How does PBL work with the Common Core?

Last month I earned platinum status on American Airlines’ frequent flyer program. I looked back over my 2010 travel itineraries and realized I worked in 22 states. Patterns emerged. In every state the conversations took the same turn, variations on one theme: How does Project Based Learning (PBL) work with the Common Core?

This question is more than academic. National Faculty member Dayna Laur and I wrote a session proposal for the 2011 ISTE conference that was accepted this week. Our topic: How to use PBL in a technology rich classroom to develop deep understanding of the Common Core. In preparation, I began to explore the Common Core, starting first with the English/Language Arts standards.

Even the casual reader of these documents will notice the disclaimer on Page 4 of the Standards: “By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached…” The door is open.

The Common Core for E/LA does not appear to stake a claim for any one teaching style. A closer reading, though, presents a different understanding. The recommendation for the use of projects appears 18 times in the document. The word “project” is often surrounded by modifiers, including my favorite, “sustained research.” It sounds a lot like PBL.

Guiding students to a deeper understanding of meaningful content is but one goal of the Common Core Standards. That same deep understanding is but one goal of PBL. Advocates of rigorous PBL, including the Buck Institute, promote the development of 21st century readiness. This readiness includes such skills as communication, collaboration and critical thinking/problem solving.

How does this goal align with the Common Core? Quite well, as a matter of fact. A search of the E/LA Standards generates 15 hits for the phrase “solve a problem.” The phrase “collaboration with peers” appears 14 times. Communication is everywhere – after all, these are the E/LA standards.

Dayna and I will have little trouble next June making the argument Project Based Learning is an effective, one could argue essential, methodology for developing deep understanding of the Common Core. In English/Language Arts, that is. The Math Standards are a different beast.

The Math Common Core begins well (page 5) for PBL: “These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.” That’s about as good as it gets.

The word “project” does not appear in the text of the math standards. The words “collaboration” and “collaborate” do not appear in the text of the math standards. The word “communication” appears once, in the introduction. Problem solving is everywhere – after all, these are the math standards.

Why do the two sets of standards have such a different focus? Why is English/language arts (and the allied disciplines of science and social science) so much more PBL friendly than math?

As I think about traveling the national circuit in 2011, I imagine the same conversations occurring again and again. Patterns will emerge. I have a ready answer for those who ask about the alignment between PBL best practices and the Common Core for E/LA. It’s a perfect fit.

I still don’t know what I’ll say when I get those same questions from the math people.