CTL’s Vision of Schooling Includes Project Based Learning

One of our goals at CTL is to advance a vision of schooling that engages all students in interesting and rigorous work, develops their talents and abilities, and prepares them for college and career.  That sounds like a tall order, but we know from our 20 years of experience as a company that without this vision, we will not achieve excellence or equity for every student enrolled in K-12 education.  The graphic included in this blog post represents our view of project-based learning as an approach promoting rigor and engagement, and reflecting both our experience and research findings.

CTL's PBL GraphicOur experience tells us that many students are bored and disengaged in classroom learning, especially as they reach middle and secondary grades.  This is due to a host of reasons, including lack of literacy skills needed to master content, and also lack of voice, choice and a belief that the work they are assigned has meaning and value.

Research on inquiry or project-based learning documents that this approach achieves the following:

  • Long term retention of content across subject areas.
  •  Better student performance on high stakes tests.
  •  Reduction in the achievement gap for low income students.
  • Development of 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and reasoning.
  • Development of college and career ready skills noted by ACT, Inc. as equally important with content knowledge, such as the ability to organize learning, manage time, seek out resources, set goals and self-assess.


Looking again at the graphic, our PBL model starts with teacher planning based on content standards in all disciplines.  The first ring is comprised of three elements that distinguish our PBL model from others.

  1.  Academic Literacy:  For students to address rigorous content, especially at the middle and high school levels, they need strong literacy skills.  These include vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  A barrier for many students in courses like chemistry and algebra is the technical vocabulary which holds the key to understanding foundational concepts.  In addition, students need to develop speed and “automaticity,” the ability to not stumble over words or get lost in explanations, but to recognize words, word meanings and author’s intent.  Related to that is comprehension: understanding the big ideas as well as supporting details, and being able to identify tone, audience and purpose.
  2. Artful Thinking: A strong research based exists regarding the arts impact on core content learning, development of problem-solving skills and creativity.  In addition, the arts can develop communication, collaboration and leadership—all 21st century skills. In our model we build on the visual and performing arts as well as on design thinking, which promotes use of creative problem-solving, development and testing of models and prototypes, and authentic assessment from those who will use the solution or product developed.
  3. Digital Thinking: Technology has opened many doors for teachers and students alike.  More important than computers is the type of thinking that develops as students use Web 2.0 tools to identify resources, network with others as part of a larger learning community, create and share new learning, and develop original work products that demonstrate both rigor and originality. Digital thinking emphasizes making connections from a broad array of possibilities.

The connections to real world issues and application of learning are an integral part of the model, as is creating a culture that honors collaboration, extended investigation and making work products available to a larger audience. For more detail on how the model plays out, see this post by our Drew Perkins.

At CTL we believe we are entering an exciting era in education, one that will rely less on testing and more on teaching and learning (see CTL’s animated infographic).  Educators can hasten our entry into that era by encouraging project-based learning as the way school is conducted.

Summary Statement:

One of our goals at CTL is to advance a vision of schooling that engages all students in interesting and rigorous work, develops their talents and abilities, and prepares them for college and career.  That sounds like a tall order…


  1. Students with poor literacy skills and little academic success is real. It is a sad fact that we must face. In looking at the challenges that educators take on, we must remember that our students are “children” that truly want to learn and feel successful. It is up to us as a community to nurture that drive and to ensure every child will be successful.

    Students feel success in doing/owning, by being active participants in their learning. They want ownership. We must allow and encourage their participation with engaging activities. Project-based learning caters to what children enjoy. I have always liked asking children, “Who is your favorite teacher and why?”. No matter how old the child is, they respond, “_____, because he/she lets us have fun.” 99 times out of 100, that teacher had those children engaged in meaningful activities. He/she was no doubt helping the children learn how to be learners.

    I applaud the work of CTL. It is a tall order, but the work and information coming from CTL to educators like myself, is priceless. My profession has been given a refreshing boost over the past couple of years with thanks going to CTL’s professional developments.

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