Planning for PBL Implementation

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 >


Planning for project-based learning takes a lot of time and effort. All teachers who have planned a new project know the work that goes into making one a success. You have to create an engaging driving question to focus the inquiry. You need to select and plan for products and authentic audiences while being mindful of voice and choice. You have to plan a great project launch. You must align the project to standards. And the list goes on and on.

However, after this initial phase, the planning isn’t complete. Next, you move into the nitty-gritty—the day-to-day work of students, the calendar of tasks and instructional activities. Because the students drive the learning, this aspect of planning can be difficult to map out.

Here are some ideas on planning PBL project implementation so you can be both ready to go at the outset and flexible in responding to how students shape the project as they learn.

PLANNING FOR AN ORDERLY MESS OF LEARNING
Start with the learning targets: While planning a project, it’s easy to move quickly to the activities, tasks, and instruction you think students will need. Most of the time, our instincts are spot on, but sometimes we get too focused on these points and lose sight of what we want students to learn. When we focus on that, we can be more intentional about the instruction students will need.

While they’re nothing new, learning targets can help provide a focus for learning and the intentionality needed for implementation. We should start by unpacking standards into small, achievable, focused learning goals. This involves taking a standard and analyzing the nouns and verbs to create leveled targets. For example, a standard might include the phrasing “analyze the causes and effects of a historical event or development,” but it might be helpful to create targets that include words like “identify” or “classify” in order to ensure that learning is incremental and moves at an appropriate pace.

The learning targets we generate might separate out concepts if a standard has several within it. For example, if the standard included the concepts “perpendicular,” “parallel,” “intersection,” and the like, I might have a different learning target for each one.

Many teachers use “I can” learning targets to make them more student-friendly. When we break down our objectives, we make learning more incremental, and we, as teachers, can think through all the learning that needs to occur and how long that might take.

Plan the what and how, not the when: Many of us are linear people—we like to have events occur in a logical, often chronological, order. But when we plan a PBL project, we need to be more flexible in our thinking. Yes, some things will need to occur in a linear fashion. For example, we most likely will have a clear start, aim for many set milestones, and come to a logical conclusion with a demonstration and celebration of learning in the project.

That broad linear outline allows for a lot of flexibility. Once you have your learning targets in writing, you can pair them with appropriate instruction, scaffolding, and tasks that will support students in meeting them. Activities and instruction don’t disappear in a project—they just need to be used at the right time. PBL focuses on inquiry and student questioning: Once students generate their initial list of questions, teachers can be ready with appropriate instructional moves to support their learning.

Instead of having a rigid calendar, you can keep a list of scaffolding and instruction that’s ready to go when students are ready for it. They will continue to answer questions, ask new questions, and discover information and ideas, and you’ll eventually need to provide that scaffolding and instruction. The Buck Institute for Education has a Student Learning Guide form to help you plan that process.

Leverage differentiation: One of the key components of differentiating a PBL project is thinking about what instruction and scaffolding is needed for the whole class, for small groups, and for individuals. We can learn critical lessons on differentiation from the pedagogy for English language learners, special education students, and so on. We can provide different types of instruction and scaffolding instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach—planning units of instruction while knowing that all students may not need every unit.

We have those units ready, but only provide them to the students who need them. Through assessment, we can identify when the instruction and scaffolding are needed—with the peace of mind of knowing that we’ve thought through the instruction and are prepared to differentiate as needed.

Be prepared, mentally and on paper, for an orderly mess in a PBL experience. When we plan projects focused on the learning, we can be more responsive to students, with lessons and assessments on hand to provide just-in-time instruction for them as they learn through powerful inquiry.

A More Complete Picture of Student Learning

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’m really excited to see that educators are clear about the use of formative and summative assessment. We’re using formative assessment to gauge the effectiveness of our teaching and to know what our students know and have yet to learn. We’re using summative assessment to evaluate student progress toward course goals and report grades.

It’s important that we understand the difference and communicate it to students effectively. At my school, I hear students explaining the difference to each other, and I know that they see their formative assessments as growth opportunities. They know that they have to show mastery.

At the same time, by naming assessments, we may be falling into a trap of being too rigid. I know that when some teachers name an assessment as summative, they might be wary of changing it to formative. Sometimes our curriculum prescribes these assessments and whether or not they’re summative, and we might feel compelled to comply with that direction.

Our current assessments are geared toward reporting on mastery—often what the grade measures—rather than learning. But we could create assessments that value the learning along the way. Such a system would record not just quizzes, tests, written work, and presentations, but also exit tickets, and even conversations between student and teacher.

