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Using Project-Based Learning to Integrate Arts Education with Afterschool Programming



Out-of-School Time (OST) programs are often viewed as a way to supplement students’ education, particularly in disciplines, like art, that are under-represented during the school day. However, OST programs operate in a world of competing demands for time and resources. In the City of Philadelphia OST network, the solution to this problem is Project-Based Learning (PBL). An inquiry-based instructional method, PBL presents students with real-world, multidisciplinary problems requiring critical thinking and collaboration. PBL is unique among teaching methods by virtue of its flexibility, and is ideal for afterschool programs interested in arts integration. Because PBL is a flexible teaching model, rather than a fixed curriculum, it is adaptable and can fit comfortably in a number of program environments.


Out-of-School Time (OST) programs are often viewed as a way to supplement students’ education, particularly in disciplines, like art, that are under-represented during the school day. However, OST programs operate in a world of competing demands for time and resources. In the City of Philadelphia OST network, the solution to this problem is Project-Based Learning (PBL). An inquiry-based instructional method, PBL presents students with real-world, multidisciplinary problems requiring critical thinking and collaboration. PBL is unique among teaching methods by virtue of its flexibility, and is ideal for afterschool programs interested in arts integration. Because PBL is a flexible teaching model, rather than a fixed curriculum, it is adaptable and can fit comfortably in a number of program environments.

The Problem: Busy Afterschool Programs have Little Time for Art Enrichment

The Problem: Busy Afterschool Programs have Little Time for Art Enrichment

Out-of-School Time (OST) programs are often viewed as a way to supplement students’ education. Their freedom from standardized testing and rigid requirements provides an opportunity to reinforce the learning of the school day and to offer those activities or subjects no longer addressed during school hours. Where schools cannot provide arts education, OST programs provide a logical solution. However, while many OST programs recognize the value of art, they struggle to incorporate it in a meaningful way. Competition between arts enrichment and other activities limits the time available for arts instruction. Also, traditional afterschool arts and crafts activities, like coloring, cutting out pre-printed pictures and beadwork, fail to provide rigorous, challenging learning opportunities.

A high quality OST program is expected to address many needs: a safe environment; academic enrichment; positive relationships with staff and peers; engaging activities; and physical needs, such as meals and exercise. Programs often place a priority on helping students with homework and providing academic enrichment, leaving little time for other enrichment activities. A typical day for an elementary OST program might include 30 minutes for snack and socializing, 45 minutes for homework, 30 minutes for physical activity, and the remaining 30 minutes for an enrichment activity, which may or may not be related to arts.

However, meaningful arts opportunities are clearly necessary. A 2011 report from the National Endowment for the Arts found a decline in school-based arts offerings, particularly since 2001 (Rabkin and Hedberg 2011). The decline in art education has been greatest in the areas of music and visual arts and disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic students. This trend is alarming given the arts’ potential to impact students’ academic success, pro-social relationships and future achievement, and the arts’ place in a well-rounded education. The arts teach students to be problem-solvers who look for connections and exercise judgment. The arts help students to communicate their thoughts and feelings and to explore their creativity. These skills—problem solving, communication, innovation—are 21stcentury skills that students will need to be successful in higher education and the workforce of a knowledge economy.

Any proposed solution would need to be flexible and multidisciplinary, and to accommodate competing scheduling demands in the afterschool setting, while still providing thoroughgoing, rigorous learning opportunities. The City of Philadelphia OST network, and its intermediary, Public Health Management Corporation, have found this solution in Project-Based Learning (PBL).

The Solution: Project-Based Learning

The Solution: Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning (PBL) provides a platform for OST programs to integrate art into a crowded afterschool day. PBL is a student-driven instructional method that presents students with real-world, multidisciplinary problems requiring critical thinking and collaboration. In PBL, students begin by asking an open-ended Driving Question, which animates many weeks of sustained inquiry and activities. A good driving question should be relevant to students, speak to their interests in a meaningful way, and emphasize the real-world applicability of academic concepts. Driving Questions elude simple, easy answers, instead requiring students to analyze new information and think critically.

