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The Role of PBL in Making the Shift to Common Core

Sara Hallermann

Curriculum Development Manager, Buck Institute for Education
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Editor's note: John Larmer, Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), contributed to this post.

The Common Core has embedded within it some Big Ideas that shift the role of teachers to curriculum designers and managers of an inquiry process. How can project-based learning (PBL) help with this shift?

Big Idea #1: I am a designer.

Common Core calls upon teachers to shift away from writing daily lesson plans and toward carefully mapping out long-range units. Daily lesson planning is important, but it must occur within the context of a larger plan.

PBL Connection: To meet the demands of the Common Core, teachers need a framework for designing units. In PBL, the project is the unit. It requires careful planning from start to finish, as BIE emphasizes in its project planning framework.

Big Idea #2: I facilitate inquiry.

Research and sustained inquiry are emphasized throughout the standards, but most prominently in the writing strand, because written analysis and presentation of findings are critical in both college and careers. To meet the demands of the Common Core, students must be able to build knowledge and expertise through careful reading of increasingly complex texts about the same topic of investigation.

PBL Connection: To meet BIE's 8 Essential Elements of PBL, inquiry must be academically rigorous and position students to pose questions, gather and interpret data, ask further questions, and develop and evaluate solutions or build evidence for answers. Well-designed projects teach students how to be deep, analytical thinkers and require perseverance through the inquiry process.

Big Idea #3: I set students up to dig deep, search for meaning, and craft reasoned arguments.

Common Core requires teachers to shift from promoting a "searching for the right answer" mentality to explicitly teaching students how to dive into texts and search for meaning. Students need ongoing access to inquiry experiences that build their understanding of the world through text, and that explicitly teach them how to support arguments with evidence.

PBL Connection: Projects can be framed around compelling problems, issues or challenges that require critical thinking and prompt students to craft reasoned arguments in response to the driving question. Through balanced assessment in PBL, teachers can assess the critical thinking process as well as products, enabling students to self-assess their critical thinking skills.

Big Idea #4: I create conditions in which students can learn how to persevere.

Perseverance is an underlying theme in the Common Core Standards. To meet the standards, students need to put forth sustained effort through in-depth investigation of issues, building understanding of varying perspectives, reading complex tests, listening carefully, and sharing their reasoning.

PBL Connection: In PBL, students are asked to demonstrate perseverance by analyzing and solving problems, and thinking critically in an in-depth and sustained way. Revision and reflection, one of BIE's 8 Essential Elements, requires PBL teachers to provide students with regular, structured opportunities to give and receive feedback about the quality of their work-in-progress, demonstrate perseverance, and polish their products until they successfully meet the established criteria for success.

Big Idea #5: I integrate content and create relevance.

Common Core requires teachers to move away from teaching skills in isolation and toward the integration of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language into long-term unit plans. Students should be able to see the relationship between standards as they transfer concepts and skills in the classroom to the world outside the classroom walls. Rather than learning in a decontextualized way, Common Core demands that students have ongoing experiences to learn about the world through reading, and that they understand the relevance of what is taught.

PBL Connection: In PBL, key culminating products are complex in nature and enable students to demonstrate their understanding of a blend of concepts and skills. Well-crafted Driving Questions are both understandable and inspiring to students, and provide a meaningful, authentic context for learning. Projects motivate students to learn because they genuinely find the project's topic, Driving Question and tasks to be relevant and meaningful. Entry events powerfully engage students both emotionally and intellectually, making them feel invested in the project. This provokes students to dive into inquiry and gives them a reason to read, write, listen and speak about the topic of investigation.

Big Idea #6: I facilitate meaningful conversations.

Common Core requires a shift from teachers doing much of the talking to creating conditions in which students can engage in meaningful conversations in which they learn how to use evidence for claims, listen carefully, draw meaning and evaluate others' reasoning.

PBL Connection: Collaboration is a requirement in PBL. When students work in project teams and interface with people beyond the classroom, they have conversations about what they are learning, possible answers to the Driving Question, and how to create project products.

The bottom line for teachers who are wondering how to make the shift to Common Core? Think PBL!

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Sara Hallermann

Curriculum Development Manager, Buck Institute for Education

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Joe Beckmann's picture
Joe Beckmann
Retired teacher educator - UMass, EDC, various school systems

Beware the didact! No one person - even a teacher - knows more than 30 other people - even kids. Yet the things a teacher knows, or should know, can, or should, help kids know more, faster, better, and with greater confidence and assurance.

