By teaching pertinent content and thinking skills through Project Based Learning (PBL), opportunities abound for students to address real world/ critical themes, issues, and challenges that extend beyond Common Core curriculum. A Common Core curriculum is not neglected in PBL, it is enhanced! Students work on leadership and consensus building skills as they collaborate, build products, and facilitate discourse, all in an attempt to tackle the Essential Question at the heart of the experience. In this way, students are motivated to see that their content area work builds, and it empowers them to work toward a solution concerning the problem or challenge at hand. Guiding Questions for you to think about:
1. What is the purpose of the unit? PBL can be quite meaningful when students see a connection between the curricula and their own lives. Perhaps there is a real world (or school-wide) problem that can be addressed in your PBL unit. Questions like, Is it worth the expense to move to an “organic” diet? Should the U.S. use the metric system? Should government bail out businesses? Is it better to buy or lease a car? What if Rosa Parks never gave up her seat? and Should students use their own mobile devices in school? all have the ability to engage students in deep thinking and learning. As you think about the purpose, begin to craft your essential question, and also think about the standards you want address, and the higher order thinking skills you want to target. Higher order thinking skills include, but are not limited to, interpreting, classifying, inferring, comparing/ contrasting, explaining, applying, implementing, problem solving, analyzing, organizing, attributing, synthesizing, evaluating, and critiquing.
2. What questions will serve as my “foundation” for the unit? An intriguing, essential question will get students to think deeply. The samples I’ve listed above are more for upper grades students. For the primary grades, questions such as How do we get from here to there? or How and why does the world change? can make for excellent driving questions. Teachers of all grade levels should reminiscence about Power of Our Words, particularly the criteria that makes a good open-ended question. Your unit should comprise at least three types of questions: Essential, Unit, and Content. Essential questions are the “most” open-ended, yet reflect the critical theme/ issue/ concern at hand. Unit questions are open-ended, with boundaries, and help students begin to get at the content behind the challenge. Content questions are usually closed-ended, since they lead to the fundamental answers.
3. How will I assess the students? In PBL, assessment takes place everyday. Questioning is one form of assessment; in fact, it is your questioning that will help promote the high levels of inquiry and collaborative work you seek. Assessment via questioning should be coupled with formal activities involving research, math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. Note: It is important to provide remediation early on in PBL, to ensure that students have the foundational skills necessary to progress through the unit. Thus, your circulation of the room during each lesson, and your scaffolding of the content will be critical.
4. What else do I need to know? The work students do early on in the unit, should build progressively and be relevant to the final product you ask the students to create. In addition, students should have opportunities to address the Essential Question at various stages of the PBL experience, not just at the end! Some additional helpful hints… Visualize all learning experiences before implementing them. Do they, in some way, reflect the Essential Question? Do they get at the higher order skills you are seeking? Design your activities with purpose and intentionality. By the end of the unit, the higher order skills you’ve targeted must have been implemented. Students need “abundant” opportunities, across the curriculum and throughout the unit, to secure any critical skills.
5. How long will I need for the unit’s implementation? From start to finish, the PBL unit shouldn’t exceed 23 school/working days. This includes time devoted to launching the unit, the initial activities in each content area, the final product, and the presentation. Try to plan your unit to adhere to this time frame.