What a Project-Based Learning School Really Looks Like

by room2learn

Chances are, you’ve already heard the phrase “project-based learning.” Whether you have or haven’t, we will paraphrase: project-based learning is a teaching practice that encourages students to explore real-world problems in an open-ended manner. At its core, project-based learning begins with a driving question that invites in complexity. It champions student-driven curiosity and deeper learning over rote memorization. It allows students to personalize their learning experience by encouraging them to consider all the ways a question may be answered. For example, rather than learning history and economics from a textbook, students might explore patterns of gentrification in their city and its impact on local businesses.

While project-based learning has been around since Confucius and Aristotle encouraged their students to “learn-by-doing,” it has become increasingly popular in the last decade. The majority of recent school reform has looked to redesign schools and curriculum to resemble the real world. Outside the classroom, problems are messy and require students to have a holistic set of skills, an ability to work collaboratively, a strong sense of agency, and an understanding that there is rarely one correct answer. Project-based learning allows students to build and practice these skills.

There are a wealth of online resources that provide tips for designing a project in your classroom. However, as we know, space impacts learning too. Project-based learning works best in an environment that supports its complexity and collaborative nature. This all sounds fine and dandy, but what does this actually look like in practice?

Join us as we take a virtual tour of two schools leading the way in project-based learning, from their pedagogy to their sense of place.

Sycamore School

First, on our list is The Sycamore School, a small independent primary school in California. For Sycamore students, the world is their classroom. Along with the great big world, they also have an building intentionally designed for project-based learning. Let’s take a look!

The Sycamore School has explicitly named this room the “adventure room.” This open-floor plan allows for every type of student gathering, including but not limited to games, performances, and individual reading and reflective time. All of the furniture is movable and the soft flooring encourages students to plop down with an inspired thought whenever they have it. Teachers at the school also say that the flexibility of this room encourages students to learn how to balance individual and group work.

Tinker Zone

Makerspaces are perhaps the most common design you see in a project-based learning school— and for good reason. Makerspaces allow students to build and iterate on their own ideas, which are essential steps of any design process. The Sycamore School makerspace is aptly called the “Tinker Zone.” It features large, wooden workspaces, easy-to-use organizational systems, and big open windows. The windows offer both natural light and a tangible connection to the outside world. In the “Tinker Zone” failure is encouraged and the bright lights and wood elements help create a culture of positivity around mistakes.

Design Tech High

Next on our list is the public charter high school, Design Tech High. Design Tech seeks to prepare students to become compassionate citizens capable of solving the complex problems our world faces. Their teaching pedagogy focuses on pairing academic content with explicit, innovative problem solving.

At Design Tech, student innovation is spread throughout the school. In this large common space, you see a student-designed table made from creatively cut cardboard, no drilling required. You also notice that students are gathered in a variety of ways. Here, choices are key. Large, flexible spaces like these allows for an endless amount of ways for students to connect and work together.

Walking through the school, you may also find student-created hacks, like this plexiglass marker holder. This invention solves the problem of loose caps scattered throughout a room and dried-out markers (for more organizational hacks, check out this blog post). At Design Tech, student’s ideas and projects are continuously encouraged, taken seriously, and brought to fruition.


Project-based learning schools come in all different shapes and sizes and there are certainly no set guidelines a school designer should follow. However, there is a common theme that leads to student agency and innovation — flexibility. When students are given options to shift and change their learning environments, they are shown that their unique way of learning, thinking, and creating in the world is valid. This can lead to a greater belief in their ability to create change through the questions they ask, the projects they complete, and the citizens they become.

Do you know of a Project-based learning school we should feature? Let us know at www.room2learn.org and Tweet us at @HackClassrooms!