I think the next step in the conversation around assessment is to be more flexible and to approach assessment of student learning as a photo album or a body of evidence rather than as one or the other of two things, either formative or summative.

It’s OK to Be Flexible
At the moment, the terms formative and summative are used to describe the intention of the assessment. Is the intention to check in on what students have learned thus far? Is the intention to reflect on instruction and perhaps change practice? Is the intention to give meaningful feedback to students? Is the intention for students to reflect and set goals? If the answer to these questions is yes, the intention of the assessment is formative. And if the intent is to score, grade, or provide a cumulative evaluation of learning, then the assessment is more likely summative.

It’s important to remember that assessments and their purpose can change. If a majority of students are not successful on an assessment that was intended as summative, educators should have the power to make that assessment formative.

And if a student performs at standard on an assessment that was originally intended as formative, educators might choose to use that assessment as summative.

Instead of being rigid, we should be able to change the purpose and use of an assessment in order to meet the needs of our students.

A Photo Album
Imagine that you hired a professional photographer to document an important event in your life. Maybe it’s a wedding, a trip, or a religious celebration. After the event, you reach out to that photographer, excited to see the moments that were captured. The photographer instead sends you only one photo—one photo that is supposed to capture all the important memories of the event.

We would never want just one photo of a big life event, and we shouldn’t want only one assessment to record our learning journey. Assessment should be more like a photo album, capturing many moments of learning. A photo album captures pictures of people, processes, items, events, and more, just as assessment should. If we treated assessment like a photo album, we’d use a variety of moments to get a better picture of student learning.

A photo album is celebratory and powerful, and assessment should be the same.

A Body of Evidence
As the teachers I work with plan units, I encourage them to not be tied down to rigid structures of assessment. Instead, they should continue to collect a variety of assessments. Students should take their own pictures, so to speak, and propose their own student-generated assessments to balance out ownership of the assessment process and products.

Consider the idea of a body of evidence. When we focus on a body of evidence, we don’t have to limit ourselves to a set number of assessments. We can use a variety of assessments to report student learning, from ones that we mandate to ones mandated by our districts to ones generated by our students.

So students might have different numbers of assessments. With some students, we may need more evidence of learning than we do with other students. All students deserve a body of evidence that shows their learning. This approach honors teacher skill and judgment and helps us better know and report on what students have learned.

Here are some questions to reflect upon as we consider this approach to assessment:

How can students generate their own assessment tasks?
Where can I be flexible in using assessments to report on student learning?
Can I use a variety of types of assessment to create an album of student learning?
Can I rely on a body of evidence rather than a set number of assessments?
How can I report on the most current data of my students?
How should I communicate this approach to parents and students?

Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do

Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do

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 >

When you design a powerful project-based learning (PBL) experience for your students, you should consider doing it yourself—there are many benefits. You’ll learn the challenges students will encounter and can use that knowledge in your planning. You’ll be able to hone the assessment because you’ll know what’s learned and showcased in the project. And you’ll create a valuable exemplar or product sample for students to critique.

You’ll also build trust with your students as they see that you as an adult are a partner in the learning, not simply an adult giving them a task. You can share your learning with your students and give them feedback, hints, and warnings. All in all, doing a project we ask of students has a lot of payoffs.

But we’re all very busy, so how are we supposed to find the time to complete a project that can take 10 hours or more?

Consider Doing a Project Slice
A project slice is exactly what it sounds like. If a full PBL project is a pizza, a project slice is a sliver of it. It contains all the elements of the full project, but in a shorter form. Project slices can take one day or might be extended a bit longer depending on time available. The project doesn’t have to be one teachers plan to do in the classroom.

We know the value of PBL for professional development. Teachers work together on an authentic challenge to become true learners, exploring a driving question and participating in a launch, receiving instruction and feedback to support learning, and sharing their work and learning publicly. This helps teachers reflect on the experience of PBL, see challenges students will face, and create engagement and excitement for doing PBL in the classroom.

Many schools and organizations have done project slices. I participated in facilitating a project slice for teachers at PBL World in which they reimagined a school courtyard to focus on a global goal. A group of teachers at High Tech High engaged in a week-long project slice around the question: “What is our responsibility to our global neighbors?” And a principal I know designed a project slice to have teachers solve the issues of parking as well as parents picking up and dropping off students at her school.

