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By Richard Parker, OCT, Google Certified Educator, Halton District School Board

Project Based Learning (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” (Buck Institute for Education, n.d.).

PBL brings authenticity to the classroom in that the problem is easily connected to the world outside of the classroom, and students are challenged to collaborate, communicate and think critically as they approach the problem. These skills are directly related to Global Competencies and Transferable Skills. Embedded in any good project are a solid set of language based skills (e.g. research, writing a paper, putting together a presentation, etc.), as well as any other subject-related expectations that you choose to include (Math, Geography, History, etc.).

Click here to read about Global Competencies and Transferrable Skills in the EduGains website.

When working with students who are diagnosed with learning disabilities (LDs), educators may overlook PBL. Maybe educators feel pressure from parents or administrators.  Maybe educators struggle to find the planning time to incorporate PBL into their practice.  Whatever the reason, with a little time, planning and teamwork with peers, PBL can be incorporated into all classrooms, into all subjects, and for all students.

PBL is a flexible and engaging teaching approach that can be used to design new lessons or to improve lessons you have previously. Educators use PBL for many reasons, including increased student engagement, possibilities for teaching and assessing multiple skills, and possibilities for differentiation.


In an ever-changing world, filled with technology and seemingly instantaneous answers to everything via a web-based search, educators sometimes feel they are struggling to keep students engaged. Educators that have adopted PBL into their classrooms have found a higher level of participation and engagement, and in some cases, increased scores on standardized testing. For example, Stanford conducted a three year study in California that demonstrated that when using PBL, “...students took more active roles...work was seen as more interesting and worthwhile...and students paid more attention to their peers and teacher” (Terada, 2018).

PBL is taking place in many classrooms across the province. At Trillium Demonstration School in Milton, I challenged my Grade 7 students to build or improve a structure that could be used in everyday life. They had to research and understand the characteristics of various structures, and then design and build a prototype. Once the prototype was built, a report had to be created and presented. Included in the project, was a challenge to decide what materials would be used if they were to create a life-sized model.  Because students were given choice, there was engagement from the get-go.  Some students chose to improve an existing design, while others chose to create their own inventions.  As the project went on, I noticed that all students remained engaged and enthusiastic; they were excited to use web-based technology like Tinkercad and Google Drawings to design their prototypes.  Throughout the project, the students used Flipgrid, or a web-based voice recording tool called Vocaroo, to record and share their reflections regarding what they liked, what they found challenging, and what they were doing well.  Students loved using Google Slides to create their final presentation about their prototype, and this technology tool also helped keep them on track.  To add images to the slideshow, students used cell phones, cameras and their Chromebooks to document their building project step-by-step. In my classroom, I see how the authentic tasks inherent in PBL truly engage students and offer opportunities for deep learning.

Shaun Else, a teacher at John T. Tuck in Burlington, regularly finds ways to incorporate technology tools into math projects at his school.  One way he achieves this is by using Spheros, small robots that move by rolling around and can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet, to incorporate coding into the curriculum, and engage students in fun and meaningful math challenges.  Shaun finds that providing an opportunity to code the way to solving a math problem allows students to be more accepting of their errors, and persevere until the challenge has been solved.

Teach and Assess Multiple Skills

The notion of “curriculum crunch" is familiar to most educators, and this can be particularly challenging when considering the needs of diverse learners, including those with LDs. Project Based Learning allows educators to cover multiple subject areas or curriculum strands with the same project. For example, in the sample project below (Figure 1), grade-5 math students cover expectations including number sense, measurement, graphing, reading, writing, social sciences, and art. Furthermore, this project touches on multiple mathematical processes, such as problem-solving, reflection, reasoning, connecting to the real world, selecting tools and computational strategies, as well as communicating.


Finally, another key benefit of using PBL is the ease with which educators can differentiate instruction and assessment for students who require accommodations or modifications. PBL allows for differentiation at every stage of the assignment; teachers can differentiate the content, process and product of the assignment, according to the student’s readiness, interests and learning profile.

