How to Make Literacy an Integral Feature of Effective PBL

Thanks to an invitation from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, literacy has been very much on my mind. Despite a 20-year career in education I couldn’t come up with a definition of literacy without help. Every time my 11-year old son is assigned a research “project” or is asked to define a term he begins his quest on Wikipedia. Who am I to argue with the wisdom of a preteen? So I turned to Wikipedia. I liked what I found:

“Literacy has been described as the ability to read for knowledge and write coherently and think critically about the written word.”

That definition aligns nicely with BIE’s 8 essential elements. Good PBL promotes literacy. It must. With a little help from the folks at Gates, good PBL can become great PBL.

Earlier this summer I spent several days in Washington DC learning the details of Gates’ Literacy Development Collaborative. I walked into the meeting room expecting to be pleasantly dismissive of the work, which appeared to be heavily scripted. Oh, how wrong can a man be?

BIE facilitates around 400 of our classic three-day PBL 101 workshop each year in the U.S. and abroad. We focus on the design, assessment and management of effective projects. Participants produce three deliverables, including our Teaching and Learning Guide. That guide is intended to create a sequential series of scaffolds that generate a major student product. The product may or may not have literacy development at its core.

Most teachers never complete the Teaching and Learning Guide, which has led to a redesign on our part: A renewed focus on the guide as a deliverable and the build-out of a four-day workshop.

Those solutions are misguided. Overwhelmingly, BIE works in large urban and small rural districts. The development of literacy in these environments must be the paramount focus of our professional development. The LDC modules participants learned to create in Washington can make BIE’s PBL work even more rigorous and effective.

There is significant philosophical alignment between BIE’s curriculum design model and that of LDC. The agency of teachers is fundamental to both models. Flexibility is fundamental to both models. Following a backward design process focused on significant content (the Common Core State Standards) is fundamental to both models.

BIE realizes that not every teacher was trained as a curriculum writer. We want to empower teachers to develop that skill. That is why we created PBLU. The LDC folks came to the same realization. That’s why they created nearly 30 LDC templates, including an online design tool engineered by a team at MetaMetrics.

What does PBL bring to this party? A literacy module that asks students to write a three-page report on supply and demand will not be successful unless it is embedded in a relevant and engaging project that features deep inquiry, student voice and choice, development of collaborative skills and a public presentation of knowledge.

Other citizens of the PBL world, including our good friends at the New Technology Network and New Visions for Public Schools, have joined the LDC movement.  And so too have other disciplines. Gates has funded Educurious to develop science templates. Gates has created a parallel numeracy organization, called the Mathematics Design Collaborative.

I have said it before, but let me repeat myself. The Common Core is the “what.” PBL is the “how.” Meet LDC, PBL’s new friend.