In the PBL model, the project culminates in an event where students publicly present their work, skills and learning. Students synthesize the project content and hone communication skills while celebrating their accomplishments. Instructors can use the Culminating Event to assess the students’ mastery of these new skills and concepts. Moreover, the Culminating Event is an opportunity for staff and students to invite family members, teachers and friends, and deepen ties to the community.

The PBL methodology allows each program or classroom to explore questions of interest to them. At the Caring People Alliance-West Philadelphia Community Center, students completed a project titled, “Opera for Everyone.” The Driving Question, “How can I use opera to express my emotions?” did not invite a simple, yes-or-no answer, but instead challenged students to learn about the components of a good opera, including sets, costumes, musical instruments, music and lyrics. Additionally, by inviting students to convey their own emotions, the Driving Question took opera, a musical style that many young people may not appreciate, and made it personal and relevant.

Working from this Driving Question, students completed activities over the course of seven weeks. Students visited the Kimmel Center to learn about the parts of a stage and the Mummers Museum to learn about costumes and masks. Students listened to selections from different operas, and learned to recognize different instruments by their sounds. Ultimately, the students at West Philadelphia Community Center composed an opera, which they performed for family and friends.

As seen in the “Opera for Everyone” project, PBL is a flexible teaching method that allows for youth voice and choice, not a pre-packaged curriculum. While PBL does not require programs to incorporate art, many programs do so successfully. In the City of Philadelphia OST network, students have completed projects on topics ranging from studies of Greek mythology to modern media. This flexibility allows OST programs to root a single project in a number of different disciplines, including art, and to consider students’ interests when developing a project.

A growing body of peer-reviewed research demonstrates that PBL is an effective way to integrate higher-order thinking skills and core academic content. Students in PBL classrooms perform as well, if not better, on standardized tests than their peers in traditional classrooms. Additionally, PBL improves students’ ability to reason and argue clearly, to answer conceptual problems, and to hypothesize accurately.

Traditional Projects Project Based Learning
Teacher directed Student driven
Thematic Driving Question
Single answer Open-ended
Answer giving Problem solving
School world Real world

PBL empowers OST programs to capitalize on the strengths and unique features of afterschool education. Afterschool programs are not pressured to meet specific curricular demands or to prepare students for standardized testing, and therefore have more freedom to incorporate enrichment activities. Moreover, afterschool classes operate with a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, offering more opportunities for hands-on instruction and individual attention.

Using PBL, OST providers can preserve the fun and freedom of afterschool programming, while still integrating rigorous academic content and high-quality art activities. Admittedly, at the end of a long school day, many students are less open to traditional classroom instruction. However, by integrating student voice and incorporating the appealing qualities of unstructured play, PBL allows OST programs to present students with planned activities that are nevertheless fun and engaging.

The PBL method includes documentation that tracks project content, student performance and project completion. OST program staff members record the project content on the Project Planning Form, allowing OST agencies and OST network intermediaries to measure the time spent on art activities. Additionally, project activities are recorded on a Task List, which students and staff members complete together. The Task List provides students with a big-picture sense of the project, and helps them understand the ways that one day’s activity relates to the next. Staff members use project-specific rubrics to assess student performance during the project. The rubric tracks students’ mastery of project content, communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills.

PBL’s Flexibility is Ideal for Arts Integration

PBL’s Flexibility is Ideal for Arts Integration

PBL is unique among teaching methods in that it is flexible enough to allow for arts integration, even in programs that are not art-focused, but simultaneously rigorous enough to ensure high-quality, academically challenging activities.

At Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP), art is central to the mission of the organization. All of the agency’s projects incorporate art. But PBL also helps the program to take an interdisciplinary approach and connect art to other subjects. “Since we’ve implemented Project Based Learning, the incorporation of art projects has been consistently more meaningful and relevant to students’ interests and experiences,” says Site Director Rebecca Mulligan. “Because each project focuses on one topic from many angles, teachers incorporate art to make sure the topic is explored in varied and hands-on approaches.” Staff members are challenged to think about how each project connects to new subject matter and the practice of 21stcentury skills. For example, the high school group at NSNP, Prodigies, has a youth-run silk screening business that develops not only students’ graphic design skills, but also their skills in entrepreneurship, communication and community outreach.

