Why Project-Based Learning Serves Girls (And Boys) Well

Part of a series of blog posts on Project-Based Learning. A collaboration between Portfolio School and Hudson Lab School.

Boys flock to innovative, hands-on, Project-Based Learning (PBL) schools like Portfolio School and Hudson Lab School, led there by parents who have come to realize -- often through difficult conversations with teachers and administrators -- that traditional school models do not serve their sons well.  Boys chafe against the physical constraints of teacher-imposed desk-time and the curricular constraints of fractured learning-time. When visiting Portfolio School and Hudson Lab School, parents easily visualize how their sons will thrive in this environment that:

  • Fosters hands-on learning with real-life applications

  • Promotes autonomy

  • Emphasizes learning through failure and iterations

  • Encourages collaboration

  • Schedules core academic and project learning time to allow for deep investigations

So, we ask ourselves, even if this type of education is clearly understood to be beneficial for boys, why should girls be missing out on the present and future benefits of Project-Based Learning?  

While the struggle of boys in traditional school models is made clearly evident to parents, that of girls is not nearly so visible.  For one thing, girls are socialized early to meet and exceed expectations of “good behavior”. Girls in traditional schools demonstrate daily the skills they have spent their preschool years mastering:  compliance and competence. Their early expertise in self-regulation (raising one’s hand before speaking, taking turns) comes at the expense of self-confidence, inhibits risk-taking for fear of failure, and undervalues pushing boundaries.   

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and author of Brave, Not Perfect:  Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder acknowledges “having spent my adult life only pursuing positions or projects I knew I’d ace” and laments that “many women stick to doing only the things at which they excel, rarely going beyond what makes them feel confident and comfortable.”   She notes that:

There’s a reason why we women feel and act this way.  It has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with how we’ve been trained.  As girls, we’re taught from a very young age to play it safe. To strive to get all A’s to please our parents and teachers….  To sit quietly and obediently…. Well-meaning parents and teachers guide us toward activities we excel at so we can shine, and they steer us away from the ones we aren’t naturally good at to spare our feelings and grade point averages.  Of course, the intentions are good; no parent wants to see their daughter injured, disappointed, or discouraged. The bubble wrap in which we are cocooned comes with love and caring, so no one realizes how much it insulates us from taking risks and going after our dreams later in life.

Contrast this to the messages that boys receive where they are encouraged to “try new things, tinker with gadgets and tools, and get right back in the game….  Unlike girls, they are rewarded with approval and praise for taking chances, even if things don’t work out.”

In The Confidence Code for Girls, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman likewise conclude that what has served women well in school, ends up holding them back in the workplace. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back.  Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

At schools like Portfolio and Hudson Lab School, both girls and boys benefit from working to solve challenging, real-world problems through immersive projects, from a physical environment that promotes autonomy and self-regulation, independence and collaboration, from mastering core academic skills in personalized instruction, and from a strong growth mindset curriculum.  In short, we encourage girls and boys to be “Be Brave” in their learning and in their lives. Why would anyone want less for their daughters?


For more:

Listen to Reshma Saujani’s February 8, 2019 interview with Brian Lehrer on his podcast.

“Raising Resilient Girls”

Tuesday, March 12th
6:30 - 8:00 PM

Join Portfolio School on Tuesday, March 12th at 6:30 for “Raising Resilient Girls.” Girls Leadership speaks to parents and teachers across the country about the challenges girls face today, the reasons why we see girls struggling, and what we can do to help them. In this acclaimed 1-hour talk (followed by a 30 minute Q&A), we share how to help girls practice assertive self-expression, emotional intelligence and healthy relationships, preparing them for a life of personal and social leadership. This engaging presentation covers the development of girl dynamics beginning in preschool through high school. Register