This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


In the project-based learning field, we use the metaphor that projects are the “main course, not the dessert” (as coined in an article from the Buck Institute for Education). Projects are intended to create the need-to-know content and skills, and the opportunity for students to learn them in an authentic context. When teachers first design PBL projects, they are often limited. In fact, I recommend that. Teachers and students must learn to become better PBL practitioners, so limited projects can lead to more ambitious projects. One of the criteria for a more ambitious project is to integrate the disciplines. This can be easy or challenging depending on your context, grade level, and schedule structures. However, if we want to challenge our students — and ourselves — we need to create “full-course meal” projects.

Use a Variety of Planning Strategies
I wrote about many of these strategies in a previous blog post. Teachers need to give themselves lots of planning time, as it is much more complex to create an integrated project. In addition, they need to have conversations about how their disciplines can not only connect, but also add more depth to the learning. Teachers in the image above use a graphic organizer to help plan their thoughts, connections, standards, and project components. The learning objectives and project components have to fit together like a nice puzzle, and should not feel forced — students will know! In addition, there should be limited products, allowing students to synthesize their learning from all disciplines.

Larger Part of the Meal
Not all integrated projects are equal when it comes to the disciplines. Sometimes a project might hit more standards in math than in English, but those subjects are still connected in the project. This might mean that there is a lead discipline where a majority of the project might live. It’s perfectly fine to integrate a project this way. Sometimes certain disciplines are driving the project, while others are there to provide needed and authentic support. Again, it is crucial that the teacher creates the project’s need to know, and it’s OK that there might be more to learn in one discipline than in another. To continue the metaphor, a project might have social studies as the main course for the meal, with delicious sides in CTE, English, and math.

Many “Courses” in the Project
Sometimes, all components of the project can happen at the same time, where the meal includes not only what could be the larger part or “meat” of the project, but also the sides. This might mean that the project is occurring concurrently in English, science, art, and math. On the other hand, projects can move “course to course,” where some courses occur at different times, but one after another. For instance, the project might start in English and art, then move to science, then to math. This can be an effective method for teachers who are concerned about benchmarks and pacing guides. Sometimes, teachers use multiple entry events to continue the momentum as well. It is critical that no matter when the project occurs, in a sequence or concurrently, there is a focused driving question and a project idea that creates the need to know in all content areas.

Until we move out the antiquated, “silo” nature of schooling where disciplines exist on their own, integration can be a challenge. However, we need to look for opportunities to integrate in PBL, where deeper learning can deepen even more as students make connections, explore across disciplines, and synthesize the learning. A full-course meal project, while challenging to create an implement, can be a powerful learning experience for students.

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This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


I have a commitment to high-quality PBL experiences for all students. I want to make sure that the projects teachers and students are creating and implementing together meet some minimum quality indicators. The Buck Institute for Education has an excellent rubric to assess a PBL project, as does the New Tech Network. This can help to make sure that your projects are in fact PBL and not a “dessert project.” To that end, some of the terms and ideas that come up from time to time get on my nerves. Why? Because they run the risk of undermining high-quality PBL. Here are just some of the terms and ideas that I have issue with.

“PBL Lesson”
PBL is not a “lesson.” Lessons are short-term instructional plans that take anywhere from a part of a day to multiple days of instruction. They focus on limited learning objectives. In addition, a lesson has a limited amount of assessments. PBL, on the other hand, has many lessons built into it. In fact, teachers plan PBL projects to meet multiple learning objectives, and use the lessons within it to scaffold the learning for students. Summative assessments take the form of products, and many formative assessments are planned to ensure that students master multiple learning outcomes in a PBL project. When people use the term “PBL lesson,” it incorrectly oversimplifies the learning objectives and scope of a PBL project.

Unrelated Public Audience
Yes, one of the essential components of PBL is indeed a public audience. But PBL doesn’t simply call for the work to be made public. The public audience component needs to make sense in terms of your project. It must be connected to the challenge, scenario, or problem of the project. If you have students creating and proposing new bridge designs, it would make sense to get an architect or engineer to review the designs. Simply posting it on a website isn’t enough, and may not create the relevance and buy-in you want for students. It is critical that when teachers consider the public audience for a PBL project, the audience must connect in authentic and relevant ways. Ask yourself these two key reflection questions as you pick the right public audience:

Who needs to see our work?
Who would find our work helpful and important?

Inquiry Equals Research
Research by itself is not inquiry. The Buck Institute of Education describes inquiry in PBL this way: “Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers.” Yes, research is one part of inquiry, but again, only one part of it. Inquiry is a cycle. When teachers launch the project, they should create a Need to Know list that includes students’ questions, and they should use that list to guide the project. As students learn more, they develop new questions. These questions might be answered through teacher-designed activities and scaffolding, through research, or even through fieldwork. This process of questioning and developing answers takes more that just one cycle. If we want deeper learning in a PBL, there needs to be more that just research — there needs to be inquiry. Consider this graphic posted on TeachThought.

Voice and Choice in Products Only
One major oversimplification is that voice and choice in PBL projects has to do only with the products that students create. Yes, this is one aspect of voice and choice, but another key component is how students conduct and spend their time in the project. Teachers need to consider not only what their students create, but also how they give students space to make decisions around teamwork, tasks, and the inquiry process. Now, this level of voice and choice depends not only on the age group, but also the level of the PBL learners. At the beginning stages of PBL, there may not be as much voice and choice, but there needs to be some. Many elementary teachers, for example, lead discussions and brainstorming sessions with students to help them figure out the next steps in the project, whether that takes the form of some instruction from the teacher or more inquiry. In PBL, all students can have some level of control in the inquiry process.

These are some of the terms and ideas around PBL that get on my nerves. If we want to make sure that we are in fact doing great PBL in our schools and community, we need to avoid these misunderstandings and incorrect ideas. While PBL has a variety of implementation methods, structures, and lengths, there are some minimum criteria that a project must meet for it to be PBL.

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