Want Access to Sprocket?
Want Access to Sprocket?
Read About
Project-based Learning
View Course and Project Overviews for English Language
Arts 9
Request Access
Defining Project Based Learning

Too often, school does not engage students and leaves them unprepared for active participation and success in college, careers, and democratic life. For students and teachers who want education to be rigorous, personally relevant and connected to authentic challenges, project-based learning is a way to deeply learn the content and skills needed to engage and empower students to lead fulfilling lives and productively contribute to creating a better world. By making learning personally and socially meaningful, students have a sense of purpose in school, and teachers are motivated to stay in the profession and help students engage with topics that matter to all of us. In a project-based learning classroom:

Students Learn Through Meaningful and Challenging Projects:
Well-designed, coherent projects integrate content and skills across multiple academic subjects when possible, and gradually build student knowledge through challenging, complex tasks.

Students Deeply Understand Content:
Deep content understanding is supported when students create high-quality, complex work by conducting research, applying ideas to real-world scenarios, revisiting concepts from different angles, generating and revising artifacts guided by feedback and reflection processes, and publicly presenting their work.

Students Interact Socially:
Social interactions that connect to who students are as people facilitate authentic scenarios where students can feel safe to productively struggle and take intellectual risks, display empathy and care for others, advocate for their beliefs, understand diverse perspectives, build relationships, and collaborate productively within a learning community.

Students are Invested:
Students are invested in their own learning because projects focus on authentic issues that they care about and that spark a genuine love of learning.

Driven by Research

Project-Based learning has its roots in prominent student-centered learning theories including John Dewey’s experiential-based philosophy and William Kilpatrick’s “project-method” approach. More recently, research from cognitive science and the learning sciences on how people learn reveals that there is evidence behind some of the core principles of project-based learning supporting the acquisition of what researchers call adaptive expertise, which is the ability to apply meaningfully knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively in different situations. In building adaptive expertise in learners, three key findings from the research point to the importance of learning environments that place learners at the center and value and support:

  • deep conceptual understanding rather than superficial learning
  • coherent and authentic knowledge rather than compartmentalized and decontextualized learning, and
  • collaborative and active learning rather than learning in isolation.

Project-based learning is the current pedagogical approach most in line with this research. By engaging students in answering driving questions and finding solutions to authentic, complex problems through sustained collaborative inquiry and investigation, project-based curricula are organized to support learners with deeply understanding core subject area content as key concepts spiral (or loop) throughout the course and are revisited in new contexts, requiring students to apply understanding in new and creative ways. This coherent organization of knowledge and the application and adaptation of content to novel situations leads to clear benefits in the classroom:

Deeper conceptual understanding and greater retention of content

Increased ability of students to problem solve, collaborate, and think critically

Increased student engagement and interest

Increased sense of community and belonging

For more information on the research behind project-based learning, see this literature review conducted by educational researchers MDRC. To learn more about project-based learning, visit our articles on our website.

Compose Our World Project Based Learning in 9th Grade English Language Arts

The Compose Our World curriculum was co-designed by a group of researchers and educators as a project-based learning approach to 9th grade English Language Arts. The year-long curriculum integrates social and emotional learning and Universal Design for Learning in projects that are engaging and accessible for all learners. This full-year course is highly adaptable to student interests and community concerns and aligns with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. Four core Projects that engage students in deep learning, reflection, empathy, and fun are organized around the question “How is our world composed for us, and how can we compose our world?” Throughout each Project students develop habits and routines for authentic making, collaboration, feedback/revision, reflection, and the social and emotional learning components of caring, advocacy, perspective taking, and empathy. Over time, students develop and refine products and performances for authentic audiences, and the projects build in complexity across the year. Students participating in this course with teacher support develop as readers, writers, and composers of media in today’s world.

Course Overview

The Projects
Project 1: Remix Our World

Students become remix artists exploring the question: How is the world composed for us, and how do we compose our world? Students use a critical literacy perspective to examine print and multimodal text in relation to purpose, perspective, and audience. The final product is a creative individual remix.

