This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

We all know that project-based learning (PBL) works, and there is research to support this. Districts leaders and individual teachers use PBL to deliver content, including content aligned to new, rigorous standards such as the Common Core State Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. Projects integrating this learning strategy can come in all shapes and sizes; some projects are interdisciplinary while others focus on a single discipline, and each project can use varying levels of technology. Though each project can cover a wide variety of topics, there are common “essential elements,” as identified by the Buck Institute for Education, that must exist for true PBL to take place. While these elements provide a great foundation for building effective projects, educators can take project design even further to motivate all learners.

True Voice and Choice
To effectively implement PBL in the classroom, educators must first motivate and engage their students. Teachers can often accomplish this by allowing students to provide input on their learning experiences. When educators begin providing voice and choice to students, however, they often do so sparingly. Instead, teachers need to personalize each student’s level of voice and choice based on how they learn. On the ambitious end of offering voice and choice, an educator can serve as a conductor overseeing how students will shape their learning experiences, what path they will take, and how they will demonstrate that learning. Educators should continually aim for this student-centered learning style, and not adhere to a permanent practice of offering limited voice and choice.

Authentic Work
One necessary element of PBL is that students engage in authentic and meaningful activities. In order to reach this level of engagement, students must be able to envision an authentic audience that would benefit from their learning activities. Engaging students in authentic work can make it easier for them to see how their activities could influence an authentic audience by introducing them to real world challenges. Reflecting on questions such as “Who can provide us with relevant, expert feedback?” and “Who would find our work valuable and needed?” can help educators develop meaningful PBL activities. Students can make a difference, and educators should build projects around authentic purposes. When the work matters and is shared with an authentic audience, students are intrinsically motivated by the fact that what they are doing has value.

Challenge and Rigor
One major myth of student engagement is the idea that all learning should be fun. Yes, fun projects can engage some students, but only temporarily. In fact, challenging and rigorous assignments are often more motivating than fun and easy activities. We’ve all experienced times when we were appropriately challenged; we lost track of time, we thought more deeply, and we learned. Educators should seek to challenge students. When educators provide rigorous and authentic projects and give students voice and choice, students will accept that challenge. PBL doesn’t demand more work; it demands challenging work.

Educators who implement PBL using the following strategies will find that their students want to dig deeper and learn the material. Sometimes these projects “get out of control” in a good way and spawn new, authentic projects that teach important content skills. A skilled educator can see this deviation as an opportunity to harness student motivation and to further engage students in the learning process.

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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 >


My project-based learning colleague John Larmer wrote a great blog on whether or not to start the year with a PBL project. He astutely articulates the benefits and challenges of doing it, as well as other considerations for implementation. Regardless, PBL teachers want to start the year off on the right foot to make sure that PBL is part of the classroom culture. Here are some steps that you can take at the start of the year to get into the PBL groove

Set the Tone for Collaboration
It is crucial that, from the start, students know that collaboration is a norm in the classroom. While teachers often do team-building activities at the beginning of the year, they could also be doing more authentic collaboration on challenges and problems. These activities might be around content such as math, or even speaking and listening skills in a debate on a controversial topic. Teachers need to present students or co-construct with them a collaboration rubric that is utilized and refined throughout the year. From this rubric, teachers can design or select lessons that target specific aspects of collaboration, such as coming to consensus or group time management. Students should reflect and set goals for collaboration, and these should be goals that they’ll revisit. All of these strategies help to build the culture of collaboration necessary for successful PBL.

Critique and Revision Practice
We all know the challenges of having students give and receive a constructive critique. While you can teach these skills in the context of the project, you can also start building them with students from day one so that they’ll see critique and revision as normal parts of classroom practice, as well as essential parts of PBL. From protocols and gallery walks to anonymous peer reviews like the one you’ll find in Austin’s Butterfly, teachers can intentionally scaffold critique and revision to support it in a PBL project.

Educate About or Review PBL
You will have students that come into your classroom that either have no experience with PBL or need to be reminded about what it looks, sounds, and feels like. You can review essential components and steps of PBL through video examples, project examples, or reflecting on past projects. Students can compare and contrast PBL with other teaching methods to help build a common expectation and understanding for what project-based learning is all about.

