Meet ISTE Standards for Students with a PBL Approach

Project-based learning helps develop future-ready students and provides opportunities to apply digital-age skills

image of team reaching summit

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) released its first standards for students in 1998. Recognizing the need to move beyond technical skills and toward effective integration into classroom learning, ISTE released new Standards for Students in 2007. These standards were refreshed again in 2016 to reflect the skills students need for success in our rapidly changing world.

ISTE’s vision for developing the Standards for Students is to provide guidance in helping students prepare for careers in our global and digital economy. Project-based learning, as opposed to project work, is uniquely suited to meeting these intended goals.

What is Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning is a student-centered and inquiry-based approach to learning that asks educators to coach students through the deep thinking necessary to effectively construct knowledge. In a project-based approach to learning, students are presented with a real issue or problem and learn content to solve it. Students also hone critical and creative thinking skills, communication, leadership, collaboration, and other digital-age skills outlined in the ISTE Standards for Students.

So what does project-based learning look like? Instead of learning content and skills and then building a compost bin in science or graphing the size and weight of garbage in math, a PBL approach might simply show students how much waste is produced in your cafeteria on a given day.

A project-based approach then relies on students to:

  1. set the goal of reducing waste,
  2. break down the problem,
  3. ideate and choose how they might address the issue,
  4. communicate and implement their solution.

Students may choose to build a compost bin or to graph the weight of garbage, but they choose to take this action on their own and then learn how to because they need to know this information and these skills in order to achieve their project goals.

A PBL approach meets the goals of Knowledge Constructor (3)

While project-based learning may not be explicitly mentioned in the ISTE Standards for Students, the standards refer to the tenets of a project-based approach in standards like:

d. Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions. (Knowledge Constructor)

In order to demonstrate their learning during a project-based learning process, students must “critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences.”

A project-based approach to a school garden helps students construct knowledge that is relevant and appropriate to them as learners by asking students to drive the entire process. For example, will students choose to design and implement a food garden? For what purpose… education, healthy eating, sustainability? Or should they design a native plant garden, habitat for butterflies, or water-wise solution? The response depends on their interest and expertise of their team as well as the community in which they live or are designing for.

image of student garden design

After students choose why, then they determine what, when and where to plant, and are in charge of how it will be implemented and maintained. This combination of driving the inquiry process and being responsible for results provides a natural platform for building the skills necessary for success in college and career, as well as effectively building content knowledge.

PBL requires students to become Innovative Designers (4)

The real-world issues students explore and work to address in a PBL approach provide a powerful context for using technology “to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions” as mentioned in the Innovative Designer standards. As students work to develop solutions, they become familiar with using a design process, as well as utilize digital tools to manage, create, and refine their work. (4a, 4b, 4c).

Great project-based learning also prompts student thinking with tasks that are complex enough to encourage multiple approaches, helping students develop a “tolerance for ambiguity” (4d) as they are not told exactly what to do or know there is a single expected answer. This complexity also helps them develop perseverance as they develop ways to address the problem, not simply provide a correct answer.

PBL pushes students to be Creative Communicators (6)

A project-based learning approach places responsibility on the students to choose the most appropriate design and presentation format that will ultimately yield the greatest impact on their intended audience, pushing students to become purposeful and creative and communicators. For example, a poster designed to raise awareness or change behavior would certainly look different in an elementary school than in an office workplace. Students may even find that a research brief is far more impactful than a poster in certain situations.

As they work to share ideas and learning they have gained during the project-building process, students “choose the appropriate platforms and tools” (6a) to “create original works… or new creations” (6b) using “using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations” (6c) and publishing and presenting their results in a way that “customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences” (6d).

PBL provides context for ISTE Standards for Students

Project-based learning provides a meaningful context for skills outlined in the ISTE Standards for Students. For example, a PBL approach provides students with an authentic purpose and the autonomy to become Empowered Learners (1) as they “take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency” (1a) and “transfer their knowledge” (1d) to solve real world problems and issues.

While explicit instruction in some form of coding is essential to help students become master Computational Thinkers, PBL provides a meaningful reason for students to “formulate problem definitions” (5a), “collect, analyze, and represent data” (5b), “create and test automated solutions” (5d) by asking students to “leverage the power of technology methods to develop and test solutions” that make the world they live in a better place.

Project-based learning also engages students in civil society as they work to develop a solution that improves or changes lives beyond the walls of their classroom. Rather than learning a digital citizenship rule, such as protecting your password or online etiquette, students work in a context that demonstrates how the action is important to their success.

When students do real work that is used and valued outside of the classroom, Fair Use Guidelines no longer apply, and their work must reflect “respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property” (2c). As they do authentic work in the outside world, they also put their intellectual property and work for others to see, necessarily requiring them to “cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation” (2a).


Technology enhances the project-based learning approach by making it easier for students to transcend time and space to connect with experts and peers as they “build networks” (1b) and “seek feedback” (1c). Digital tools also help PBL expand into the global realm by making it easy to collaborate (7b) and “connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures” (7a).

The complexity of the task in project-based learning makes it obvious that the important issues and problems facing our world today can’t be solved by a single person and require a range of perspectives, skills, and experiences. As students work with a team to solve a problem with a range of stakeholders and many potential solutions, technology becomes both a necessary and powerful tool to enact change and improve our world, helping students see how the goals and skills of the ISTE Standards connect to their lives.

Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

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