Project Overview

Project 2: What Happened Here

Students become human interest storytellers, exploring the question: What happened here? Students explore how perspective and audience shape the stories we tell about ourselves and our communities. The final product is a narrated digital photo story shared through a local or online film festival.

Project Overview

Project 3: Unearthing Humanity

Students become museum exhibit designers, examining the question: What does it mean to be human? Students explore various aspects of humanity, gathering evidence to identify and support their claim. The final product is an interactive museum exhibit that is shared with school and community members.

Project Overview

Project 4: Changing the Conversation

Students become change agents, exploring the question: How can we change the conversation about issues that are important to us? Teams critique public service announcements (PSAs), conduct research, design their own PSA media campaign, and distribute their campaign to a target audience.

Project Overview


Since the launch of Compose Our World in 2015, the design team has engaged in ongoing research and analysis to refine curriculum materials and the professional learning model, with the goal of creating resources suitable for widespread dissemination. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Stanford University also identified, refined and validated measures of teachers' curricular enactments and students' academic and social and emotional learning outcomes.

In 2018-2019 researchers conducted a study of 44 teachers and more than 1000 students in 20 schools across two states to evaluate qualities of enactments as well as academic and social-emotional learning outcomes. Preliminary results include increased student opportunities for authentic learning and collaboration in Project Based Learning English Language Arts classes when compared to students in traditional language arts classrooms. Additional student academic outcome results are forthcoming. Many educators reported that Compose Our World reinvigorates their practice and noted that the projects developed student creativity and communication skills. Analysis also shows that teachers’ asset based views of students and expertise at fostering student collaboration are associated with high quality PBL enactment. After fully enacting Compose Our World project-based learning for one year:


of teachers plan to use elements of COW in their 9th Grade and in other Language Arts courses in the future.


of teachers reported that the course worked well for learners with different needs and strengths.

4 out of 5

teachers noted that projects were more relevant to students’ lives than typical units they are used to teaching.

What Practitioners and Students are Saying about Compose Our World

I am able to reach all students, because they are interested in the topics, and can feel successful creating a product. I've had many students who have been unsuccessful in English class before tell me that they actually like English now.

- High School Language Arts Teacher in Colorado

I felt confident about my teaching for the first time in a while. I felt like yeah, this is going well, this is what I want it to be. Most of the units went really well and then you can't help but be invigorated when things are going more smoothly and the kids are excited and engaged.

- High School Language Arts Teacher in Michigan

I feel like I got better at expressing who I am, because I feel like in the past English classes, I would do the assignments but I never really got to express who I was in it. And so with these projects, I feel like I was able to do it.

- 9th grade student in Colorado

It is exciting just to see what students will come up with. It’s liberating in a way. The fact that students are doing most of the thinking, and most of the doing, I think is pretty cool.

- High School Language Arts Teacher in Colorado

Some of the projects you have to think more outside the box to get your final product out, like [the project on] what it means to be human. That one you really have to think outside, and really understand, and try to show what you knew in a creative way.

- 9th grade student in Colorado

I've never had a class like this. All of my language arts classes have never done anything like this before. It was an awakening because I didn’t know school could be like this … I actually feel good about going to school for once! We were actually doing projects that I wanted to do. It was like you get to do this, not a you have to do this.

- 9th grade student in Colorado

Request Access

Research and revision of The Compose Our World course materials is ongoing. An updated version of the course is available as a free open education resource to educators, instructors, and administrators. Sprocket is designed for teacher access, including teacher lesson planning and support materials, and is not open to students. You may request access now and you will be notified once your account is created.

We encourage educators to adapt the course to best suit the needs of their classrooms and for them to share their adaptations with other members of the Sprocket community.

To inquire about Compose Our World professional learning opportunities for your school or school district, please contact composeourworld@colorado.edu. Resources include in-person professional development sessions, on-site or virtual coaching, and collaborative planning support.

Request Access >
Scroll to Top