Build Questioning Strategies
PBL requires the inquiry process. While the project’s driving question can help facilitate inquiry, students need skills to design and ask their own questions. Eventually they can design their own driving questions for a project, but earlier in their journey as PBL learners, you can start by teaching levels of questions (PDF, 99KB), crafting these questions for research, and how to search for relevant information. By intentionally scaffolding these questioning skills, it sends the message that we are all curious students in a curious classroom, life-long learners who continually question and investigate.

These are just some of the steps that you can take to build your classroom’s PBL culture, to create an environment where students not only know what PBL is, but are ready to jump in. Even if you choose not to do all of these, you can collaborate with colleagues to share the load, and create common expectations that we all support PBL across grade levels and content areas. Building PBL culture is intentional and must start as soon as students walk in the door on the first day of school

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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 >


Although the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have not yet been fully implemented, more and more states are signing up as early adopters. The NGSS call for a conceptual shift in teaching and learning. Along with traditional subject matter, science and engineering are now integrated into the standards, and students will learn about the principles of engineering and engage in the engineering design processes.

In addition, many concepts are cutting across content. For example, the concept of “systems and system models” is used in the exploration of nuclear energies as well as ecosystems. Also, scientific and engineering practices are aligned multiple times with the disciplinary content. The NGSS calls for a deeper understanding and application of content. The focus is on core ideas and practices of science, not just the facts associated with them. This is a great opportunity for project-based learning, because not only can PBL align to the shift in pedagogy, it can also enhance what the NGSS demand.

The Alignment
Just as the draft NGSS calls for deeper understanding and application of knowledge, PBL demands the same — in-depth inquiry into the content. When teachers design PBL projects, they choose to focus on power standards, or standards that usually take significant time to teach and focus on depth, not breadth. The NGSS will be a similar kind of standards, and thus easily used when designing PBL. In fact, a teacher designing a PBL project might target one of the crosscutting concepts, something that permeates the entire year of content. This is no more evident than the NGSS App available on iTunes. Take a look at the Grade Four Earth Systems Standard:

Identify evidence from patterns in rock formations and fossils in rock layers to support explanation for changes in a landscape over time.

This standard focuses on explanation of changes — not just identifying them, but using them to think critically about the content. In fact, the NGSS app provides an “Assessment Boundary” that says: “Assessment does not include specific knowledge of the mechanism of rock formation or the memorization of specific rock formations and layers.” This is about depth, not rote memorization, which is ripe for a PBL project. In fact, the clarification statement of this standard highlights possibilities for a PBL project:

Examples of evidence from patterns could include rock layers with marine shell fossils above rock layers with plant fossils and no shells, indicating a change from land to water over time; and a canyon with different rock layers in the walls and a river in the bottom, indicating that over time a river cut through the rock.

Being a Scientist
Most state science standards were linked to the scientific inquiry process. The NGSS continue to honor this as a key component to science education. Dimension 1 of the NGSS focuses on practices which “describe behaviors that scientists engage in as they investigate and build models and theories about the natural world and the key set of engineering practices that engineers use as they design and build models and systems.” Embedded throughout standards is language where students must “use evidence,” “make observations,” “ask questions,” “combine information,” and “apply scientific ideas,” to name just a few. All of this language focuses on the art of being a scientist to learn the content. PBL calls for students not only to be scientists, but also citizen scientists investigating real-world scientific problems and challenges to make an impact. Like the NGSS, PBL focuses not only on the content of science, but also on the content of being a scientist.

I wrote about this in a recent blog. As we notice the new engineering focus of NGSS, we might consider design challenges, a key component of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) education. However, design challenges are not necessarily PBL by default. One can take a design challenge, add some PBL-essential elements to it, and make it into a PBL project, yet there are some components that must be added to make it a true PBL project. In the example from my previous blog, students made recommendations for retrofitting a local bridge and presented this information to city officials and engineers. Yes, the product might be a bridge design, and yes, students might engage in a toothpick contest along the way. The difference is that the work goes outside the four walls of the classroom and is actually an authentic situation where students are engaged in real-world work. As the design process and other components of engineering are leveraged in the NGSS, PBL projects can be designed to teach and assess these standards.

The NGSS will be successful only if we give students the learning models that call for the rigor and depth they demand. Not only is PBL ready for the challenge, but it can create deeper engagement with the content, where students’ deeper learning in the classroom makes them real scientists and engineers of the real world.

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