How Does PBL Build Confidence?

Low Self-Image

An important element of the Social Emotional Learning competency of Self-Awareness is confidence. Many students lack a strong sense of self. Middle and high school are a time when young people are trying to figure out who they are. It is a period of experimentation and discovery. Students may focus on sports, music, the arts, or something else that they are passionate about. Peer relationships and social status are incredibly important with social media oftentimes amplifying and publicizing what in the past may have been minor issues. Today’s students feel an increasing amount of stress in their lives.

When it comes to school, some students dedicate themselves to high achievement as they identify education as a path to future goals, while others opt out merely going through the motions of a compulsory education that they find irrelevant to their lives. Some kids are “mentally” dropped out of school. They still physically show up (most days) but are rarely engaged in learning and are just putting in their time to earn a diploma and escape. Some students who have struggled in the past have given up on ever being successful at school and are just trying to get by. As a math teacher, I often see kids who just want a passing grade so they can move on. They have such a poor self-image regarding the subject matter that they cannot fathom ever being successful at it.

PBL Shifts Mindsets

One of the powerful aspects of Project Based Learning is that it can challenge students’ perspectives of themselves. PBL places students in situations where they can grow their strengths and develop areas of weakness with teacher coaching and the support of their team. Once students view themselves as successful, the sky’s the limit for what they can tackle and achieve.

One summer my school had a group of Chinese middle schoolers visit in a student exchange program. They were challenged to design 6 foot tall trebuchets to launch watermelons. The boys immediately started enthusiastically designing and constructing their ideas.

I noticed a group of three girls who were on their phones, basically not doing anything. Now I have lived in China so have some cultural understanding of the situation. In order for any of these students to visit the US, they came from wealthy families. Labor is cheap in China, so these families would most likely pay someone else to do any kind of construction or repairs in their apartment rather than own tools and do it themselves. On top of that, gender roles would definitely not have Chinese girls building something with tools.

So I made it my goal to get this group of girls engaged with the project. I made small talk with them and then asked about what they were thinking in their design. I taught them how to use the power tools to build their ideas. The girls quickly got excited and tackled the project. I wish I had a picture of the girl shown drilling at the top of this post with the miter saw. Once I showed her how to use it, she became “saw girl” and wouldn’t let anyone else use it. The girls started taking pics and videos of themselves working and sending them back home even though it was the middle of the night in China.

These girls lacked confidence because they were being asked to do something totally out of their comfort zone and life experience. They needed some mentorship and scaffolding–I had to teach them how to operate power tools. Then they were full of enthusiasm as they built their trebuchet. Pride flowed in their smiles in the pics they sent to their families and friends. They went from apathy to engaged to proud of their work. That is the power of PBL. When students take on purposeful tasks they develop SEL and academic skills leading to confidence in themselves.

I have seen countless students build confidence through PBL. I have watched shy students, terrified to speak out in class, become school ambassadors eloquently leading tours to guests at our schools and proudly sharing their learning in public presentations. I have seen students who have previously struggled with reading and writing transform themselves to successful students through the literacy embedded in PBL. They are motivated to show off the findings of their projects, working tirelessly to present themselves professionally. Positive audience feedback on their high quality of work further builds confidence in who they are as learners.

Most importantly, students view themselves as change makers in the world with power and influence right now, not having to wait until they are adults to have a voice.

Let’s Connect

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to develop skills like confidence (and the rest of the SEL competencies too!) I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am scheduling PBL & SEL workshops for this summer right now. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.