Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning

114017bProject-Based Learning (PBL) is a major educational trend, as schools push to engage student and improve educational outcomes.  While a lot can be said about the concept and place of PBL in contemporary schools, it is important to understand how to create, implement and assess it within the classroom.  Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction (Larmer, Mergendoller & Boss, ASCD 2015) attempts to do just that, both from a leadership and practitioner’s level.

kto-jigsaw-activityWithin the context of our Professional Learning Team (PLT) at my school, we have been given the opportunity to read and review some sections of this book as a group.  Through a combination of Expert Groups in our staff meetings and our Home Groups (PLT), we have used the Jigsaw activity to gain a deeper and more engaging understanding of this excellent resource.  (See the Jigsaw technique for more information.)

We have focused on two chapters, of which the first will be reviewed here: Designing a Project, and Managing a Project.  Designing a Project has revolved around the theme of this term’s PLT focus, which is the ‘Gold Standard’ for PBL.  The Gold Standard is that which we strive to achieve:

Gold Standard Project Based Learning is ambitious, a target to shoot for, a way of maximizing PBL’s effect.

Not all projects will fulfil the gold standard, however design should best fulfil the criteria of a “gold standard” project.

The first key point made was to distinguish between projects and PBL.  PBL is the ‘main course’ – the teaching and learning is centred around the actual project.  The books makes the distinction between these, and ‘dessert’, ‘side dish’, ‘buffet’ and end-of-unit assessments.  These are things the students do in order to enrich their learning, but are not the focus of the classroom.  Many teachers may disagree with not including these as examples of PBL, and this also brings up the idea of Problem-Based Learning (PrBL).  However, as a gold standard, is is true that ideally all learning is centred around the project, and not vice-versa.

The next key point is the types of projects – this is incredibly useful from a practitioner’s point of view, as it includes examples and links for inspiration.  PBLU.org by the Buck Institute of Education (a major proponent of PBL) is a fantastic resource for PBL ideas and projects across many domains, and is used quite often here.  In summary, the major types of projects are:

  • Solving a Real-World Problemcommoncoregraphicsfree
  • Meeting a Design Challenge
  • Exploring an Abstract Question
  • Conducting an Investigation, and
  • Taking a Position on an Issue.

These categories encompass most projects that could be run in the classroom, and give a good framework with which to start.

There are then three steps in the PBL Design process.  The first step is Considering your Context: identifying the students, timing, complexity and content areas.  One key point to remember at this stage is

It can’t be mapped out too tightly, or you’ll take away student voice and choice, one of the essential elements of Gold Standard PBL.

The best projects are often the ones with the most latitude – keeping in mind always that scaffolding is necessary for many students.

The second step is Generating an Idea for a Project.  This can sometimes be very easy, but is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks.  While, one can generated their own idea, and there are number of great starting points here, one need not reinvent the wheel.  Sometimes the best projects are customising someone else’s project.  The Buck Institute has a project search tool with hundreds of projects collated from many sources, which can be used as the starting point for one’s own project.  One point that stood out was that students’ projects should always be made public, and this is a major thing to consider in the project design process.

Finally, the third step is Building the Framework.  It is key to structure the project by:

  • Setting learning goals
  • Selecting major products
  • Deciding how products will be made public
  • Writing a driving question

There is much that can be said about these points, and the book really shone in this area in the number of ideas and examples it gave here.  The main takeaway, however, is the importance of the driving question, which is possibly why it was mentioned last.  This is the keystone for the project, and what the students will have at the front of the mind throughout the whole unit.  This can also be difficult, as sometimes inspiration needs to strike.

goldOverall, this book, and especially this chapter, is an invaluable resource for those wanting to implement PBL into their practice and classroom.  While there can be much debate on the philosophy of PBL, the Gold Standard that has been set up here is a great framework for practitioners and leaders.