Using PBL to jump-start the Common Core Standards

03/30/2013  |  THOM MARKHAM
common core

With 46 states endorsing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and half of those planning for full implementation in the next three years, states and professional development organizations recognize that the kind of transformative professional preparation necessary to meet the challenge of teaching the new standards is not yet in place. Most understand also that the usual format — familiarizing teachers with the new standards, choosing texts, and aligning curriculum and assessments — isn’t sufficient. The six shifts of the Common Core, including “building a staircase of complexity,” require innovative best practices that prepare teachers and students to engage in thoughtful problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking and research.

Where do you find those practices? The first place to look is project based learning (PBL). For over a decade, PBL has been in a process of refinement, as teachers have learned to design solid PBL units, rather than old style “projects,” that meet the criteria for rigorous assessment of both content and 21st century skills.

In many schools, PBL will become the how of Common Core implementation. Teachers will be expected to conduct more intensive projects each semester, with a higher standard of excellence and a commitment to PBL best practices.

But it’s important to remember the essence of PBL. It’s a problem solving methodology designed to move students through an inquiry process, during which they develop the skills necessary to analyze information and answer open-ended questions. Teachers rely on design principles associated with high quality PBL to guide large scale projects lasting two to six weeks, or more.

But the principles can also be infused into shorter units — and this will benefit schools that want to jump-start CCSS implementation. By using a “project-thinking” approach, teachers become more expert at meeting the chief objective of CCSS, which is to improve inquiry-based results in the classroom. This approach also reinforces the skills and attitudes that students will need to succeed with the CCSS. In other words, a consistent “PBL-like” approach will hasten the cultural shift towards depth over coverage.

The project thinking approach is not a substitute for PBL, which aims to present complex, authentic problems to students, stimulate deep reflection and analysis, and allocate substantial time for solutions to emerge. In fact, the best approach is to blend full scale projects with a widespread spirit of inquiry. But rather than adhering to a frozen model of how PBL should be done, extracting PBL principles and applying them to shorter Common Core units is often a more appropriate choice for certain subjects. This approach already works well when PBL is not an easy fit. For example, AP Environmental Science invites projects, while AP Calculus or AP U.S. History may not. In the regular curriculum, classes in literature, technical subjects, or upper level math have similar limitations. Inquiry is appropriate, but full scale projects are not.

There is always one caveat with PBL: Methods matter. High quality PBL is designed specifically to support and assess rigorous performance. Old style projects won’t accomplish this. High quality is defined by seven principles that practitioners use to design and implement projects. Slight variations exist in the field, but there is general agreement on these methods. Each principle functions as part of a holistic design, leading to a coherent, inquiry based learning experience for students. Let’s look at how they can be applied to a Common Core unit.

Identify the Challenge

All inquiry begins with a meaningful, doable challenge. Teachers should frame every unit with the “why?” behind it. Why study this? Why work at it? What’s the context? What’s the authentic, real world application of this knowledge? In no instance can the challenge be: “Well, it’s on the test.” Inquiry fails in the absence of engagement. Nor do students put forth the mental energy necessary for deep problem solving unless they have a reason to learn.

Craft the Driving Question

Identifying the challenge is a good launch point for a unit. But the actual instruction and learning is driven by a focused question, which differs from a typical essential question. In PBL, students are introduced to the driving question at the beginning of a project. But this usually happens after teachers — and sometimes students — revise and edit the question to make it sharper, more authentic, and, most important, the kind of question that forces critical inquiry. For example, here’s how a 10th grade biology teacher edited her question to make it more challenging, as well as more interesting to students:

What would be the ingredients of a new energy drink or nutritional bar?

How do we design a nutritional bar or energy drink for a recreational spacecraft?

In this case, moving from a “what” question to a “how” question drives the inquiry. Adding the element of the recreational spacecraft creates an authentic task — 14 year old students may, in fact, experience this in their lifetimes. The question needs to fit the unit’s objective and the amount of time necessary to answer the question. But even if the question can’t quite be answered in a few days of instruction, teachers help students learn that inquiry requires a clear objective and can be applied in the real world.