The sample project below provides some examples of differentiation opportunities within PBL.

To learn more about differentiation, click here to access the LD@school article Differentiated Instruction.

PBL In Action

There are infinite possibilities for implementing PBL in your classroom. The following example provides just a few ideas of projects and differentiation options to integrate to support students with LDs.

Sample Project-Based Learning Activity
Task: Students are allotted $15,000.00 to plan their “Dream Vacation”

Grade: 5

Timing notes: 1 week – 1 month

The timing depends on which strands you choose to spiral into your project, and how in-depth you plan to go.  If you have a class that needs short, quick projects, then you could omit some math strands and reduce the literacy expectations.

The fantastic thing about this is that students can work on math outside of the “math class”.  During a given period, students can choose which component of the project to work on. For example, after a mini-lesson on elapsed time, they may choose to work on that component of the project.

Student Instructions Teacher Notes
Overview: You just won $15,000.00 to be used to plan your dream vacation! In this project, you will research and plan your vacation, and then present your itinerary and budget to the class. This project can be made more or less complex, depending on the curriculum connections you are trying to accomplish.
Step 1:

-       Choose a destination.

-       Decide how long you will stay.

-       Choose a mode of transportation.

-       Research the cost and travel time to get to your destination, as well as to get home.

-       Calculate how much money remains to plan the rest of your vacation.

Differentiation Suggestions:

For students with executive function challenges, chunk the instructions by providing one step at a time. Set a deadline for each step and co-create a schedule to complete it by the deadline. Provide students with descriptive feedback at each step.

For students who need them, provide manipulatives or virtual manipulatives to help them with the calculations.

Consider reducing the overall budget for some students. Consider providing a list of prices that are easier to work with (e.g., $25, $50, $75), to reduce the cognitive load of researching and recording prices as well as reducing the challenge of calculating with decimal numbers.

Consider providing links to videos about some destinations to reduce the amount of reading required in the research process.

Provide explicit instruction on the skills required to complete each step (e.g, how to use Mindomo or other graphic organizers; how to use Excel or Google Sheets; how to use Google Maps to determine time and distance between destinations; how to convert units; etc.). Consider creating videos of the lessons so that students can access them at any time on their personal devices.

Give students choice for their final product (e.g., oral presentation, written report, video, podcast, etc.)

Step 2:

-       Plan where you will stay, and determine the cost to stay there for the duration of your trip.

-       Choose at least two excursions, and determine the cost of these activities.

-       Plan how you will get from your accommodations to your excursions, and the cost of this transportation.

-       What time will you leave your hotel? How long will it take to get to your excursion? What time will you arrive?

-       What is the distance from your hotel to your excursion? Express this distance in kilometers as well as meters.

-       Calculate how much money is left for your remaining expenses.

Step 3:

-       Plan what you will eat, and how much you need to budget for food.

-       Do you need anything else to enjoy your vacation?

-       Do you have any money leftover for souvenirs? How much?

Step 4:

-       Review your budget and make any necessary changes so that you spend no more that $15,000.00

-       Create an engaging presentation to showcase your learnings. Some options are a slideshow presentation; Prezi; a radio or TV ad; a travel show acted or recorded; a travel blog; a radio segment using Vocaroo/Soundtrap; Sketchnotes.  Or if you have a different method, discuss with your teacher.

Step 5: Extension Questions

-       If you were to walk to all of your excursions and restaurants, how many kilometers would you walk in total? How many kilometers would you walk on average per day?

-       Does your destination use a different currency? Convert your $15,000.00 budget from Canadian dollars to the local currency.

-       Write a persuasive paragraph about why you should be allowed to take time off school to go on this trip.

-       Write a descriptive paragraph about a famous building, attraction, piece of art, or food from your destination.