PBL and Common Core are, as you rightly frame them, parallel instructional activities - the Core gives a broad, now national, framework for projects as small as tying shoes. Yet - and this is even with your 8 conditions - neither PBL nor CC really answer what kids need for college or career. Lots of data from the CC and a pile of past projects may - or may not - add up to the kind of knowledge, assurance, and skills kids need for life.

That's where ePortfolios can pull those strings together, and help kids - both individually and collaboratively - know how much they know, while they teach their teachers the "meaning" of their projects and the "relevance" of project-to-core standards. The Portfolios with which I'm the most familiar were derived from the SCANS studies at the US Department of Labor 20 years ago, and adapt the eight "soft skills" Arnold Packer extracted from the hundreds of "necessary skills" DOL developed with unions, industry and educators. When a kid - and this can actually be at any age, but its easier to see it by middle or high school - selects his or her own way to show off their "reliability," or inquiry, analysis, work across cultures, or other variables Kellogg and, later, MacArthur financed, that kid learns self-assessment. Particularly if that process is at least annual, if not continuous. And even more so if other kids - and teachers and parents - give feedback. And that assessment is what (a) gives context to such things as test scores and past projects while (b) demonstrates that the Common Core has had some meaningful impact on learning.

Too many portfolio - and even some PBL - events are designed to produce a "warm feeling," and to generate some affectionate reinforcement. While such is fine as far as it goes, I often remember a teacher with whom I worked almost 50 years ago, who said - often - that "If you want kids to have a warm feeling, tell 'em to pee their pants. Our business goes further than a wet lap."

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

"Common Core calls upon teachers to shift toward carefully mapping out long-range units"; the potential for PBL to integrate truly differentiated lessons is therein lost, as the teacher redirects student creativity towards a pre-conceived target found in CCSS. Joe's commensurate logic, "really answer what kids need for college or career" tells the tale, that we still haven't recognized that human nature is one of inquiry which can indeed be trusted, particularly in the 21st century when most pundits predict that the ten fastest growing careers 10 years from now haven't been invented yet. Good luck preparing kids for jobs which don't yet exist, what skills/knowledge do you exactly force upon kids when no one has the faintest clue what these kids will be doing for work. Perhaps the time tested strategy of Free Schools, allowing learning to be fun, allowing learning to be interest, talent, and student goal driven needs to be revisited, well not exactly revisited as there are thousands of youth each year who attend these schools and largely reap the rewards of a non-coercive, non-standards driven education. Surely there are no silver bullets in education, as it deals with the infinite diversity of humanity, but equally assuredly the notion that we can capture in a set of standards what each and every child will benefit from learning in order to prepare for jobs which don't yet exist is an obviously flawed proposition.

Sam Wertheim's picture
Sam Wertheim
Special Education Teacher, Mathematics Professor, and Author.

"...potential for PBL to integrate truly differentiated lessons is therein lost, as the teacher redirects student creativity towards a pre-conceived target found in CCSS."

The constructivist approach of PBL is a strong factor in student learning and achievement. Utilizing the inherent nature of project based learning's zone of proximal development create a social learning that is research-based and has known benefits for any age. With this said, I think that your view on CCSS is misleading because the CCSS is a framework, one that has nothing to do with differentiated lessons or instruction. From the standpoint you are taking, you limit the potential benefits of having long range and far reaching goals towards targets that students need to be globally competitive in the 21st century workplace. While we (assuming we are discussing the American education system) scored the highest on "creativity" on the international tests, we also scored 36th internationally on PISA's mathematics, science, and reading. (http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/, December 2013)

The preconcieved targets you state are targets to keep our students globally competitive. I am a sixth grade teacher, I find that the CCSS allows me to have meaningful education targets on a learning trajectory that actually makes it easier for myself and my faculty to create PBL opportunities. With topics being covered deeper, I find that opportunities for students acquisition of concepts for outweighs the previous years teaching towards the NYS 2005 standards. I agree there are no "silver bullets" in education, but giving students a proper target to focus on allows all states to be on the same page. In 2006 Massachusetts adopted a framework very similar to the CCSS; in 2013 Massachusetts scored a global ranking of 11th internationally. Why is that? One contributing factor is an increase of rigor on their states standards mixed with teacher education.

"Perhaps the time tested strategy of Free Schools, allowing learning to be fun, allowing learning to be interest, talent, and student goal driven needs to be revisited, well not exactly revisited as there are thousands of youth each year who attend these schools and largely reap the rewards of a non-coercive, non-standards driven education."

While I agree partially with this statement of "free learning", do you really think that this policy would be appropriate for the entire country? I recognize the importance of free play and the constructivist benefits, I cannot picture this working in a public/private/charter school with fidelity. Also, I cannot find any substantial research on the effects of what you are stating. Perhaps you can enlighten me? e.g. research, schools you know that prove this works...

