Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Learning Skills

May 18, 2016
Alix Horton

Alix Horton


This blog post is part two of a series designed to support you as you plan for an upcoming school-year dedicated to deeper learning for your students via Project Based Learning.  Many thanks to Drew Schrader for collaboration on this series, which is cross-posted on his awesome blog Learning HabitThanks to Erica Snyder at Teaching Channel for all her help with these posts as well.  You can check out her work here.  You can find the other posts in the series here:


Powering Your PBL Course: Deeper Learning Skills

As a teacher and now as a coach, I have big dreams and hopes for students. I want them to be able to analyze challenging literature and determine important information from nonfiction, of course, but I also want them to be motivated, engaged, and equipped with the kinds of skills they need to be successful employees, friends and family members, and citizens. It’s why I love the Hewlett Foundation’s definition of deeper learning so much- because it encompasses core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, but also collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindsets.

However, it’s tricky to know what to do “next” as a teacher when you consider teaching and especially assessing skills like collaboration and self-directed learning.  That’s where the NTN Learning Outcome rubrics come in. The learning outcome rubrics encompass Knowledge and Thinking (which you delved into in Part 1 of this series), but also Written Communication, Oral Communication, Collaboration, and Agency. They were created in collaboration with groups like the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, and represent research on the key skills needed to be successful in academics and beyond.

The rubrics are great. Here’s why:

  • They clarify what we mean by abstract terms like “Collaboration” and “Agency.” If you look at the title of each row, or dimension, of the rubric, you’ll see that each larger learning outcome is broken into sub-skills. For example, “Agency” includes things like “Us[ing] Effort and Practice to Grow” and “Seek[ing] Challenge.” The “Collaboration” rubric includes sub-skills like “Team and Leadership Roles.”

  • They communicate a learning progression for each skill. According to Margaret Heritage, “A learning progression clearly articulates the trajectory along which students are expected to progress to improve in an area of learning and act as a touchstone for formative assessment” (2008). If you take a look at one bullet row, or indicator, you’ll see that as you go up a score level, the depth and level of student internalization of each skill increases.  For example, when a student is “Emerging” in the skill of “Actively Participat[ing]” he or she “Stays focused for part of the activity/discussion, team meeting, or independent time but often cannot resist distraction or does not notice when or why a loss of focus ,” whereas when they are Advanced, he or she, “Actively participates and takes initiative on the activity/discussion, team meeting, or independent time and has personal strategies for staying focused.”

This clarification of sub-skills plus an articulation of learning progressions allows you, the teacher, to be strategic in your scaffolding and assessment.

And the rubrics also allow you to clearly articulate your priorities for the year.  Here’s a process you might follow to prioritize and plan in a way that allows you to teach and assess all aspects of deeper learning, in every class, for every student.

1. Familiarize yourself with the rubrics.  Find the rubrics for your band of grade levels (e.g. the grade 10 rubric if you teach grade 9), then take a look! If you have district or other rubrics, you might look at those too. I like to read the title of each dimension (row), look across the top row at the score levels, read the “Proficient” column, and follow one bullet, or indicator, across score levels to see a typical learning progression.

2. Consider which outcomes and sub-skills are essential for success in your discipline.  For example, scientists need to be able to write using particular organizational patterns and need to know the conventions of science writing. So that might lead you to choose particular indicators on the Written Communication rubric to focus on.

3. Consider your students. Think about where your current students started the year, and what you hoped for them in regard to deeper learning skills. Where might next year’s students start the year? What skills would you want them to have internalized by the end of the year? What you choose might really vary, depending on whether you have 11th graders who are used to collaborating or 9th graders who have some fear and anxiety around, say, writing or math.  In addition, keep in mind that if you’re looking at a Grade 10 rubric and you teach 9th graders, “Developing” might be a perfectly reasonable goal in a particular area. Note: If you’re an elementary teacher who teaches kindergarten or first grade, this might be especially challenging, given that you’re working with a 5th grade rubric.  You might consider a few things: which outcomes are still appropriate for my students, no matter the grade level? Is there a learning progression that might work if it was tweaked a little? For example, I’ve seen kinder and first grade teachers take a section of the Agency rubric and add “with teacher support.” So “Attempts to work through challenges but may easily give up” becomes “Attempts to work through challenges with teacher support.”

4. Talk to your team! You might prioritize particular outcomes and subskills as a grade level or content area, or agree that certain teachers will focus on particular skills, leaving other skills to other teachers. For example, at one school in the Network, teachers carefully planned out which aspects of each rubric would be focused on at each grade level, so that students (and teachers) wouldn’t be overwhelmed.

Generally speaking, I’d recommend choosing 5-8 prioritized deeper learning skills or learning outcomes, in addition to thinking about where you hope students will end up by the end of the year. This kind of prioritization and planning will help make the teaching and learning of deeper learning skills approachable, manageable, and purposeful in your classroom- and will set you up to begin project planning.

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