Since Hacking Project Based Learning came out last December, Erin Murphy (my coauthor) and I have had many requests for a project planning template that ties everything together. So, without further delay, scroll/swipe to the bottom of this post to download the template! Meanwhile, below is information pertaining to fives features of project based learning, which are included in the template. And, for additional (free) Hacking Project Based Learning resources, check out the book's official page.
PBL can unfold in a variety of ways. Teachers should choose a track based on the needs of their students, their readiness as facilitators, and the demands of the curriculum. While it would be unrealistic to detail every possible track, below are the three we find are most common:
- Product Track (most restrictive) – In a project completed with fourth-grade students, each group was expected to produce a pinball machine. The difference between this experience and a traditional project is that the journey to the product looked different depending on each group’s creative decisions and trials and errors. Students learned about electricity & magnetism and force & motion through their work.
- Problem Track (medium restrictive) – In this scenario, the project is initiated by presenting students with a problem, or in some cases the students may identify the problem themselves. Examples may include how to tackle the dilemma of subpar cafeteria food, or students being asked to identify a problem of importance to their age group. Student work would then revolve around identifying the cause of the issue and proposing or enacting a remedy.
- Open-Ended Track (least restrictive) – Here the project begins with the teacher sharing the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings and possibly the Umbrella / essential question with the class. Students then design a project that is truly medium agnostic. In other words, they can demonstrate their knowledge however they choose. For example, a high school physics teacher may share the High Impact Takeaway / enduring understanding: An electric current can produce a magnetic field and a changing magnetic field can produce an electric current. Students, with teacher guidance, then design a project that will support this understanding. Simply researching and sharing information would not be sufficient.
High Impact Content/Priority Standards
To determine your High Impact Content / priority standards – the content that should serve as the basis for your PBL unit – apply the following criteria while exploring your planning materials:
- Language – Does the language connected to the content call for a deeper understanding? As you look at the learning objectives or standards in your materials, pay close attention to their leading verbs. There are certain verbs, such as “create” or “justify,” which call for a higher level of thinking and application than other verbs, such as “identify” or “state.” The former lend themselves to PBL because they ask for students to uncover and demonstrate deeper understandings of content, and therefore you can also justify spending a great deal of time in these areas. (We ask you to not only consider verbs, but also what students will have to accomplish. Here you will have to exercise some professional judgment.)
- Lasting impact and future transfer – Is the content valuable in an authentic context, and will it be needed for future learning? Topics such as informational writing and plant growth, which students can relate to outside the classroom, are more likely to elicit project buy-in. In addition, content students may need to call upon in the future, such as numeracy and the ability to appropriately debate an issue, is worthy of the deeper learning PBL offers.
- Professional judgment – What do you (and your team) know about students and what they need to learn? No one knows your students like you do. As the classroom teacher, you have a handle on your students’ background knowledge, interests, wants, and needs. Your perspective is pivotal in determining on what to focus.
High Impact Takeaways/Enduring Understandings
This is the predominant learning with which students should walk away as a result of experiencing your project. While High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings can be continuously refined, we should be able to answer yes to all of the following questions before giving them the seal of approval:
- Do the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings encompass the main content (and High Impact Content / priority standards) from the upcoming PBL unit?
- Do the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings promote rote memorization or inquiry? In other words, will students have to engage in exploration and productive struggle to uncover a deeper understanding of the content?
- Do the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings promote learning through transfer? For example, once students apply simple circuits to pinball machines, will they be able to apply something a bit different to another object and understand why it does or doesn’t work, such as a parallel circuit to a classroom in the school?
- Optionally, it would be ideal if students can demonstrate these High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings through some type of performance task, as opposed to a pencil and paper test.
- Are the High Impact Takeaways / enduring understandings in student-friendly language so they can be relayed to the students for them to take ownership of their learning?
Umbrella Questions/Essential Questions
Your Umbrella / essential question is the glue that holds everything together. Think of your project as a mind map, and everything students learn is connected in one way or another. Right in the middle of your mind map is the Umbrella / essential question, which serves as the project's main idea or “brand.”
When designing an Umbrella / essential question, we should be able to answer yes to all of the following questions:
- Does the Umbrella / essential question relate to what is being studied? It should encompass your enduring understandings (which connect to your High Impact Content / priority standards).
- Does the Umbrella / essential question promote inquiry? Rather than being a question that students attempt to definitively answer, it should encourage curiosity and engagement.
- Is the Umbrella / essential question Googleable? We are insulting the intelligence of our students if we are spending a great deal of time on a question that could be easily answered elsewhere.
The understandings we want students to achieve as a result of a project or lesson could be shared with students (or uncovered by students through inquiry) in the form of learning targets to give them a clear picture of what they are supposed to learn. Standards are not the same as learning targets. Here are three tips to consider when converting the former to the latter:
- If a standard calls for multiple independent actions (e.g., I can identify a dog. I can identify a cat.), split it up into multiple learning targets.
- Make sure all learning targets are in student-friendly language.
- To promote inquiry, present each learning target in the form of a question.
For a project based learning unit, students can analyze exemplars, found by them or the teacher, so they can see what each target looks like in the context of their current work.
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