On the other hand, PBL also works for those programs that do not have a specific arts-focus, helping them to incorporate art into projects that do not, at first glance, appear related to art. The mission of the Education Works program at Cleveland Elementary is to enrich students’ lives through educational services. The program recently embarked on a project to study ancient Egypt. The students decided the best way to present what they learned about Egypt was to create a “Mummy at Cleveland” video in which they wrote a script, acted and filmed the adventures of a modern-day mummy. Jeaneen Eggleston, the 21st Century Coordinator of the site, says that the project motivated students to “utilize their imagination and creativity. The students were eager to work on the Mummy movie each day and pushed each other to focus and be on task.” The use of the dramatic arts enhanced the students’ project and engaged them more deeply in the process and content.

As with the arts, PBL helps students develop important skills, including critical thinking and communication, through hands-on experiences. Jeremy Ross, Deputy Director of the OST Program at Visitation BVM School, contrasts the PBL approach with a traditional classroom. While traditional classrooms may present material and expect students to memorize it, the PBL approach begins with a driving question and then “essentially supports a process where the students can develop their own answers.” Site Coordinator of the North Star After-School Program at Fairhill School, Tim Gibbon, emphasizes that through PBL “students learn 21st century skills like teamwork and confidence, as well as career-building skills.” The PBL methodology allows students to explore, to work together and to create.

This highlights an important distinction: art versus arts-and-crafts. In the afterschool field many programs engage in arts-and-crafts. Students enjoy them, they fill time nicely, and students leave the program with a colored picture or a popsicle-stick craft to show their families. But these activities are not art in the true sense of the word. As noted in the National Art Education Association’s 2008 advocacy statement, “Making art is about making meaning” (National Art Education Association 2008). The PBL approach encourages programs to move beyond arts-and-crafts and to engage in meaningful art that incorporates student voice. Mulligan explains that the structure of PBL has increased the level of student voice at NSNP. Previously, “most teachers planned their lessons and activities with less student input because there were not times as clearly dedicated to planning with students,” she says. But under the PBL model, staff “greatly value student input in planning and see a direct connection to students’ investment and enjoyment.”

Because it begins with student voice and engages students in a process of problem solving and creating, PBL pairs perfectly with the arts. Ross explains, “Bringing art into PBL seems like a natural fit because once a student understands the process of how to create something, they can then use that process to express themselves and explain their perspective. Art draws a student’s individual experience to the forefront in the same way that PBL draws out student leadership through the learning process.” This process leads to the creation of authentic art, which students showcase at the project’s culminating event.

The Benefits of PBL Implementation Extend Beyond Project Content

The Benefits of PBL Implementation Extend Beyond Project Content

Integrating PBL into afterschool programs has an overall positive impact that goes beyond arts integration. Because PBL is an inquiry-driven, multidisciplinary teaching method, students build important workplace and critical-thinking skills while completing arts projects. PBL emphasizes service learning, and deepens the ties between afterschool programs, students and their communities. At the same time, PBL empowers students and gives them an opportunity for self-expression.

One of the primary goals of PBL is to develop students’ 21stcentury skills. In 2006, more than 400 employers were asked what skills young employees will need in the 21st century workplace. The skills that employers valued most—critical thinking, communication, professionalism, collaboration—are the very skills that PBL is designed to emphasize, whatever the project content (Casner-Lotto 2006).
Critical-thinking is an essential component of good PBL. Because PBL emphasizes inquiry-based learning, students must engage in a process of problem solving as they seek answers to their Driving Question. Ultimately, their answers will be the result of evidence gathering, reflection and analysis.

PBL activities are also a perfect opportunity to practice teamwork and collaboration skills. Each student must understand clearly his or her role within the team, and the expectations of the team as a whole. A successful team will be comprised of members who hold one another accountable.

Students must be able to communicate effectively, both while speaking and in writing. Projects provide opportunities for students to practice both of these skills in creative ways. Brochures, blog posts and advertising campaigns allow students to cultivate writing skills outside of the familiar context of school assignments, while the Culminating Event gives students an opportunity to practice public speaking.