Start with Results

PBL employs a backward planning philosophy. So should Common Core units. The reason is quite clear to human performance experts: When people understand the goal, they are much more likely to accomplish it. The mind automatically responds to seeing the whole picture in front of it. Every unit plan should include what good PBL teachers provide:

  • A detailed description of the results of the process.
  • What are students trying to accomplish?
  • What will excellence look like?
  • What will students deliver to the teacher, and in what format?

In PBL, this aspect of a project usually includes a performance piece or exhibition. For Common Core units, this won’t often be possible or necessary. But Common Core teachers still need to think of themselves as more of a coach than a delivery expert. The task is to put together a game plan with a results-oriented objective.

Build the Assessment

In PBL, assessment is multi-fold, and content mastery is one of several outcomes. PBL teachers usually design evaluations and formative assessments in five areas:

  1. 21st century skills
  2. Conceptual understanding;
  3. Personal strengths or habits of mind
  4. Innovation and creativity
  5. Critical content

These objectives are similarly woven into the goals of the Common Core. But they represent tricky territory for Common Core units, largely because the skills of inquiry or creativity cannot be learned in one unit, or even in one solid PBL project. Mastery of skills will require Common Core teachers to be iterative — to build in skills development as an ongoing effort that spans many units throughout the year. PBL is an excellent method for teaching the core 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, and self management. Each relies on world class rubrics with detailed descriptors. Common Core teachers should plan to introduce these rubrics early in the year, train students and give them regular feedback — and then keep at it until June.

Enroll and Engage

Good projects start right. A quick video or class discussion can begin to capture the interest of students and enroll them in the challenge. It’s also important in PBL to have a well planned timetable and all documents and materials prepared ahead of time, to be handed out to students at the beginning of the unit. This gives students a sense of momentum, order, and clarity — all of these make inquiry go more quickly. In a unit, this may have to happen more quickly. But the time taken will make learning go more smoothly.

Focus on Quality

Simply turning students loose on a problem or question, putting them in groups, and having them do an exhibition or PowerPoint presentation at the end of a project does not meet the criteria for high quality PBL. The Common Core effort is an attempt to bring forth more commitment and purpose from students, and to activate more high performance energy. To facilitate these deeper aspects of learning, teachers can let go of the notion of groups and move to the language of teamwork, use visible thinking routines and peer protocols to help students learn dialogue and critique, practice redrafting their ideas, and refining their thinking. Many good tools exist in PBL that can be easily transferred into Common Core units.

End with Mastery

High quality PBL teachers never neglect a crucial final step: A one or two day reflection on the project.

  • Was the Driving Question answered?
  • Was the investigation sufficient?
  • Were skills mastered?
  • What questions were raised?

The project debrief improves future projects, as well as teaching students the cycle of quality improvement. It will do the same for Common Core units, even if the debrief occurs in a quick 15 minutes. Reflection closes the inquiry and sets up the next round of learning.

One last note: In a traditional classroom, human variation is muted by rows, a standardized lesson, and the teacher’s ability to keep an eye on every student. The CCSS are intended to break that paradigm, and make the process of learning as important as the final product or answer. Whether through PBL or Common Core instruction, nearly everything teachers do will have people management ramifications. Ultimately, the shift from teacher to coach will define the success of the CCSS. Methods matter, but compassionate, supportive mentoring will matter more.

Thom Markham, Ph.D., is a psychologist and school redesign consultant who assists schools and districts in developing high quality PBL instruction that incorporates 21st century skills and youth development principles. He is the author of the “Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for innovation and inquiry for K-12 teachers.” Contact: [email protected].
Comments & Ratings

  9/21/2013 9:23:21 AM

This seems to be very comprehensive. I am sure the content and subject matter are focused on the technology world as it develops. It all comes down to how we are able to deliver it in a moral and ethical manner and one in which growth prevails in a positive way.