Project-Based Learning vs Expeditionary Learning (With a Digital Twist!)

At my school in Durham, NC, the charter written to describe our mission includes a section outlining the school’s commitment to Project Based Learning, or PBL. When the charter was written, masses of research had come out in support of Project Based Learning, and ideas for its implementation was starting to catch fire across the nation. For many though, at the time, it was a very different approach to teaching and learning than what tradition dictated.

Now, PBL is rolling out in many different forms and is being embraced by educators in public schools, private schools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and higher education the world over. But what exactly is Project Based Learning?

According to the Buck Institute for Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development and practice of project based learning in schools, “PBL is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.” (Click the PBL link for more information!)


I was first introduced to Project Based Learning as a science teacher through Teach for America. Soon after implementing the ideas of PBL in my classroom my first year of teaching, the entire district offered further professional development in PBL for any teacher who wanted to give it a try – and two years later I joined my current school where PBL is written into the fabric of its mission.

Many who are visiting this site are already familiar with Project Based Learning – and many who are searching for new ideas have most likely either given PBL a try or are using the framework in their current teaching! As a quick reflection on my experience with Project Based Learning, I find it to be far more authentic for students AND teachers than the traditional “sage on the stage” model of teaching. Students authentically experiencing their own learning drives up motivation, increases content retention, and in a poetic sense, helps create lifelong learners who will engage learning as a journey, rather than a checkmark.

The cornerstone of true Project Based Learning is questioning and sustained inquiry; according to the Buck Institute’s Gold Standard for PBL practices, a project is made rich and authentic when it is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or question to answer, with students consistently developing and tackling questions throughout the project’s development. This is where digital literacy skills will shine. Research, collaboration, expression and reinvention of lessons learned – these skills and more are enriched when they are given digital platforms for further challenging and communicating their learning with each other and the wider world!

Again, though, the idea of Project Based Learning is not a new one, and this blogpost may be yet another look into a practice many have been using for years. Those who are spending their time searching for ever-better practices in teaching have likely known about PBL longer than I have!

So why write about it?

Project Based Learning is clearly a usable framework in many situations – but for my school, it is not the end. Our charter is being rewritten, and this time, the language of project based learning is being replaced with a new idea, the next step for our school: Expeditionary Learning.


Come back for more soon!


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