Creating Your Own Project Slice
Designing a project slice is a lot like designing a PBL project. Here are some planning questions to support your thinking:

  • What is the authentic challenge? The project slice should be focused on something real and relevant. Consider local issues, perhaps school- or community-related. These don’t have to be huge issues like climate change or food scarcity; options include a school challenge or a local connection to a larger national or global issue.
  • What are the content and skills to be learned? The project should not only be authentic and meaningful but connected to clear outcomes. Pick standards and corresponding success skills, like presentation and collaboration, to give learners clear guidelines for success. While it might seem silly to have teachers do a project aligned to seventh-grade math and English language arts standards, doing so allows them to experience a project with a clear connection to content and skills and how they might be assessed.
  • What is the launch? All PBL experiences have something to launch the inquiry and solicit learner questions. Consider using a piece of correspondence, a video, or even a guest speaker to launch the project slice.
  • Who is the audience? It’s always challenging to get audience members for student presentations and work. Recruit parents, community members, and students long before the project slice occurs. Make the sharing of public work as real as possible.
  • How long will the slice be, and when will it occur? It’s most likely easiest to make this happen on a designated professional development day if you already have that in your calendar. A slice can also be a volunteer option during the school year, with the use of substitute or guest teachers.
  • How will direct instruction and other scaffolds be used in the slice? It’s really powerful when teachers experience direct instruction in a slice, as they see how it can fit into a project. Scaffolding activities like readings, research, jigsaws, and the like can support the learners in the project slice and model a variety of instructional strategies.
  • How will participants get feedback and reflect? Plan reflection along the way to mirror this critical component of a student project. Reflection can take the form of journals, table talks, and quick writes. And have participants give each other feedback to model critique.

Focus on Being a Learner
While it is critical to reflect on the implications of teaching through PBL as you engage in a project slice, it’s also important to pay attention to being a learner. There can be moments when we step out of the project slice experience to think about implementation as a teacher, but it’s extremely powerful to commit to being a learner and reflect on that experience. Use the reflective moments planned inside the project slice to reflect on how it felt to be a learner. What challenged you? What was exciting? What did you learn? What do you want to learn next?

In Search of the Driving Question

In Search of the Driving Question

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 >

Project-based learning teachers can choose from among many types of driving questions, but sometimes we get stuck when trying to come up with a great one because there are so many considerations in the design process that informs the crafting of an effective driving question.

Here are some ideas for how to resolve these difficulties and craft a strong question for your project.

Driving or Essential?
I’ve had teachers ask, “What is the difference between driving questions and essential questions?” It comes down to intent. In my discussions with Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design—the book that developed the idea of the essential question—he and I came to the conclusion that a driving question might fall in Stage 1 (Desired Outcomes) or Stage 3 (Learning Plan) of the Understanding by Design framework. The desired outcomes are focused on learning, and thus include skills and knowledge we want students to learn, as well as questions directly connected to that learning. An essential question is always in Stage 1, as it aligns to desired learning results.

However, when you dig into the use and intent of a driving question, it is intended to be a tool to engage students. It’s part of the learning plan and a hook to engage students. An essential question, while provocative and intended to lead to inquiry, does not need to be the hook—a teacher may or may not use every essential question with their students, but the driving question is always used with students during instruction throughout the project.

Teachers use driving questions in learning activities to direct the students’ inquiry and increase their engagement. In fact, the driving question operationalizes the challenge, which is part of the learning plan. A driving question may have many essential questions connected to it or that come out of the inquiry process.

Great Options
The best—though sometimes frustrating—part of driving questions is that there are so many options. Here are some of the most popular types of driving questions.

  • Philosophical or Debatable: These types of questions are honestly debatable and have complex possible answers. All driving questions should be open-ended, but philosophical or debatable questions by nature require rigorous thought and corresponding student products. Example: Should we build a new highway in the proposed area?
  • Product-Oriented: This is a great type of driving question to use if you have a specific student product in mind. It isn’t just about the product, but the purpose as well. Examples: How do we create a podcast to debunk myths and stereotypes of world religions? How do I create a marketing plan for a local business?
  • Role-Oriented: Students, even in high school, love to take on roles and pretend to be things they’re not. In this type of driving question, you give students an authentic or real-world role with a problem to solve or project to accomplish. Example: How do I as a scientist design an experiment to debunk a common scientific myth?