PBL encourages and deepens the ties between students and their communities. A good Driving Question is authentic and relevant to students, which is to say, the topic touches students’ lives in a direct, meaningful way. And so, rather than asking “Why is smoking bad for you?” a relevant Driving Question might ask, “How can we reduce asthma in Kensington?”

When students ask questions that touch their lives and their communities, they are also empowered to effect change in their communities. In the Driving Question listed above, students focus their energies on reducing asthma and its causes, rather than merely studying them. Jeremy Ross, of Visitation BVM explains that, in a relevant, community-focused art project, students were able “to illustrate the conditions they were facing in their neighborhoods and bring their concerns to the attention of elected officials. Art was both an outlet for students and a basis for community activism.”

Students can also use PBL activities to gain a new appreciation for their community and its resources. Through PBL, OST programs can expose students to unfamiliar cultures, foster pride in the community, and collaborate with local artists. Rebecca from NSP explains, “We work to bring in guest speakers and artists on each topic in order for students to see the skills and talents that exist within their own community—whether it is storytelling, ceramics or music.”

PBL, while rigorous and academically demanding, also gives students a platform from which to express themselves. Youth input is central to every step of the PBL process, from choosing a project topic, to crafting a Driving Question, through every activity and, finally, the Culminating Event. Jeremy Ross explains, “The student-driven nature of PBL requires programming that is highly participatory and conversational. Unlike in a traditional classroom, you can’t just throw down the content for students to absorb.” Rebecca at NSNP echoes this same sentiment, and notes that “since we’ve implemented PBL, the art projects have been consistently more meaningful and relevant to students’ interests and experiences.”

In PBL, student expression happens not only in the project design, but throughout project activities as well. At Congreso’s North Star After-School Program at Fairhill School, students interested in music completed the Beats, Rhymes, Life project. The project challenged students to use song lyrics to paint a picture of their lives and their neighborhoods. At the conclusion of the project, students visited a sound studio to record their songs. The project effectively fused student interest, student voice and community engagement. As Site Director Tim Gibbon explains, projects like this one “require students to synthesize what they experience, express it artistically, and share their project with the community.”

PBL is Low-cost, Replicable and Easily Adapted to Individual Program’s Needs

PBL is Low-cost, Replicable and Easily Adapted to Individual Program’s Needs

Because it is a student-driven approach to programming, rather than a curriculum for purchase, the PBL model can be replicated in other Out of School Time programs for relatively little cost. As the intermediary for Philadelphia’s city-funded OST network, the Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC) adapted and developed a range of resources to assist OST providers with PBL. These resources include planning forms, tutorials, sample projects, articles, videos and links to relevant websites. All of these resources are available free of charge at PHMC’s OST Project Based Learning Blog (

Perhaps the greatest challenge to replicating PBL is the time and associated cost of training staff in the PBL methodology. Whether the goal is to implement PBL in a single site or across a large network, professional development for program staff is essential. PHMC offers a full menu of free PBL workshops to providers in the Philadelphia network, from introductory workshops on the basics of PBL planning and implementation to more specialized workshops. These workshops are offered on a rotating basis and are available on-site when a program requests coaching. To encourage attendance, workshop facilitators are certified by the Pennsylvania Quality Assurance System, with the result that workshops count toward the mandatory professional development hours required of licensed programs.

Training direct-service staff is essential. PHMC initially offered training to site directors and agency leaders but not to direct-service staff. However, frontline staff members were widely responsible for implementing and, at some sites, planning projects. To address this gap, PHMC expanded its trainings to include direct-service staff. As they attended trainings, frontline staff members learned the PBL philosophy and method firsthand. Many came to embrace the PBL approach because it gave cohesion and direction to their own best practices. Moreover, PHMC found that training veteran staff members empowered them to become PBL advocates in their own OST programs.
In addition to offering internal PBL workshops, PHMC also delivers workshops through the Southeast Regional Key. These workshops are open to all licensed child care programs in Pennsylvania for a nominal fee. Interested agencies may also contract with PHMC to deliver more targeted workshops or provide coaching on site.

