PBL: Meaningful Work, Meaningful Learning


On the first morning of the three-day PBL 101 workshops that I facilitate, I tell my “PBL shift story”, the time when I made a shift in my understanding of Project Based Learning and shifted my instruction to it. When I tell my story, I show a photo of three of my former students, a moment in time in which these students were actively engaged in directing and shooting a scene for a public service announcement they were creating in response to a challenging question about environmental issues. The photo captures the essence of what drew me to PBL: engaging students in meaningful work.  I was drawn to PBL because of the way it involved students in authentic learning that mattered to them, and I was also more engaged as the teacher in meaningful work as I guided my students through the phases of the project I had designed for them.

Core value: meaningful work

A decade later, as I reflect on why I became an instructional coach and a member of the National Faculty with the Buck Institute for Education, I realize that I was drawn to working with adult learners for the same reason that I was first drawn to PBL: meaningful work, which in this case is the important work of helping teachers design and implement meaningful learning experiences for their students. This realization became most clear in this past year while being mentored by a leadership coach in my school district. We were asked to complete a core values activity.  At the end of the activity I had narrowed my list down to three core values: connection, growth, and meaningful work. The more I reflected on these values, the more I realized that they were “through-lines” in my work with both students and teachers, particularly the value of ‘meaningful work’. In the BIE and district workshops that I facilitate, I invite teachers to make this shift toward engaging students, and engaging themselves as adults, in the meaningful work - and rigorous learning - that happens when the conditions are set through well-designed projects.

Meaningful curriculum design

New Tech Network’s Drew Schrader, in a recent blog titled PBL as a Platform for Personalized Learning, states that “PBL asks teachers to determine what content they are willing to go deep into, which usefully helps deepen their own awareness of, and commitment to, essential knowledge in their discipline or grade level.” One of the ways that teachers benefit when designing PBL projects is to thoughtfully consider their standards and curriculum with discernment and fresh perspective. This happens as teachers seek to determine what standards are most critical for students to learn deeply, and how those standards are connected authentically to the project, and to the authentic context of the adult world.

When planning PBL projects, teachers also make important connections between different standards, subject areas and disciplines. When I worked with elementary school teachers at one site in Dallas this past June, I showed Envision Teacher Collaboration, a video from Envision Schools, in which teachers explain how they collaboratively examined their curriculum, and found a natural connection between standards from two different disciplines: science and economics. These standards were necessary for students to deeply understand as they investigated the BP oil spill. This video helped the Dallas teachers make their own curricular connections as they considered the challenging problem or question that they wanted students to address.

In Teachers are Learning Designers, author and BIE National Faculty member Andrew Miller states that “For so long, teachers have been disempowered to design. With prescribed curriculum, overly strict pacing guides and the like, teachers have been given little to no opportunity to innovate and design for learning. Personally, this was and is my favorite part about teaching -- the opportunity to design and be creative, to design learning that meets the needs of my students…” I see teachers become re-engaged and re-energized as they experience the satisfaction of being learning designers.

Meaningful connections

I am inspired by the meaningful projects that teachers design in the workshops I facilitate and the impact they will have on students. In my own school district, teachers at Pomeroy Elementary School “went deep“ with the topic of immigration in U.S. history, and developed a project in which Fifth grade students had to understand immigration during U.S. history, as well as current immigration policy and the immigrant experiences of family members. They engaged deeply with this content in order to answer the driving question, “How can we, as political advisors, craft an improved immigration policy?” Teams of students chose the aspects of immigration policy they would seek to understand and evaluate as they worked on a presentation given at Pomeroy’s yearly multicultural night. The two Pomeroy teachers reflected on the process, and agreed that it was meaningful to both themselves and their students on many levels. It connected rigorous understanding of academic content to what students were seeing in the media during this election year, and to the immigrant stories of their own families, connecting the learning to their own lives and their community. One unexpected outcome: one student was able to use her research to help her mother better understand how to sponsor a family visa for a grandparent that was being sponsored from the family’s home country.

Make it meaningful!

So how can we build a PBL culture of meaningful work for teachers and meaningful learning for students? Here’s a final thought.

Find inspiration and connect deeply with core standards. When teachers begin designing their first project in a PBL 101 workshop, they are encouraged to think about the many sources of inspiration for a project: problems in their school or community, current events and real world problems, and more. What are your students passionate about? What are you passionate about? How do these sources of inspiration connect with the standards that are core to learning in your discipline or grade level?

“Creating works of excellence begins with inspiring students...high quality reading, writing, and speaking happen when students feel passion and purpose for their studies.” This statement comes from Inspiring Excellence: Overview, the first video in a series from Expeditionary Learning. A project will be most successful when you and your students are both engaged and invested in the project - when it is purposeful and worth the time it will take. You will be energized and willing to “go deep” with your students as they apply core standards to authentic, real-world problems.


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