As for your statement on jobs ... The top 10 jobs are in computer programing, engineering, mathematics, and science. These four primary categories, at the very least require ALL of the CCSS in order to be successful. I challenge you to show me a standards that students will not use in their future roles in the 21st century workplace?

There are many flaws to the CCSS policy; but when comparing this to the NCLB and other policies prior, I think that it will show positive affects for students academic success.

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

"CCSS is a framework, one that has nothing to do with differentiated lessons or instruction." From a real, practical perspective, don't the very existence of standards which were not derived from the students' interests or dreams limit the ability for students and educators to learn in a differentiated manner? "students need to be globally competitive in the 21st century workplace." This was one of the premises which I clearly was questioning, if no one knows what jobs will be at the forefront 10 years from now, then how does anyone claim to know what skills will make a person globally competitive? There is also the real question of what is valued, is it mere competitiveness, or is it a reflection on what students would like to engage in as a career which brings them fulfillment of a far broader nature? "PISA's mathematics, science, and reading" is merely a test created by adults of generally one geographic region, and one culture, I would question the validity of any singular test's ability to measure anything meaningful.

" In 2006 Massachusetts adopted a framework very similar to the CCSS; in 2013 Massachusetts scored a global ranking of 11th internationally." My point is that while conventional schools focused on these rankings there were Free Schools i.e Sudbury Valley Schools which remained clearly able to produce graduates capable of competing in the global marketplace while other graduates chose a different route, one equally fulfilling, but simply not mired in capitalist competition; is this really so wrong? At the end of the day the question is, what is the purpose of schooling, is it to produce globally competitive students, or students who know what it is that makes them feel fulfilled, and a means for making a career out of pursuing that fulfillment. My guess is the SVS would answer on the side of facilitating fulfillment, while perhaps the conventional testing modality is more focused on the competition.

"While I agree partially with this statement of "free learning", do you really think that this policy would be appropriate for the entire country?" As stated previously, there certainly are no silver bullets, there will in all likelihood remain a space for the competitive prep schools as well as the conventional schools, I am simply calling attention to the lack of publicly funded alternatives which derive from a differing lens, one which focuses on lifelong pursuit of happiness. "I cannot picture this working in a public/private/charter school with fidelity." The literature on this working for nearly a hundred years exists from A.S. Neill, Sudbury Valley, and comprehensive web-sites such as AERO Education; if you are intrigued in the least it may be worth a gander at their extensive research. My own small contribution to the research seeks to look at these models exclusively within the urban environment, a model which was previously explored, but within which no research to my knowledge has been afforded during the last 40 years. "I challenge you to show me a standards that students will not use in their future roles in the 21st century workplace?" I surely do not pretend to know the standards which will be useful in future job roles, just as surely as no one else does, and this somewhat misses the point, that student contentedness may be a more viable long-term objective than global competitiveness in a time when job skills are clearly evolving at an ever increasing rate. Thanks for your consideration of these issues, hopefully they clearly demark a distinction in the purpose of schooling wherein we all reflect :)

naguayo's picture
naguayo
Reading Interventionist

The learning shift is not only for students but for teachers as well. Teachers need to be well prepared in order to be up to par with the changes that the CC and PBL need. I fear that the onset of CC and PBL will be a state and federal normality prior to providing teachers with the needed professional development. Schools will be continuously chasing the greatest and latest education reform.

StopCommonCoreNH's picture

This is dumbed down workforce training, NOT education. They are forcing failed teaching methods on teachers and this is supposed to be a Set of Standards??
Thanks for showing that this is FAR more than a set of poorly written standards. It's also about forcing teachers to use failed methods.
Don't believe me? Read these:
http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090326114415.htm
http://educationnext.org/eighth-grade-students-learn-more-through-direct...
http://www.jefflindsay.com/EducData.shtml
http://educationnext.org/harvard-study-shows-that-lecture-style-presenta...

www.stopcommoncorenh.org

StopCommonCoreNH's picture

Parents aren't concerned about dumbed down "soft skills" now called 21st Century skills when they are still subjected to failed fuzzy math programs. They want their children taught the basics.
Common Core is dumbed down workforce training sold as if it's some kind of 21st Century learning.
The kids in the private schools will still get the quality education their parents are willing to pay for and the public school kids will get this dumbed down workforce training.
SCANS was exposed years ago for adding to the dumbing down in public ed: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2001/04/the-new-definition-of-s...

John Dewey's picture

Where in the CC standards does it require PBL or any technique for that matter, to be used?

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