and become self-directed learners requires an entirely different mindset both for the students and the teachers. This kind of change is fundamental and requires parents, administrators and the community to be supportive of sweeping whole system change. One whole system change required for self-directed learning is the second challenge I’d love to present to the community.
    2. The challenge of time and scheduling. Allowing the time for learning to emerge at its own pace is difficult given traditional scheduling when students travel every 45 min to 1 hour. This requires whole system change.

    Like you, I believe that there are no cookie-cutter step-by-step answers. I believe the way forward is for all involved to have rich discussions. I know that these discussions become messy at times as people voice their concerns and fears. Tensions and misunderstandings may arise, early stage projects are known to often fail, various stakeholders take stances in opposition to change, etc. It is indeed messy! At the same time, the vision of an exciting and engaging and personalized education that prepares future generations with life-long learning skills makes the process all worth the mess.

    So hats off to you and the community. May we embrace the mess and enjoy the process!