Project-Based Learning Creates Exemplary Citizens

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 >

A powerful way to foster citizenship is to use Project-Based Learning. PBL requires students to investigate authentic challenges and problems and then take action and communicate ideas. These are all powerful skills of effect citizens. Many projects involve service-learning or can even target specific social studies standards connected to civics education. Projects also requires students to critically thinking throughout the project, and evaluate sources as they do research. PBL is the right tool to create effective citizens as an integrated part of the curriculum and not “another thing.”

PBL and the Social Studies C3 Standards
Many schools are adopting the new C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards. The C3 Framework includes into 4 dimensions that include “Developing Questions and Planning Inquires,” “Disciplinary Tool and Concepts” that include content such as Civics and History, “Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence,” and finally “Communicating Conclusions and Taking Informed Action.  The overall framework is articulated as an inquiry arc “of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.” Student engage in the inquiry process through developing questions and planning inquiries, learn disciplinary content and skills and use evidence and sources to communicate and take informed action. The overall inquiry arc serves as a vehicle to create effective citizens that not only have disciplinary civics knowledge, but also have source evaluation skills. Students in the C3 must also act as citizens as they take action and communicate ideas. PBL can complement this framework, by adding other effective pedagogical components to support learning. PBL can mirror the embedded inquiry in the C3 standards.

Design Tips
Even if you do no teach Social Studies or have adopted the C3 Framework, you can still create projects that can build citizenship. Design a project that connects to a local or national issue where students might investigate or communicate their ideas. If appropriate, students might advocate for an action or issue. Have students create products that go directly to an audience that might make an impact. Students could write a governmental official or share presentations with parents and the community. As many projects require students to research or investigate information sources, teachers can intentionally target critical thinking skills around evaluating sources in their project. Also, teachers can scaffold questioning and inquiry skills in any project to prepare students to citizens that are skilled inquirers.

Citizenship Now!
One of the pitfalls of thinking about creating citizens is that it is something in the future; something simply to work towards. Yes, we are creating citizens for the future. Students will graduate and become more active in adult-world as a citizen of the world. However, our students can be citizens now. Effect citizens question reality, think critically, advocate, make change, and communicate effectively. Our students can do that now; they don’t have to wait to be a citizen. When we use projects as a delivery tool for curriculum, content and skills, we create a context to learn and take action. We can use PBL foster citizens in the making and to make our students citizens now!

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.

Why Your Project Needs a Verb

Why Your Project Needs a Verb

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 >

Designing project-based learning (PBL) assignments opens up several decisions. The challenge that students will face, the assessments that measure their learning, the amount of voice and choice to offer, the calendar and length of the challenge—these are just some of the many facets of an effective PBL project.

As we design a project, we may have trouble really focusing it. It might be too big and get out of control in implementation or perhaps too small and not a true PBL experience in which inquiry abounds. These problems often come from lack of clarity in goals or from a struggle to capture and hone the purpose of the project. In my planning with teachers and in my own experience as a PBL practitioner, I find there is an essential component that centers a project and allows the rest of the essential design elements to fall into place. This component is the verb.

Why Focus on Verbs?
Verbs are powerful. As an English teacher, I would always have a lesson on powerful verbs. We would try to take verbs like to go and to say and come up with more powerful and specific verbs like to swoop or to exclaim to work on word choice and powerful writing. In fact, we had a ceremony where we buried “dead” verbs that we would no longer use in our writing. While silly, it helped students focus on their writing. Now, take this to a teacher level and and apply it to PBL.

Projects are supposed to focus on authentic problems and challenges, whether real or scenario-based. Verbs focus on action and doing. When we focus on verbs, we focus on not only what students will learn, but what they will do with that learning—the application of that knowledge.

Verbs can help us hone our purpose for the project. What do I hope that students get out of this project? What action are students taking? What change are they making? What are we discovering? All of these reflective questions can be folded into this: “What is the verb of the project?”

Weak Verbs, Powerful Verbs
A weak verb can make or break a project, or cause you to run into pitfalls. For example, the verb to tell runs the risk of students simply regurgitating knowledge. On the other hand, it could lead students to tell creative stories full of imagery and imagination. Similarly, the verb to teach could lead a student to simply stand and lecture, or it could lead them to design an innovative lesson. The problem with weak verbs is that they don’t, by themselves, push students to richer learning outcomes. Instead of tell, why not persuade? Instead of teach, why not advocate?

Here is an example of how finding the right verb can transform a project. A teacher needed students to learn about religions around the world in her social studies class. She wanted to make sure it was a project where students couldn’t copy and paste the content. At the outset, her project was too googleable—students could complete the work without any critical thinking or creativity, simply by using a search engine. She then thought about what students would do with this knowledge. What was the one verb that would capture the purpose? Was it to share? No. Was it to build awareness? No. Finally she landed on the verb to debunk—specifically, debunking stereotypes about world religions. She wanted students to choose what they would debunk as well as what product they might use to do so.

