12 Sure Fire Ways to Unlock Successful PBL
It is important that Project Based Learning provides students with wonderful opportunities that allow them to take part in a culture focused on rich activities and experiences. It promotes those important 21st-century skills while balancing this acquisition with important content knowledge and standards. The lessons and activities are intentional, aligned, and mapped to curricular standards. The standards and skills are constantly assessed in a variety of ways involving numerous stakeholders. Most of all, there is an alignment between standards, skills, and assessment. By incorporating these indicators teachers are ensured that they have provided a project process that is built on standards and proper skill acquisition.
Four PBL Indicators
The four areas that serve as indicators for grounding PBL in standards are below.
1. Curricular Content and Standards
2. 21st Century Skills
3. Formative and Summative Assessment
4. Intentional and Aligned
In this post, I would like to focus on the curricular content and standards that are one of the foundations of PBL. As I travel the country I will often hear teachers state that there is not the time for PBL because of the demands of the curricular content and standards. I understand this concern and the sincere desire that amazing teachers have in trying to prepare students for a successful future. I do wonder about the difference between knowing standards and understanding standards, but I will save that for a future post.
Content Standards and PBL
First, I do agree that students do have the need to learn and understand base curriculum that focuses on important content standards. These are also those same skills that are many times tested on the standardized test, end of course assessment, and other high stake tests such as ACT, SAT, and AP. PBL, when done right, allows teachers to focus on and facilitate important content and standards. So what is PBL done right? Let’s take a moment to investigate and reflect.
I have heard many interpretations of Project Based Learning. Often I hear a description that suggests that the teacher delivers the content and students follow up with an inspiring and engaging cumulative project. While this involves student doing a project, it really is not PBL. I call this teaching and then having students do a project. Resources from BIE (BUCK Institute) describe this as a “dessert project”. This comes from the idea that first there is the teaching… and then a sweet project for dessert. While this can be useful and can reinforce some learning it is not truly Project Based Learning. In fact, I would like to give this practice its own acronym, LBP (Learning Before Projects). I can understand how we as educators might not have time for this encore or dessert style or approach. PBL, however, is not an afterthought!
In true Project Based Learning the project uncovers and facilitates the learning of significant content. In PBL, there is a balance of learning that occurs throughout the project’s duration. It is this combination that allows for quality and rigor while helping students see the connection of content to the real world. It is important to understand that the ongoing project itself, through careful teacher planning, must facilitate the learning. Furthermore, it is essential that a PBL unit is designed with proper scaffolding or mapping that includes both learning activities and effective ongoing assessment. In fact, some of these activities might actually be existing lessons that a teacher has always used. It is even possible and probable that part of the scaffold will include readings, lectures, and even a worksheet, although it is important to keep a balance using all of Bloom’s levels. While assessment is varied, there is nothing wrong with including a summative test. After all, our students will be facing these for a while as they continue their educational careers. It is important to note that because the project is used as a base and point of reference throughout the learning, the element of time becomes much more productive than what might occur in LBP(Learning Before Projects).Through this process, the learning, understanding, and application of significant content standards will become an important outcome. PBL provides the rigor of learning new content along with the engagement apparent in a student-centered program based on deeper learning. The content becomes the “what” while PBL is the “how”. Below you will find twelve ideas to keep in mind in order to ensure that a PBL unit contains those important content standards.
12 Sure Fire Ways to Unlock Successful PBL
1. The entry event or launch should show a relationship to the Driving/Investigative Question promoting a “need to know” of the standards and content.
2. The Driving/Investigative Question should allow students to uncover the curriculum standards in a student friendly and understandable manner.
3. Any PBL planning sheets and activities for students should line up with the standards and content in the curricular area being studied and assessed.
4. The project should be ongoing and made up of activities and lessons that facilitate the learning of significant content.
5. Formative learning activities and assessments that teach and reinforce the significant content should be mapped and occur throughout the timeline of the project.
6. While innovative and student-centered learning is encouraged, the scaffolding of the project can still include traditional lecture, tests, and textbook readings that promote significant content. Yes… rich engaging lectures can be used!
7. The map should include a wide range of Bloom’s levels and deeper learning opportunities.
8. There should be rubrics developed that evaluate student learning outcomes and they should be aligned with the significant content.
9. The final project should not only emphasize the content standard verbs (21st century skills) but should show the learning and understanding of significant content.
10. The final project should demonstrate student understanding and learning of the standards and content.
11. Since learning is embedded throughout the project, consider the number of standards when determining the length of the project.
12. Remind students the importance of learning about and understanding the content standards throughout the project. This can be facilitated by providing important formative and summative assessment that ensures accountability.
The acquisition of content knowledge that has been deemed important by society is one of the key functions of education. Project Based Learning honors this by immersing students in the important content standards while providing that needed foundation. In a world that is seeing content multiply at an exponential rate, it is also important to help students become seekers of knowledge and lifetime self-learners. Along with those additional 21st century skills, PBL provides the avenue to both build the content foundation while activating the natural ability to learn.
Michael Gorman has overseen a one-to-one laptop program and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has also served as a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning; served on the National Faculty for BIE (BUCK Institute); and been an adviser for Tech & Learning magazine. His awards have included district Teacher of the Year, Indiana state Teacher of the Year semi-finalist, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year, Advocate for Johns Hopkins University, and Microsoft’s Global Education Hero award. Mike maintains his award winning 21centuryedtech Blog and also posts articles at T&L and November Learning.
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