Planning with the Project-Based Learning Curve

October 20, 2015
Jodi Posadas

Jodi Posadas

Grant Wiggins, author of Understanding by Design argues that “how teachers plan is one of the most vital elements of the enterprise” of teaching, but in the transition from planning traditional or thematic teaching to Project-Based Learning, we often miscalculate the learning curve as educators. It is important to think about the way you planned before moving from traditional teaching to a more project-based environment. Did you plan day by day? How often did you adjust your future plans based on formative results? How often was the textbook part of the plan? How detailed are your plans? How do you plan? On Templates and Instructional Planning from Grant Wiggins provides a detailed look at how teachers plan.  When planning for PBL, the teachers’ thinking shifts from what the teacher and students will be doing to why they will go about finding a solution.  The purpose of the unit should be more than to gain understanding.  It should be the overarching driver of the learning. Introducing ourselves to the idea of identifying a problem or question and then working backward to provide the scaffolds needed for students to identify the solution isn’t a simple switch.  However, this approach is similar to the way adults go about solving problems in everyday situations outside of the classroom. Backward Mapping can help to move existing thematic teaching towards a more authentic inquiry-driven project while providing important schema to students for tackling issues as they arise in the future.

Start by choosing content standards.  Focus on the big ideas that students should gain as they tackle the content. What do students need to know and be able to do at the end of this unit?  From there, brainstorm around the potential project.
A few questions that might help include:

  • How are the standards applied in the real world?
  • What opportunities exist within the local community to explore these standards?
  • What questions can drive deeper inquiry about these standards?
  • What student interests connect to these standards?

Now that an idea has been narrowed down, move into creation of the first bookend of the project- the driving question.  As the driving question is created, be cognisant of themes in disguise.  For example, a driving question like, “What is a Farmer?” could potentially turn into a thematic project rather than a PBL unit. Where as, the driving question, “Should we eat organic fruits and vegetables?” has the potential for students to make a claim and support it with evidence of deeper learning.  Driving questions that lead to focused inquiry are less likely to encounter thematic pitfalls because there is a genuine problem students will be solving.  (See graphic)

The other bookend of the project is the authentic task/product/presentation.  What culminating products/presentations will students create to demonstrate their understanding and application of the content? In identifying an end goal, be wary of products that are more crafts than aids in answering the driving question.  Students presenting their findings around organic vegetables at a Farmer’s Market demonstrates learning much differently than building a model farm would.  Presenting findings also means that students have to practice multiple types of inquiry in order to find an answer.  To evaluate end product ideas, ask the following questions:

  • Will this product/presentation/task require students to transfer knowledge of the content standards?
  • How would professionals investigating a similar problem share their work with other professionals?
  • What types of writing do professionals in this field do to communicate their thinking/ideas/findings?
  • How is this product connected to the content standards and specificity?

After identifying a driving question that will lead to focused inquiry and an authentic task/product/presentation, begin the backwards mapping process.  Backward Mapping, or Backward Design, will help to maintain a path of action for students that causes more specific results.  Pay close attention that you are truly designing the project from end to beginning using scaffolds and assessment along the way.  This is the area that has most potential to turn an authentic project into a thematic unit. Ask these questions as you plan the middle portion of your project-

  • How is inquiry driving student learning throughout the middle of the project?
  • Which scaffolds are important to student learning? Where in the project timeline should they fall? How will these be assessed to gauge student learning?
  • How will those scaffolds build upon each other to prepare students for accomplishing the end goal?

As the middle of the project is identified, continue to check for authenticity of workshops, activities and mini-lessons.  If some of the scaffolds you have identified come from the way you taught the standard in the past or even from Pinterest, do a quick check to see if the intended outcome is connected to the project.  Again, backward mapping is key-

  • Is the activity a good fit to meet the end goal of the project?
  • Can it be used in a way that better assists students in finding answers to the driving question?
  • Are these ideas worthy of helping students to meet the specificity of the standard within the project idea?

If any of these questions raise red flags, think twice about utilizing these scaffolds.

The transformation of planning that should occur as you transition from teaching traditionally to facilitating project-based learning will be of notable difference and it will mean feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the early stages. Remember the Wiggins quote, “how teachers plan is one of the most vital elements of the enterprise” as you tackle this new work.  You are a truly vital piece in the work you do for your students.  Backwards Mapping won’t feel like second nature, however it is in transitional times that growth happens.  May this be the start of something new and different for your planning and may your students benefit from your new plans.

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