Planning for Purposeful Project-Based Learning

By Shannon Anderson, author of  Mindset Power: A Kid’s Guide to Growing Better Every Day

What does it take to make project-based learning an engaging, curiosity-building, creativity-inducing experience? Just make sure you have these teacher-tested, kid-approved ingredients: a meaningful purpose, an opportunity for agency, and an authentic audience.

Planning for Purposeful Project-Based Learning

Meaningful Purpose

Students will be more motivated to learn about something if there is a purpose for it. What is the “why”? Is it something kids care about? Is it something relevant to your current classroom learning? Is the goal more than to meet required standards?

Opportunity for Agency

When students have choices, they experience ownership. They work harder to problem-solve and care more about the outcome. Do kids have some choices about their topic? Is there room for students to be creative in the way they research for the project? Can they decide how they are going to present their information?

Authentic Audience

Having an authentic audience helps kids make decisions about what is relevant to share. It gives a purpose for doing the work. Presenting in some form with an authentic audience helps kids develop confidence, a sense of authority, and speaking skills.

Project Prototype: Career Exploration

This is a project that can be beneficial for kids from first through twelfth grade! To differentiate, you can adjust the level of support you provide with research and resources.

For this project, students will think about a career they would like to learn more about.

The only requirements are that they:

  1. Explain why they chose this career to study.
  2. Tell about what they think the best parts of the job would be.
  3. Tell what they think the most challenging parts of the job would be.
  4. Share what kind of training and learning is required to do this career.
  5. Share a fun fact about the job.

Students can present this information in any form! Ideas include, but are not limited to, a digital presentation, a physical display or presentation, using props, dressing up as a person in that career and sharing as if you have the job, a book with information about the career, acting it out, a poem or song about it, and so on.

Now let’s look at how this project fits our three requirements.

Meaningful purpose: Exploring career possibilities allows kids to think about what they may want to do in the future. Most students will work somewhere for a job, and this career exploration can help them decide what work they might enjoy.

Opportunity for agency: Students get to decide which career they want to learn about. They also decide how they’ll find the information. They might decide to research online, interview someone with that job, read about it in books, or find podcasts or videos about the career. Students also get to choose how they will present the information they learn.

Authentic audience: For this project, you can have students present to their class, other classes, to parents, to various school staff, or to community members. They could even present to high school or local college students to share careers they may want to consider exploring! Other options include recording their presentations and sharing the recording on a secure platform or class YouTube channel. It could be recorded as an audio file and shared on a class or school podcast. You can also make a hallway display and put the recordings on a QR code so that students in other classes can scan the code when they have time to watch. This could also be displayed at an open house for people to scan with their phones.

This, of course, is just one example of a project-based lesson to try. Think of other content you’d like kids to explore. They could choose an animal to study, a person they admire (biography project), or a service project they’d like to try. Adjust the requirements as needed. Just be sure to give them a purpose, choices, and an audience.

Shannon Anderson, M.Ed., authorShannon Anderson has taught for 25 years, from first grade through college level. Her career highlight was being named one of the Top 10 Teachers who inspired the Today Show. Shannon is also the author of many children’s books and a national speaker. She was named the JC Runyon Person of the Year for her work helping kids with social and emotional issues through her writing and speaking. To find out more, you can visit:

Free Spirit books by Shannon Anderson:

Mindset PowerY is for YetPenelope PerfectCoasting Casey

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