-       Create a work of art inspired by your destination. Perhaps it is inspired by a famous artist from this place, or a well-known artwork in a museum here.

-       Research the government structures of your destination and create a Venn diagram comparing with your local, provincial and/or federal governments.

Curriculum Connections: Mathematics (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2005)

Number Sense and Numeration: Quantity Relationships

▪         demonstrate an understanding of place value in whole numbers and decimal numbers from 0.01 to 100 000, using a variety of tools and strategies

▪         round decimal numbers to the nearest tenth, in problems arising from real-life situation;

▪         read and write money amounts to $1000

▪         solve problems that arise from real-life situations and that relate to the magnitude of whole numbers up to 100 000

Number Sense and Numeration: Operational Sense

▪         solve problems involving the addition, subtraction, and multiplication of whole numbers, using a variety of mental strategies

▪         add and subtract decimal numbers to hundredths, including money amounts, using concrete materials, estimation, and algorithms

Measurement: Attributes, Units, and Measurement Sense

▪         estimate, measure, and represent time intervals to the nearest second

▪         estimate and determine elapsed time, with and without using a time line, given the durations of events expressed in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years

Measurement: Measurement Relationships

▪         solve problems requiring conversion from metres to centimetres and from kilometres to metres

Geometry and Spatial Sense: Location and Movement

▪         locate an object using the cardinal directions (i.e., north, south, east, west) and a coordinate system

Mathematical Processes

▪          Problem Solving: develop, select, and apply problem-solving strategies as they pose and solve problems and conduct investigations, to help deepen their mathematical understanding

▪          Reflecting: demonstrate that they are reflecting on and monitoring their thinking to help clarify their understanding as they complete an investigation or solve a problem (e.g., by comparing and adjusting strategies used, by explaining why they think their results are reasonable, by recording their thinking in a math journal)

▪         Selecting Tools & Computational Strategies: select and use a variety of concrete, visual, and electronic learning tools and appropriate computational strategies to investigate mathematical ideas and to solve problems

▪         Representing: create a variety of representations of mathematical ideas (e.g., by using physical models, pictures, numbers, variables, diagrams, graphs, onscreen dynamic representations), make connections among them, and apply them to solve problems

▪         Communicating: communicate mathematical thinking orally, visually, and in writing, using everyday language, a basic mathematical vocabulary, and a variety of representations, and observing basic mathematical conventions

Figure 1 – Sample Project-Based Learning Activity

Additional PBL Resources

Robert Kaplinsky has an amazing website with a series of grade-based real-life challenges. In one lesson, “What does 2000 calories look like?”, students are asked to evaluate health labels of certain food products, determine how much of that food they can eat while adhering to a 2000-calorie diet, and then compare this with other foods. While exploring math, you can start to include some of the healthy eating curriculum into your discussions and student reflections. Click here to access Robert Kaplinsky’s grade level challenges.

Edutopia has published an article to provide educators with tips to ease in to PBL without getting overwhelmed. Click here to access the article Getting Started with Project-Based Learning on Edutopia.

For practical PBL resources, click here to access the Tools for Project-Based Learning page on the Common Sense Education website.

For more information on PBL in the science classroom, click here to access the article The New NGSS Classroom: A Curriculum Framework for Project-Based Science Learning on the American Federation of Teachers website.

Click here to read further about the ways in which PBL can be applied in the classroom.


Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.). What is PBL?. Retrieved from https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2005). Mathematics: The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/math18curr.pdf

Terada, Y. (2018). Boosting Student Engagement through Project-Based Learning. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/boosting-student-engagement-through-project-based-learning

About the Author:

Richard Parker is a teacher from the Halton District School Board and a strong advocate for students with exceptionalities. He is also a Google Certified Educator who has worked with students with exceptionalities throughout his career, first as a teacher in self-contained settings, and then as an Assistive Technology Lead within Halton. This led Richard to his current role at Trillium Demonstration School where he works with students with learning disabilities and severe reading impairments.