Gold Standard PBL: Design & Plan


One of the Project Based Teaching Practices in BIE’s model for Gold Standard PBL is “Design & Plan,” but how a teacher does that is a huge topic. We’ve devoted entire books to it, and our three-day PBL 101 workshop is all about it – so at a recent Hangout with three of our National Faculty members, we bit off just a few chunks to chew on. Here are the questions I posed:
• How do teachers begin to design a project? Where do you get ideas?
• What is it like to collaboratively design projects with other teachers, outside experts, or students?
• How much do you plan in advance, vs. making it up “on the fly” during a project?
• What are some common challenges teachers face when designing and planning projects?

Getting Ideas
“It helps to know my audience,” said Brandon Cohen, who teaches 12th grade environmental science students at High Tech High in San Diego, making the point that it’s important to begin by considering what will engage and motivate your students. He thinks about what an “authentic deliverable” could be for a project by reaching out to the local community to find out what’s needed.

For example, he called the rangers at the Torrey Pines State Reserve, a local natural area, and was told they could use some interpretive signs for visitors. He got the same answer when he called the San Diego River Park Foundation, and a project was born. His students learned about native plants, animals, ecosystems, and natural features and created professional-quality signs that were posted around the areas, with QR code links to more information posted online.

Brandon sometimes starts with what he’s passionate about: “I like to build stuff, and always wanted to build a house.” So began the “Tiny House” project, in which students learned science and applied math when constructing small houses for sustainable living.

Angela Marzilli, who works with schools in Portland, Maine, says she often “gets ideas from what’s around.” Once she visited an architectural college in Boston and saw a fascinating bento box exhibit, and brought the idea to some middle school geometry teachers. It turned out that the school-community needed something to pack the kindergartners’ breakfasts in… and voila, a project.

Myla Lee, who coaches teachers in the Novi Community School District in Michigan, advises “reaching out to your community, going past the walls of your classroom.”  She mentioned the local Chamber of Commerce as a resource, or using social media to publicize the need for ideas for authentic projects. Or look at headlines in children’s magazines such as Time for Kids. For example, an upper-elementary teacher she knows just did a project with the driving question, Should we recognize Columbus Day? Like Brandon, Myla emphasizes the importance of building relationships with students to get to know what they’re interested in and passionate about.

Start with Standards?
I asked a follow-up question about whether teachers start designing projects by looking at their content standards. Our National Faculty members agreed that the answer is “sometimes” but it’s typically more of a cyclical process: you think about your subject area’s broad goals, come up with an idea, decide which standards could be taught, then revise or fine-tune your idea to specify the standards.

Collaborative Project Design and Planning
Teachers find it extremely valuable to work collaboratively when designing projects; Myla noted that the teachers she knows “can’t wait to get together for a critical friends protocol to get feedback and ideas. Creating time and space for collaboration is key. Myla says, “we have to think creatively about time” by using lunch periods, staff meetings, and Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings to give each other feedback on project designs. Brandon added that administrators can encourage collaboration in secondary schools by having teachers of different subjects share students and prep periods, and adjusting school schedules to create time for teachers to meet.

Experts from outside the classroom can help teachers plan projects too. Angela described a partnership her district has with the Texas Instruments corporation, which provides technicians and engineers with whom teachers can talk about authentic ideas for projects. Myla recommended that teachers ask, for example, “What kinds of problems do scientists face?” – then call one!

When it comes to involving students in designing projects, the National Faculty members gave some great examples. Brandon suggested teachers present project ideas to students (I’d add that this could be a focus group) the semester before they’re going to be conducted, to get feedback on their design. Angela said teachers can even allow students to propose ideas for projects, then find more students to join them – which could be the whole class – and if necessary figure out how to get funding. Myla convened a committee of upper-elementary students to help design a project about technology integration in a 21st century classroom, and she noted how even first graders can help shape a driving question for a project.

Planning: Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right
Angela admitted that on her first project, “I outrageously over-planned” but underestimated how much work time was needed, since students need plenty of time to develop their ideas, plus more to reflect upon and improve their work. Brandon said it was ok to “plan like crazy, but be flexible” in case you need to make adjustments to your project. Myla emphasized the importance of keeping the end in mind; know what your final products are and what deliverables will be needed at checkpoints during the project. Everyone agreed that under-planning is not a good idea, although experienced PBL teachers know how to leave room for student voice and choice and to allow a project to go in unexpected directions if warranted.

One tip that Brandon offered as the best way to plan is to do the project yourself, then “figure out the multiplier for your students; if I can do it in one hour, students can in three to four hours.”

Common Challenges
Myla noted that teachers sometimes get so caught up in planning, they forget to have fun – and to take time during a project to reflect and make adjustments if need be. Brandon agreed, saying, “Every project I’ve done has had at least two heart-to-heart conversations with students” to troubleshoot or get things back on track.

All our Hangout guests hoped teachers would, as Angela put it, “be brave enough to try a project.” Brandon mentioned that a lot of PBL novices tend to be too tentative, and recommended they “just do it!” Even calling an expert or community resource might take courage on the part of a teacher, but Myla made the excellent point that “we expect our students to be risk-takers and lifelong learners, and we need to do that too.”

How would you answer the questions at the beginning of this post? Share your answers in the comments below!

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