Through reflection and by picking the right verb, she came to the overall purpose of the project. Once she had the verb picked for her project, the driving question came naturally: “How can we debunk stereotypes that the general public has about world religions?” It was an easy plug and play. This is especially useful, as many teachers new to PBL struggle with the driving question. By focusing on the verb, you inevitably create a piece of the driving question for the project.

Teachers should pick verbs that are appropriate to their students and contexts. There are many lists of powerful verbs out there on the internet—like this one, for example—and they can serve as inspiration to make your project not only more challenging, but also focused on having students do something with the knowledge and content.

Can Students Choose the Verbs?
Students can be involved in the process of creating or cocreating the verb for a project. It all depends on your comfort level of working with students to create questions. You might present students with a topic as well as a list of verbs and ask them what the best verb for that topic would be. That might work with class projects or individual passion-based projects. In addition, you might have students create questions from verbs that fit under a larger driving question, so students might choose a path within the project to explore with verbs that are focused on action. You can support students with your own version of the Tubric, a tactile tool used to create questions.

When you design projects, consider using verbs as a focal point. They can help not only focus the project, but create action and ensure application of knowledge, as well as lead to a powerful driving question.

Designing Student Projects for Global Readiness

This post originally appeared on GettingSmart, a community for news, stories and leadership on innovations in learning and teaching. Users engage by reading, watching, listening, and sharing thought leading perspectives in feature blogs and publications on K-12, HigherEd and lifelong learning. View Original >



It’s time to widen the scope of what project-based learning (PBL) can really do. We’ve used PBL to engage our students. We’ve used PBL to help students learn important content and address learning standards. We’ve used PBL to address 21st-century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking and communication. We’ve even used PBL to focus on professional practice and reflection.

These are all important goals and foci, but we need to continue to think and reflect on the power of PBL and how it can do even more for our students and for ourselves. The publication “Preparing Students for a Project-Based World” emphasizes that PBL is preparation for the world beyond the classroom, including issues of equity and the global economy.

What sticks out to me is one important word: world. If it’s a Project-Based World, shouldn’t we use PBL to continue to engage with the world beyond the boundaries of countries and cultures?

I think we need to take the attitude and mindset expressed by Sébastien Turbot who ran projects at the Paris School of International Affairs.

What is Global Readiness?
When students are global ready, they are able to meet specific competencies that allow them to be successful in the world around them. However, global readiness is more than simply being able to collaborate or communicate.

Instead, these skills are connected to important nuances of cultures, perspectives and equity. It isn’t just that students can collaborate with another person, but that they can partner and work within a global community and take action.

Students develop empathy and global sensibilities, as well as connect with people of different cultures and communities across our world. Global readiness really facilitates a complex mindshift from “me” to “us.”

Asia Society has Global Competency Outcomes and Rubrics to support teachers in creating and/or selecting goals to have students work on. These might include students “listening to and communicating effectively with diverse people,” “explaining the impact of cultural interactions” or “identifying and creating opportunities for personal and collaborative action to improve conditions.”

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills also has K-12 Indicators for Global Readiness that focus on the themes of Understanding, Investigating, Connecting and Integrating. Educators and schools should consider how to embed these indicators into the curriculum as students learn content.

It’s not about working on all the skills, it’s about the intentionality of what skills, when to address them and how to foster and assess them. All students of all grade levels can and should work toward global readiness.

PBL Can Change the World
Consider this project in process from math teacher Ginger Habel at the Shanghai American School. Students were challenged to design a playground for an actual school in Nairobi, Kenya.

Students had to learn scale, measurement and other various math skills to effectively complete the task. They also had to work around challenges that the school faced including flooding and that part of the school is also located on a hill.

Students selected supplies that were easily available for students to purchase there, and made sure the design was solid and had a feasible budget. Students shared their design with their classes and with the school in Nairobi as well.

Some students also created an Exploratory (a student-run learning time) to help raise money needed for the project. Not only were students impacting other students and communities, but they were examining various perspectives and cultures, as well as collaborating and communicating effectively to address an authentic task. Although the first iteration of this project occurred last year, Ginger hopes to continue to work on this project with her students this year as well.

PBL is the “how” for addressing global readiness. Global readiness calls for students to partner across the globe to solve problems in authentic ways. PBL requires authenticity, whether that’s investigating authentic problems, using authentic tools or meeting an authentic need.

PBL also facilitates technology integration, and global readiness calls for students to use technology to learn different perspectives and select media to communicate with diverse audiences. Students must learn content to address global competencies just as PBL projects are clearly aligned to content standards and outcomes.

As you begin to unpack the various global readiness indicators, you see a clear tie to the essential elements of PBL. Not only is there clear alignment, but by focusing global readiness on the “what” and the “how” of PBL, we can bring the world into the classroom and bring students out to the world.

In addition to using PBL for student engagement, we can create projects that are not only meaningful to students but have the potential to change the world.

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