Developing a PBL Unit

Last week I was having a conversation with a teacher about planning for some Project-Based Learning (PBL) in her classroom. She said something to me that I think a lot of teachers might think when they hear the phrase “Project-Based Learning.” She shared that she wasn’t sure that she had the time to devote to project work in her classroom. And I think that’s what can be tough about moving towards project work. We hear stories about these amazing projects that spanned weeks or months, like the time some 6th graders at my previous school worked to bring ice cream to our school cafeteria (see a post about that here), or the long term project by a 3rd-grade class who noticed a big blank wall and felt like they could make something much more beautiful.

The reality is though, you don’t always have to have huge projects like this. Sometimes project-based learning may only take a day or two and be really focused on a specific skill. This post is going to dive into some ways you might think about the planning side of PBL. In my current school, our leadership team is working closely with a pilot team that will be launching a mini-PBL unit in their classroom in the coming weeks, and the process is related to what I’ll be sharing here.

So, let’s start with how you might kick off the planning process. The way I see it, there are a few different ways that you might begin on the path to PBL work. Here’s a list of a few:

  • Academic Standard or Unit of Study: You might be looking at a list of standards that are coming up, or a Unit that you have used in the past, and that may spark an idea for a project. In last week’s post (see it here), I shared a social studies project that started in just this way.
  • The End in Mind: As I’m writing this, President’s Day has just passed. What if we looked at our school calendar and said, “I want my students to be able to share something about…”? This could potentially work for any holiday (US or elsewhere), or for other things that come up on the calendar. You have a clear end in mind, and you backwards plan.
  • A Way of Thinking: Imagine that you want your students to learn more about something like mindfulness, or restorative practices. Or maybe you want something that ties more directly to a standard, so you want them to learn more about the scientific method or engineering process standards.
  • Something Awesome: Maybe there is something that you recognize your students being really excited about (this is how the mural above got started). It’s taking that excitement in the moment and running with it!
  • Student Ideas: You might recognize that your students are really interested in Minecraft, or a video game, or animals. Take that idea that they are interested in and help guide them!

Now, some of you might be saying something like, “But what about my standards!?!?” And I get it, ultimately, we are all beholden to our standards, but I guarantee you that with any of the ideas I listed above, we can find a few standards that we can tie in. If nothing else, you’ve got standards related to reading, writing, and research that can be connected to just about any project. That said, if you can integrate multiple subject areas, you have hit the pay dirt! I also often found that as we worked our way through a project, there would be things that came up that I needed to create a mini-lesson on. When I was teaching sixth grade, I had to create a mini-lesson on plagiarism after seeing kids cut a paste from some of their resources. In another project, we folded in a grammar boot camp to help with some of the grammar issues that were coming up. These were teaching moves that I made in the middle of a project as I recognized a need.

Once we have our starting point on the path to PBL selected, we next need to think about how we’re going to get to the endpoint. You might have students work towards a product – something that could be shared on a specific day, or at a specific event. Every student will create some type of product, but choices are made in how they get from the start to that product. Another option might be to start with a problem – maybe leading up to President’s Day you have a bunch of students asking why there isn’t school on that day. This could be our problem that we’re going to solve – we need to find out why President’s Day is a holiday, and then we could share our findings with our school community. Finally, you might decide to make the endpoint more open-ended. You might have your starting point, share with your students what it is that you want them to learn about or take away, and then allow them to pick a product that suits their needs.

I don’t necessarily believe that any one of these three methods is the best. I would say that it might be challenging for students to jump into an open-ended pathway if they have had limited project experience in their school careers. As with any creative task, our students will need some guardrails to help guide them. When those guardrails are too wide-open, some students struggle to even get started.

So, at this point, we have an initial idea, and hopefully a pathway we will be following. Now we need to select a few standards that may serve as the basis for your project, as well as some standards that may support the learning. In my past, when I was planning a PBL unit, I’d pull my upcoming standards and look for standards that are seeking a deeper level of understanding (words like apply, understand, or explain are good key terms to watch for). And again, it’s a great idea to try to find standards from multiple subject areas to be the key ideas. These standards can be the driving force of PBL. One thing to keep in mind though – if you try to pack too much into a single project, you begin to lose focus on the main point. While there may be several skills that you are able to touch on throughout the work, you should have one or two standards that are the primary focus of the project.

Once we have a couple of standards identified, we want to think about what we want our students to learn or be able to do because of this project. These are the takeaways we want to highlight. When I did project work with my students, I would share the takeaways with them at the beginning of a unit and would reiterate them throughout the unit. I always tried to make sure that this was in “kid-friendly” language that they could understand and describe to others. I would often also use these takeaways to create what I liked to call our guiding question. This question would boil all our projects down into one question. A couple of examples from past projects I carried out in my classroom include:

  • What are the planets and objects that make up our solar system?
  • What are some of the cultural achievements of Ancient Rome?

OK, so I know this is a lot, but here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Starting point
  • Project pathway
  • Standards
  • Takeaways
  • Guiding question

One of the things I have noticed about PBL is that there are lots of different protocols out there. You can choose to pick one to guide your planning, you can decide to create your own hybrid of the ones that exist, or you could create something all your own. But to me, the items that are listed above are keys to the planning phase, no matter what you call them. Even with the work we’ve done so far, we aren’t ready to dive into the project yet. We must always plan for the end in mind. So next week, we’ll talk about the importance of assessment. When thinking about backward design, we need to plan our assessment before we begin teaching our unit. We’ll talk briefly about pre-assessment, formative assessments along the way, and some potential options for post-assessment.

So, what have I missed? Is there anything that you are still wondering about with the planning process? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

One thought on “Developing a PBL Unit

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