If you’re a teacher, you know that kids are an awful lot like bacteria. I mean, of course, that if you give them the correct conditions, they’ll thrive. If you culture bacteria in a warm, wet, nutritious environment, they’ll grow in ways you can hardly believe. And the same is true for your students.

The type of classroom you cultivate depends on the kind of culture you create. We’ve been exploring how purposeful project-based learning is the richest kind of environment to prepare our students for the 21st century. So, what kind of culture should we create to best enable our students to benefit from project-based learning?

Warm, Wet, and Nutritious

Bacteria thrive in environments that are warm, wet, and nutritious. PBL does as well.

  • The warmth is the fire of passion—for your content, for your students, and for the world.
  • The wetness is the willingness to get messy: to make mistakes and to learn from them.
  • And the nutrition? That’s all about collaboration. Let’s examine each of them more closely.

Want your students to be fired up about your projects? Get fired up yourself! There’s a reason you love what you teach—something captured your imagination and made you fall in love with your subject. Rekindle it.

I love science, and the wallpaper on my computer screen is the Hubble Ultra Deep field. Every time I close my windows, I can see galaxies that existed just after the dawn of time. Incredible! Also, never stop learning. Books and podcasts on your favorite topics abound—continue to learn so you remain filled with awe and wonder.

Another essential passion to fuel PBL culture is passion for your students. Three simple ways to show your students you care include greeting them every day at the door, getting to know their fears and their dreams, and going out of your way to make their day. A colleague of mine put two names on her calendar every school day, and made a commitment to make their day. What a clever tribute to the power of positivity!

Finally, share your passion for the world! When you build projects that address real problems that your students care about, your culture becomes fired up about making a difference—and that is the best kind of passion you can kindle in your class.


Projects involve learning from failure, so you must help your students embrace failure as an opportunity for growth.

We kill a curious culture when we treat “fail” like a four-letter word. When we refuse to name failure, we reinforce the message that it’s some kind of monster. Build a failure-friendly culture by naming failure—both when we fail, and when our students do.

This is controversial but correct: when a student project doesn’t meet the mark, smile and say, “Well, that was a total failure. But that’s okay; that’s how we learn!”

Of course, we need to supplement that by teaching students explicitly about the power of failure. We need to explain how we can’t grow if we stay inside our comfort zone, and illustrate the point using memorable examples from history like Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan, and J.K. Rowling.

Most importantly, help students embrace failure by using strategies that help them grow from their mistakes. Give them open-ended challenges that don’t have perfect answers, let them receive peer feedback, and allow them to iterate on their designs in a way that permits them to see how powerful it is to recognize and learn from error.


Connection is the fuel of PBL culture. A great PBL classroom is full of students who serve as conduits for great ideas. You’ve heard of Think, Pair, Share. Don’t let its commonness deter you; it is the single most powerful mechanism for helping students generate, share, and refine ideas. TPS is at the heart of great PBL classrooms.

Peer coaching is similarly powerful. Be on the lookout for times when a group of students understand something important to your project. Then, let them teach the students who don’t. Watch as “teachers” solidify their understanding by articulating what they know, and as “students” learn from their peers better than they ever could have learned from you.

Finally, play a game called Truth Contagion if there’s disagreement about how to answer a particular question. Simply count how many people believe each answer or approach is correct. Then, let them wander about, trying to convince each other. Remind students that the point of the game is for truth to spread through the classroom, and that this only works when they really put ideas to the test.

After students have had a chance to connect, count again how many people believe each approach to be correct. If your classroom culture is thriving, collaboration will improve answer quality.


By creating a classroom full of passion, where students embrace failure as a chance to grow, and where connectivity and collaboration thrive, you’ll be creating the conditions your culture needs to create a life-changing PBL experiences.

What about you? How do you inspire growth within your classroom?