Set the Stage and Get Started With Project-Based Learning

Grades K-12 15 min
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Help students actively explore real-world problems and acquire a deeper knowledge with project-based learning.

You’ve read our article on engaging students through project-based learning, you’ve heard amazing things about project-based learning (PBL) from another educator, or maybe you’ve gotten interested in PBL in some other way. No matter the reasons, you’re likely now wondering where to begin and how to set the stage for this learning.

A good place to start, possibly long before you have a project topic or a driving question, is to create a classroom culture that promotes community, collaboration, inquiry, creativity, and risk-taking. PBL is encompassed in the inquiry process, and inquiry along with creation is hard work and may be very new for many of your students. All of these attributes are going to be important when students are engaging in PBL.

Ask yourself the following questions to help gauge where you are with your classroom culture:

  • Do students feel safe asking questions in your classroom?
  • Do students feel safe learning from failures?
  • Have students been taught how to collaborate with one another and been introduced to collaboration skills?
  • Have students had any experience with voice and choice?
  • Have students been a part of the creation of the physical or virtual classroom environment?

Hopefully you are able to answer yes to some or all of these questions, but even if you cannot at this point, it’s not too late to start developing a culture of learning that will set the stage for a successful PBL experience. Consider using some of the great tips and strategies in the following AVID Open Access collections and podcasts to get started and set the stage for PBL:

Designing a Project

In PBL, the project is the unit, so planning is essential. However, planning in PBL differs from planning a traditional unit because there needs to be flexibility and opportunities for change based on your students’ interests and their inquiry process. There needs to be failure points so that students can assess and make revisions to their thinking. Most PBL takes place over an extended period of time, and the goal is not short-term retention. You will need at least a week, and likely much longer, to engage in meaningful PBL. PBL includes multiple lessons, activities, tasks, assignments, and resources, as well as a culminating product that is shared with an audience of some kind.

There are several ways to get started with PBL. You can find a project that has already been developed by someone else, adapt a current unit to fit the PBL model, or develop one from scratch. If you choose to adopt a project, start by identifying content that requires deep understanding and higher levels of thinking. You might find content in current lesson plans, curriculum, pacing guides, or other sources. Oftentimes, there are projects already in curriculum that are only a few steps away from PBL, and with a few tweaks, they can become wonderful opportunities for project-based learning.

Many projects you might find already integrated into curriculum usually are lacking voice, choice, and an authentic purpose. For example, a science curriculum may ask students to learn about different animal habitats and then have students design a habitat for a specific animal with a group. With some tweaks, you could make the project authentic by researching a local farm, zoo, or other animal sanctuary and have students design a habitat for an animal at one of those places. Maybe students could learn about local animals that are struggling to survive and design a habitat where they could thrive and then share their design with community members. In addition, you would need to provide student voice and choice in the inquiry and creation of their product. The project could easily be connected to reading and writing standards, and even the history of the land. Students would be engaged in reading to gather information, they would be taking notes, and they could engage in persuasive writing in order to convince others to adopt and use their design. There are truly endless possibilities.

Another option when adopting projects is to find ones that have already been created. There are many examples available from PBLWorks. When examining projects that are premade, make sure that the project aligns to the standards and learning goals that you are hoping students will achieve. If the project could be a good fit, there are several other things to consider and questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the depth and length of the project?
  • How will the project be authentic for my students?
  • What types of resources will I need for my students?
  • What might I have to let go of in order to engage in this project?
  • What might I have to add?
  • Knowing my students, will this project engage them?

Maybe you want to design your own project. You know your students best and are excited to create PBL that aligns with their lives, culture, and identity. When you start generating ideas for a project, consider creating projects that are connected to your school, community, or current events that are impacting your students, or real-world problems that your students could be very engaged in solving. Ask yourself what the real-world application of the project is? Is the project authentic? What kinds of questions will your design inspire from students? What kinds of resources will you need for the project? Resources not only include “the stuff” that you will need, but also the people who you’ll need. People might be content experts, professionals, or guest speakers. Do these people look like and represent your students? Who is the audience of the project? Who is the public going to be? The public could be a small group, a single person, or an entire school, community, or even larger.

Whether you are adopting a project or designing your own, you will need to create a project outline and calendar with an overview, considerations, resources, milestones, scaffolding, and assessments woven throughout. Each milestone should have a key question for students to answer that is directly connected to the driving question. Consider using PBLWorks’ Project Planner to help you with your planning. Once you have created your project plan, make sure to get feedback from your colleagues or other educators that have an understanding of PBL. Consider using the Tuning Protocol to receive feedback and make improvements. Here is a Tuning Protocol Overview from the National School Reform Faculty and a Tuning Protocol Overview video from PBLWorks.

When getting started with PBL, you might consider integrating a few components of PBL at a time, and as your comfort and your students’ comfort grow, you can add more and more components. Consider using PBLWorks’ Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements as a reference of different components of PBL that you might include, working up to include them all.

Creating a Driving Question

Not all PBL is created equal. Some projects can take an entire school year, others a few weeks, and still others several days. No matter the length, all PBL needs a really good question—a driving question. The driving question needs to be open-ended and allow for deep inquiry. It needs to align with learning goals and standards (they do not need to be in the question), and it needs to be engaging for all students. The driving question is similar to an essential question or problem statement, and although it can be written ahead of time, allowing students to create the driving question with you will be more empowering and engaging for them. A Tricky Part of PBL: Writing a Driving Question from PBLWorks provides examples of driving questions.

A driving question is not a question that can easily be answered. It is not something that you can Google or ask Alexa or Siri to answer. Again, the driving question should be open-ended and allow for many possible right answers. In order to answer the question, there should need to be lots of collaboration and in-depth research and investigation. Students should have to engage in the content standards and learning goals of the project in order to answer the question. The question should be appropriate for the students and lead to more questions.

Because students may often be starting from a place of not knowing how to develop and ask questions, one technique you might use in having students come up with or revise a driving question is called the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), which was created by the Right Question Institute. You can go to their website and register for free access to their resources that will walk you through the QFT process. You can also use this Question Formulation Student Worksheet Template to support the QFT.

Always remember that students learn more if they are invested and interested in what they are doing. PBL creates that opportunity for students. PBL might start out messy and will require a lot of learning from both the students and the teacher. In fact, as teachers are creating PBL, they are engaging in a type of PBL themselves. It takes time to learn how to plan and carry out PBL. You can always start small and start to incorporate just a few parts of PBL at a time. Eventually, you will work your way up and hopefully make PBL an essential part of your classroom.

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