Generating Powerful Driving Questions

  • Focus on Action: As I wrote in a previous article, verbs can be powerful tools for student engagement when it comes to questions. While tell might be appropriate, maybe convince or advocate are better actions to take. Think about using powerful, action-oriented verbs.
  • Remember Age Appropriateness: One refinement consideration is the age and maturity of your students. A product-oriented question might be too wordy for younger students. And we don’t want the driving question to be too academic for students. For older students, we might be able to be more provocative with the questions. Consider what your students will understand and find engaging.
  • Try a Round Robin: Sometimes the best help is right next to us—our colleagues. One powerful strategy that helps us generate new ideas is a Round Robin, where we pass ideas around a table or large group. Write a driving question for your project and pass it to a colleague. That colleague writes another possible question. The paper is passed to another colleague, and the process continues until the paper is filled with driving questions. You can use the many ideas to affirm your thinking, adjust your question, or create a brand-new one.
  • Give the Question to a Student: We spend time crafting and refining driving questions for students, so test out the driving question you’ve created on students and see how they react. Take a small group of students aside for a focus group or just share it in a casual conversation. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, “I guess that sounds cool.”
  • Create the Question With Students: If you and your students are up for it, take time to create the question in class. You might use a method like the Question Formulation Technique to have students generate many questions on a topic or focus statement, and then help to narrow that list to one overarching driving question. Or have students create questions, narrow them down to a short list yourself, and then have students vote on the one they should investigate as a class. It’s perfectly fine to give students a driving question, but consider challenging them to be agents in creating it in the first place.
Using PBL to Meet C3 Social Studies Standards

Using PBL to Meet C3 Social Studies Standards

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 >

Schools within the United States and around the world are in the process of adopting the new College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, or C3. These standards seek to upgrade existing standards in the states, districts, and schools and to help strengthen the rigor of social studies education.

Our students are naturally curious, and the C3 framework works to foster that curiosity in the implementation of standards with a heavy focus on inquiry. Indeed, it’s easy to find resources that have “Inquiries” aligned to the C3 framework. Examples include kindergarten students investigating “Needs and Wants” using the question “Can we ever get everything we want?” and 10th graders using the question “Does development mean progress?” as they learn about the African countries of Kenya, Botswana, and Algeria.

Project-based learning can be a powerful tool to implement the C3, scaffold inquiries like these, and upgrade such inquiries to be even more authentic and focused on taking action.

PBL and the Four Dimensions of the C3
The C3 has four dimensions: one focused on questioning and inquiry; another on disciplinary knowledge and concepts relating to civics, economics, geography, and history; another on evaluating and using evidence; and a final one on communicating and taking action.

If you’re a PBL teacher, you can see the alignment to PBL. Both PBL and the C3 have a heavy emphasis on inquiry. Indeed, PBL requires sustained inquiry over time via a powerful driving question. PBL also requires students to learn content knowledge and skills in a variety of disciplines. PBL requires students to communicate their ideas through addressing local and global problems and engaging in the authentic work of adults. And PBL puts a heavy emphasis on presentation and connecting with the public.

While the C3 puts a more intentional focus on evaluating sources and using evidence, most PBL teachers would argue that their projects require both. Overall, PBL and the C3 align very well, and PBL can provide a practical framework for implementation of the C3 that truly engages students.

Using PBL to Scaffold Inquiry
PBL doesn’t just engage students in inquiry—it gives students the tools to become skilled inquirers. All projects have a driving question to focus the learning and work. The C3 includes standards that have students write their own “compelling questions” individually and with other students and explain key ideas, questions, and content connecting with their compelling questions. Teachers implementing the C3 can use PBL’s driving questions as their compelling questions to engage students and support their inquiries.

In addition, as students become more skilled inquirers, they can write their own driving questions for projects that are co-created by teacher and students. In addition to the tool of the driving question, the “need to know”—or student question list—can help scaffold the inquiry process. When teachers launch a project, they solicit students’ questions. Students also revisit these questions, revise them, and come up with new questions. PBL can support students learning the skills in this first dimension of the C3.

Essential Disciplinary Knowledge
One possible misconception about the C3 is that one needs to give equal time and attention to every standard included. In fact, the C3 leaves it up to schools to determine what is essential and when it is taught. The C3 provides four subjects in Dimension 2 to focus on—civics, economics, geography, and history—and allows for companion subjects such as anthropology and religious studies. The standards are a framework for teachers and schools to make decisions about what is taught.

As teachers use PBL projects to implement the C3, they must decide what is essential for students to learn. PBL requires a backward design process of identifying content and skills students will learn in the project. Teachers can use PBL to help them focus on the essential learning of the C3 rather than trying to do it all.

