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by Bruce King
Authentic Intellectual Work Institute, University of Wisconsin

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November 1, 2016
Authentic Intellectual Work and Project Based Learning: Why Gold Standard PBL Is So Critical

by Bruce King
Authentic Intellectual Work Institute, University of Wisconsin

“Relevance without rigor is no better than rigor without relevance,” wrote Egon Guba in 1981 referring to educational research. The same should apply today to the usual work students do in school. Gold Standard Project Based Learning and the framework for Authentic Intellectual Work bring these (often vague or poorly defined) ideas of rigor and relevance together in ways that promote engagement, effort, and learning for diverse learners.


You may have heard recently of a court decision in Connecticut in which the judge ordered a major overhaul of the state’s school system. This in a state with the highest average reading scores in the country for fourth and eighth graders on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP. As a NY Times article stated,


“After the decades of lawsuits about equity and adequacy in education financing, after federal efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, after fights over the Common Core standards and high-stakes testing, and the tug of war between charter schools and community schools, the stubborn achievement gaps between rich and poor, minority and white students persist.”


Maybe that’s because we’re not, in general, working on the right stuff. I want to applaud the Buck Institute and the many PBL schools who are. It is teachers and students interacting with high-level content on powerful tasks (what Richard Elmore calls the instructional core) that make the biggest difference for higher and more equitable outcomes for diverse learners, as well as helping students prepare for democratic life.

Why is Gold Standard Project Based Learning so important and why does it matter? There are numerous answers to that question but one critical piece is that Essential PBL Design Elements meet the criteria for Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW).

3 Criteria for Authentic Intellectual Work
From research studies in the 1990’s (Newmann & Associates, 1996) to our recent professional development efforts to build teachers’ instructional capacity (AIW Institute), we define the AIW framework through three criteria, as shown on the above image:

  • Construction of Knowledge
  • Disciplined Inquiry
  • Value Beyond School

Construction of knowledge involves organizing, interpreting, evaluating, or synthesizing prior knowledge to solve unique or novel problems. Students use higher order or critical thinking rather than simply recalling or memorizing established knowledge.

Authentic intellectual accomplishments require that construction of knowledge be guided by disciplined inquiry. By this we mean that students (1) use a prior knowledge base, often grounded in an academic or applied discipline; (2) strive for in-depth understanding of concepts, big ideas, or problems rather than superficial awareness; and (3) they develop and express that understanding through elaborated forms of communication.

Finally, meaningful intellectual accomplishments have utilitarian, aesthetic, or personal value. The key here is to involve students in learning activity - regardless of whether it conforms to familiar notions of relevance, student interest, or personalization - that presents an intellectual challenge that, when successfully met, has meaning to students beyond complying with the usual requirements of schooling. In short, students understand that their learning has value beyond school.

In Dubuque, Iowa, at a middle school we worked with on AIW, the principal challenged his grade level teaching teams to develop powerful project based units. Students, with their teachers’ help, developed fund-raising efforts to support the non-profit Friends of Homacho, an impoverished village in Ethiopia. Student voice and social action combined with rigorous academic work (e.g., geographic and scientific research, essays and other forms of elaborated communication like public service announcements) to not only make a difference but to advance student learning. This is bucking the dominant trend.


In over 20 years of research, in hundreds of schools in different communities throughout the United States and abroad with diverse student populations in grades 3-12, and in different subject areas, studies consistently show achievement advantages to students (regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or disability status) whose teachers made higher demands for authentic intellectual work. On both conventional standardized tests and more authentic assessments of student achievement, students with teachers who scored high on AIW criteria learn more than students whose teachers scored low.

In the US and elsewhere, student background characteristics like income, race/ethnicity, disability, and language largely predict achievement outcomes. Most instructional approaches reinforce and reproduce social inequalities and privilege. But learning opportunities like PBL that meet AIW criteria can break this pattern and advance equity and excellence in education.


Dr. M. Bruce King is a faculty member in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and directs the AIW Institute. He has been a colleague of Fred Newmann and a researcher on studies at Wisconsin since the 1990’s that looked at the extent of Authentic Intellectual Work and its impact on student learning.

Bruce is a co-author of a recent book, Authentic Intellectual Work: Improving Teaching for Rigorous Learning (2016) and he edited How Schools and Districts Meet Rigorous Standards Through Authentic Intellectual Work: Lessons From the Field (2016). For more information on these books and AIW research, please visit


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