Challenges and Recommendations

Challenges and Recommendations

After two years of implementing PBL across the OST network, PHMC recommends Project-Based Learning as an ideal approach to arts integration in the afterschool day. Admittedly, implementing a new teaching method is not without challenges. However, based on the experience of the nearly 200 OST programs in the City of Philadelphia network, these challenges certainly do not outweigh the benefits of PBL implementation, and can be easily addressed with careful, considered planning.

Like any teaching approach, PBL only works when program staff members are engaged with students and committed to the method. PHMC program specialists, who monitor and observe activities at OST sites in the City of Philadelphia network, report that poor PBL implementation is most often the result of a lack of staff training or a lack of staff buy-in.

In Philadelphia, the lack of staff buy-in was often the result of confusion or uncertainty about the PBL method. As noted above, once direct-line staff members, who were immediately responsible for facilitating PBL activities in the classroom, were trained in the PBL method, they were able to approach the OST programming day with confidence. PHMC has created a comprehensive training pipeline to prepare OST providers to implement PBL. OST providers outside of the Philadelphia area can find a wealth of information about PBL online, including PHMC’s OST Project-Based Learning Blog. Additionally, national organizations like the Buck Institute for Education offer PBL training in locations throughout the country.

A lack of staff buy-in may also result from resistance to the PBL instructional method. More often than not, this is not resistance to PBL, per se, but resistance to (and resentment of) the implication that a new teaching approach is being adopted because the old approach was bad or wrong. It is important to emphasize—especially to veteran staff members who are rightly proud of the work they do—that PBL is a way to maximize afterschool programming hours and enhance already effective activities.

With the introduction of PBL, some OST providers reported a conflict between Project-Based Learning and other academic goals, particularly homework assistance. Against the backdrop of an overcrowded afterschool programming day, OST providers who saw PBL as another item on an already busy schedule struggled to incorporate it into the programming day. However, PBL is not a separate item on the afterschool schedule, but an approach to programming woven throughout each activity. For example, a program that already offers classes on Latin dance and drumming might implement a project that examines the cultural roots of these art forms. The project would incorporate, not replace, these classes and enhance students’ experience and understanding. Successful OST providers are able to integrate a variety of activities into the PBL approach, and as a result, both increase the quality of existing activities and offer new learning.



Project-Based Learning is an effective method of engaging students in arts programming, academic learning, and skill building. Because PBL is a flexible, interdisciplinary model, even programs without an explicit arts focus can incorporate meaningful art instruction. The PBL method emphasizes the importance of student voice so that project topics are relevant to students’ lives. Frequently projects are rooted in service learning, and so PBL implementation deepens the ties between OST programs and their communities. Moreover, PBL’s emphasis on communication and critical thinking provides students with opportunities for meaningful self-expression through the arts. For those interested to learn more, PHMC offers a number of free resources to OST providers interested in PBL, many of which can be found on the OST Project-Based Learning Blog.

Jason Schwalm is a Program Specialist with the Out-of-School Time Project at Public Health Management Corporation. Before joining PHMC, he was the Site Coordinator at an OST program in South Philadelphia. Currently, he provides professional development and support to OST programs throughout Philadelphia, and maintains the OST Project Based Learning blog. He has a B.A. and J.D., both from the University of Louisville.

Karen Tylek is the Project Based Learning Coordinator with the Out of School Time Project at Public Health Management Corporation. She has 9 years of experience in education and youth development. Currently Karen provides professional development and support to OST staff around PBL. She regularly contributes to the OST Project Based Learning Blog. Karen earned an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. from Loyola College Maryland..



Casner-Lotto, J. (2006). Are They Really Ready to Work? Employers’ Perspectives on the Basic Knowledge and Applied Skills of New Entrants to the 21st Century U.S. Workforce. The Conference Board, Inc., the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management. Available at

National Art Education Association. (2008). Visual Arts in After School Programs. Reston, VA: Author. Available at

Rabkin, N. and E.C. Hedberg. (2011 February). Arts Education in America: What the declines mean for arts participation. National Endowment for the Arts. Available at