Powering Your PBL Course: Let’s Get Real

May 25, 2016

Alix Horton


This blog post is part four 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 Habit. Thanks 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:



So, you’ve got your power standards, driving questions, and deeper learning skills selected from our learning outcome rubrics. Now it’s time for the magical alchemy that will turn those standards and outcomes into project ideas.  It’s time to consider authentic applications of each of those outcomes. Authentic applications contextualize learning for students, requiring them to apply content knowledge and skills in a deeper way to a real-world issue, problem, or context. They also make learning more purposeful and therefore engaging for students.

If you’re at the secondary level, you’ll consider authentic applications within your discipline and related careers and fields; if you’re at the elementary level, you might consider a wider variety of applications, or focus on social studies and science if that helps narrow things down for you. Elementary teachers especially might then consider which literacy and math standards integrate naturally with the scenarios you’re considering.

Authentic Applications of Power Standards

Here’s an example.  If you’re teaching a chemistry class, and your power standard is something like “Students will understand the structure of atoms and how that structure affects chemical properties and material interactions,” you might ask yourself, “Why do chemists care about this standard? Where do examples of this standard show up in our lives?” You might come up with a variety of examples, from why the ozone layer matters and how it works to nuclear reactions and decay.  These authentic applications will serve as the seeds for engaging project ideas.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the standards:

  • Why does this standard matter? Why is this standard a power standard?
  • Where does this standard show up in the issues, causes, and concerns of our time? OR How does this standard represent a specific example of a broader issue, cause, or concern that people today deal with? (This might be an especially great question for social studies.)
  • When and how do adults in the real world interact with this idea?
  • How do business people/journalists/marine biologists/computer programmers (consider appropriate careers within your discipline) apply this standard within their work?
  • What kind of open ended problem would require students to think deeply about this standard? (Especially great for math standards where a real world application is tough.)
Authentic Applications of Deeper Learning Skills

It’s also important to consider authentic applications of the deeper learning skills, or the additional learning outcomes you identified.  As an example, if you’re teaching an English class, and one of the deeper learning skills you identified is “seeks feedback,” you might ask yourself, “When and where do professionals in the discipline of English seek feedback?”Asking for feedback on writing would be one clear example.  If you’re teaching elementary school, you might consider some of the professions you thought about in the section above.

You might ask yourself:

  • When do professionals in _______ (discipline) collaborate, and how is that collaboration structured?
  • What do professionals in ________ (discipline) write? What kinds of topics do they communicate about orally, and what does that look like?
  • When do professionals use ________ (skill), and what does that look like?

If you’re having trouble thinking of authentic applications, you may want to reconsider your power standards and ask yourself if they’re the right standards.  Or, you might try interviewing community members in particular fields and disciplines and asking them how they use the skills and standards you identified.  A few colleagues and I interviewed professionals in STEM fields about what they read and write and found the results to be illuminating- you can see a list here. At Tech Valley High School in Albany, New York, teachers invite community members to chat about upcoming curriculum standards and topics and brainstorm authentic applications and community connections.

This step of preparing for project based learning can be intense and may require some serious research. But it’s worth it. When you’re done (don’t forget to capture everything you’ve brainstormed and learned using our template), you’ll be well on your way to designing a series of authentic projects that will engage your students in meaningful learning.

This blog orignally appeared on Literacy For Living

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