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


The buzz word in parenting these days is GRIT. According to pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth, the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but grit, a special blend of passion and perseverance. Research shows that you can actually grow your grit, but like any hero's journey, you'll have to overcome your own personal forms of resistance and face challenges every step of the way. So how do we foster grit in our kids? 

1. STAND BACK. If your child asks for help, give helpful and encouraging words instead of a helping hand. More than half the time, your child will figure it out.

2. FOCUS ON EFFORT... NOT SKILL. Our skill level at anything is determined by a mixture of talent and practice. If we aren't blessed with natural talent at something, we can apply focus, determination and practice to improve. Reinforce this growth mindset every chance you get whether your kid excels or falters. Praise all the focused practice that made winning possible or reflect on how to practice better to improve for next time.

3. CELEBRATE FAILURES. My favorite podcast right now is How I Built This with Guy Raz. Guy interviews successful entrepreneurs and every single one discusses their spectacular failures. Each of us has our own path and we don't always choose the right one the first time... or the second... or the twentieth... Once your kid internalizes that failing is the most efficient path to learning and that failing is part of the process, a glorious world of unexplored opportunities opens up.

4. NURTURE PASSIONS. When you do what you love, you spend every spare minute thinking about it, so there's a higher probability that you'll rise to the top organically. Take John Mackey for example. He loved being a grocer. His mother urged him to go back to college and pursue a different career path, but he stuck with his passion and founded Whole Foods Market. 

Running a project-based school and summer camp means that we spend a lot of time thinking about how to infuse grit and a growth mindset in the classroom. Here, mistakes never go on your permanent record. We celebrate mistakes because students are taking risks and challenging themselves and learning deeply. In our lesson plans, we focus on process over end product. Teachers support students in developing metacognition and learning how to approach problems rather than seeking a single right answer. The most important thing we do at Hudson Lab School is to celebrate our students' unique strengths and passions. By focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses, we afford ourselves the opportunity to harness our potential.