What are the non-negotiable elements in Project Based Learning?

February 16, 2017

by Gavin Hays

Project Based Learning is seen by many as an effective contemporary student-centered pedagogy that sustains inquiry, promotes student choice and provides a vehicle for the explicit teaching of 21st century skills and competencies. However, this increased popularity in PBL also raises concerns regarding the effectiveness of a variety of varying implementations. A lot of practices and curriculum materials labelled as “PBL” are not rigorous or even truly PBL, and yield disappointing results. Some “projects” are just “hands-on activities. The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) recently released ‘Gold Standard PBL’ in an attempt to provide clear guidance and adequate preparation for teachers to ensure that poorly designed and implemented projects don’t frustrate students, disappoint teachers, and damage PBL’s reputation.

Sometimes, all that is needed is something to hang your hat on. A set of non-negotiable elements that ensure that your implementation is heading in the right direction. It may not be ‘gold standard’, but it is well on the way of achieving such a feat.

Below are a list of the six non-negotiable elements in project based learning. If your project does not have these elements as a minimum your curriculum implementation is not PBL!

1. The Driving Question

The driving question is used to initiate and focus the inquiry of the project. It should capture and communicate the purpose of the project in a succinct open-ended question. It should be continually referred to while students are working on the project, so they are reminded of the purpose of the project in their daily work.

2. The Entry Event

The entry event outlines what the students need to do in order to complete the project. Entry events should have either a real-world context, use real-world processes, tools or be connected to student concerns or interests. Combined with a provocative driving question for the project, the entry event provides students with a series of “need to know” questions aligned with the selected key knowledge and skills.

3. Need to Knows

The need to know list drives the sustained inquiry within the project. The need to know list should be an organic and evolving list used throughout the project. It should allow students to generate questions, find resources and develop their own answers. It also provides students with feedback concerning what they have learnt throughout the project.

4. Group Contract

The group contract is a project management and collaboration scaffold that assists all students in managing the group over the course of the project. Like the need to know list it needs to be purposefully constructed at the start of the project and should be constantly updated through the course of the project.

5. Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative or ‘assessment for’ learning is conducted during the project. The primary aim of formative assessment should be to provide feedback to students regarding their progress towards their end product. Summative or ‘assessment of’ learning is often aligned with the evaluation of the end product. The end product may incorporate multiple aspects including content knowledge from various subject domains and relevant 21st century skills.

6. End Product

The end product is the response by the students to the entry event.  It is the culminating event when students share the product or result of their investigation, receive feedback, and celebrate their learning. Often the end product is linked to the summative assessment for the project.

Please understand that these are only the minimum elements and they do not address the quality expected of effective project design. Something like the 6 A’s of successful project design developed by Steinberg and modified by the New Tech Network is a good benchmark for improving your project quality.

Read more from Gavin at Off Road Edu Adventures.

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