Project Based Learning

I love project based learning!  When I started teaching over 25 years ago most of the curriculum that I was given consisted of flipping to the next two-pages in the textbook and working the problems that I selected.  Not satisfied with this approach to teaching math, I was soon on the hunt for powerful math activities and projects that would infuse life into my math classroom.  More on that quest in a moment.

Pendulum Swings of Curriculum Change

I’ve taught middle school math long enough to have been through several pendulum swings of curriculum change.  From strictly using a traditional textbook to using a math book that was filled with activities but did not strengthen student’s basic skills, and everything in between, I’ve been there.  While it is imperative for students to have a strong foundation in basic math skills, it is also very important for them to participate in meaningful, project based learning.

Benefits of Project Based Learning

Project based learning places mathematics into a context that is more meaningful to students.  Instead of just solving a group of isolated problems in a textbook, students are involved in math work that carries them toward the project goal.  Students are stretched intellectually when they have to take their math skills and apply them to a task or a problem.  Such mathematical thinking is more difficult than solving isolated problems, but I believe that project based learning produces more interest on the part of students and a deeper sense of satisfaction when the project is completed.

Project based learning also promotes mathematical dialogue among students and often encourages students to work together.  Teachers know that powerful learning can take place when students are able to clarify their thinking by talking to other students.  Sometimes a student can share their thinking in a way that makes more sense to another student than what the teacher has said.  Such communication is a part of working together, a skill that students will need as they eventually find themselves a part of the work force.

The main benefit of project based learning is that it allows students to learn at a deeper level as they make connections and practice mathematical skills in a real-life context.

The Results of My Search for Project Based Activities

As I mentioned earlier, as a beginning teacher it was important to me to find powerful math projects and activities that placed student math skills in a meaningful context and allowed the students to more fully engage with math.  I found a few but I ended up creating many of them on my own.  Sometimes I took an idea that I had seen and built up on it to create an activity that I was happy with.  The result was the creation of this website,

DigitalLesson has given me the opportunity to share math games, lessons, and projects with middle school math teachers all over the world.  It makes my day to receive an email from a teacher telling me how one of my lessons made a positive impact in their classroom.   

Three of My Favorite Middle School Math Projects

The Amateur Architect Fraction Project is my favorite math project of all time.  The project requires students to solve fraction operation problems to determine the dimensions for a house and a garage.  Then, using the ruler skills practiced before the project began, students construct the house and garage on paper.  They center windows, draw angles, partition the garage door, etc.  Amateur Architect is a powerful fraction application and a welcome change from skill based lessons.

The Royal Reward Geometry Project is a group project, embedded in the context of a story, which requires students to find the area and perimeter of polygons, classify polygons, measure angles, investigate the sum of the interior angles of various polygons, and use the concept of scale.  It is an engaging way for students to apply their geometry skills.

The Stained Glass Window Graphing Project is a project that requires students to graph linear equations in order to create a colorful (yet mathematical) display window. Each student selects and graphs at least twelve linear equations from the equation bank to create their own unique stained glass window. This visual/kinesthetic project will help students to clearly identify the equations of horizontal and vertical lines and to easily distinguish between positive and negative slope. Key graphing vocabulary can also be developed during the project.

The Teacher’s Role in Project Based Learning

The teacher’s role in projects, like those I mentioned above, is to be a facilitator and an expert who can help students to progress and to clarify their thinking.  By guiding students and asking them questions the teacher can lead students to a successful and powerful mathematics experience.  The teacher’s role is NOT to do the work for the students or just tell them the answers.

The Bottom Line with Project Based Learning

Project based learning can be more relevant and interesting to our students than another problem set out of the textbook.  It puts mathematics into context, encourages students to collaborate, and fosters deeper learning.  It can also be fun and challenging for students.

What is your experience with project based learning in the classroom?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box below.  First time commenters will be moderated so it may be a few hours before I have the chance to look at the comment. 

Thank you! 


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  1. Mark
    I have taught Math in Middle school for 32 years now. I have also been an administrator on a Highly Effective school and now a Curriculum Specialis on an Not so Effective School. PBL is a great idea and I see the benefits when students are trained in it from an early age . But trying to implement it in a low performing school where students are untrained and unprepared and lacking in basic concepts is a CHALLENGE to say the least. I would like your professional opinion about the best way to approach this challenge. I have suggested we do PBL as a wrapping up after we have taught various concepts, do you think that would work better? Claudia

    • Mark Tully says:

      Hi Claudia,
      Yes, I agree with you. Without the underlying skills needed to approach the task, project-based learning would be very frustrating for students. When they do have the prerequisite skills then project-based learning gives students a more meaningful and interesting context to apply their math skills. Before using my favorite project, (Amateur Architect) in class I always complete my teaching of fraction operations.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Kristin Clark says:

    As a parent of four children ages 12 to 19, I have seen the curriculum swings in math. PBL is inherently problematic as the foundational pedagogy with which to teach and explain core concepts in middle school and early high school years. It requires an excellent tutor/teacher with specific training in how to support this type of learning. It relies on students who have sophisticated and specific complementary learning styles, leadership skills, listening discipline and highly functional group dynamic skills. It can be frustrating when the small group or team has different levels of both learned skills and natural abilities. It is no doubt a fantastic method (say one day a week) to extend, challenge or deepen students understanding of a topic. I would argue it is NOT an efficient or productive way to teach new complex, never yet seen concepts and should be used as a well-honed adjunct not a replacement for traditional pedagogy where lots of new information can be transmitted in a short amount of time and be placed in context of broader subject areas.

    • Mark Tully says:

      Very well said, Kristin! When I use projects in my own classroom they tend to be culminating activities that allow students to put into practice those math skills that they have recently learned or reviewed. I don’t typically want students engaged in discovery learning during a project. There is a different time and place for that. And yes, the skill of the teacher in understanding, teaching, and presenting a project is crucial to its effectiveness.

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