Authentic and Meaningful Claims and Evidence
As a project creates a list of “need to know” content and skills, it also creates a need to make claims and use evidence to support those claims. Two teachers in my school recently implemented a project aligned to the C3 framework and the psychology companion subject. In the project, students created guides on the psychology of teen behavior. They developed opinions about how parents, adults, and their peers could work effectively with each other, and used psychological content knowledge and sources to back their ideas up. The project created an authentic need to make claims about working with teams as well as citing important sources to back up those claims.

Dimension 4 of the C3 requires students to take informed action and communicate their conclusions. Students are required to do this collaboratively and to critique each other’s ideas. PBL likewise includes critique and revision, and students engage in multiple stages of feedback that takes on many forms, including teacher conferences, peer review, and critique protocols.

Also, PBL requires students to share their learning with the public, and the best projects have students actually making a difference in their community. One elementary school project I’ve seen had students investigate important people in their community and celebrate them. Students made presentations and had voice and choice in the person or career they wanted to investigate. PBL provides a context for communicating and taking action that engages students.

PBL is an effective framework that not only aligns to the C3, but upgrades implementation with authenticity, scaffolds inquiry, and focuses on essential learning.

It’s OK to Say No

It’s OK to Say No

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 just finished my first year at a new school. I feel like that sentence is enough—anyone who has just completed their first year anywhere knows how challenging it can be. Adjusting to new students and colleagues as well as new structures and curriculum is a big task.

With all these moving parts, it’s easy to get caught up in constantly being busy. In fact, I recently read an article in The Atlantic that resonated with me. “‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time” articulates what many of us experience and how “I’m busy” is an all-too-common phrase these days. I’ve been extremely guilty of this. When I run into colleagues, I feel the need to explain how busy I am, with too many tasks and numerous meetings.

Being busy is seen as a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, as we transition to a new school year, we have an opportunity to push back on that narrative and not focus on being busy, but instead slow down and take stock of ourselves and our purpose.

What’s Your Why?
Because the first year in a new role is a whirlwind, it’s easy to lose track of why you decided to take on the challenging role of educator. It’s easy to get discouraged with the many tasks and the overall state of being busy. I’ve learned to take time to center myself and remember why I’m doing the work I’m doing. Some might do more formal mediation or even reflective journaling.

Regardless, taking the time to remember your why is important. Why did I get into teaching? Why do I believe in the power of elementary education? Why is what I do every day important to my students? These questions can inspire you and encourage you to look past all the hustle and bustle of daily work in education to your true purpose.

What’s the Why?
As with our reasons for being an educator, we should never be afraid to question traditions and normal day-to-day tasks. Traditions are powerful, so powerful in fact that questioning them can seem awkward or even offensive. Traditions are traditions because they have powerful meaning to many people, but we must also remember that changing times might require traditions to adapt or perhaps be discarded.

At my school, we’ve had some challenges with our exploratory program, where students get to spend school time investigating and exploring topics and tasks of their choice. The program generally yields great results, but recently the results have been inconsistent and called into question. This is completely normal. Sometimes programs need to be analyzed and refined. A team was formed to do just this. From the meetings of this team, we created a clear purpose statement for exploratory. We rediscovered our why for the program, which will help us make decisions as we move forward and will give us a sense of purpose and meaning.

As you start a new school year, make sure to consider the why of the many things that occur in school. Doing so will allow you and others to ensure that what you’re doing is focused and not just busy work.

It’s OK to Say No
We can’t do it all. In fact, I push back on the narrative that teachers are superheroes. Teachers are amazing, but the pitfall of being a superhero is taking on too heavy a burden. In that spirit, be OK with saying no to offers. Take on leadership roles, be part of committees, and coach, but also know that too much work can take its toll. Take stock on your many jobs, roles, and activities, and go ahead and say, “No, thank you. I have a lot of great things I’m working on, and I don’t want them to suffer if I’m stretched too thin.”

Similarly, feel free to look for others to take on roles or jobs you may no longer want. I have a colleague who recently became a proud father. He was a leader of many activities and coached every season, but he decided to give up some leadership opportunities to spend more time with his child. When he explained this to his principal, the principal completely understood. Explaining your priorities can make saying no a lot easier.

I’d like to hope that next year I won’t be so busy. I look forward to meaningful work, but not the pressure to do more and to be so busy that I lose sight of my sense of purpose. As educators, we have an opportunity to change the narrative from “being busy” to “being productive and purposeful.”

Pin It on Pinterest