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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Constructing a PBL classroom... the first weeks of school

Constructing a PBL classroom... the first weeks of school

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Hi, The beginning of the year is fast approaching! I'm new to PBL and a pretty new teacher and I want to start off the year strong. I thought we could share effective ways we start the year (curriculum, rules, activities, routines). How do you set up a PBL classroom? What rules and procedures/expectations/routines do you start setting up? What are your classroom rules? Here are the rules I'm thinking of (they're NOT finalized). I want no more than 3-4. Rules can set students up to develop their abilities to collaborate, communicate, create, and reflect. These abilities are fundamental to PBL. Here's my stab at creating rules that set up students well. I welcome your critique and wisdom. - Think from different perspectives - Speak your mind and listen to others - Do the right thing even when no one is looking - Communicate constructively - Take risks This discussion can become a resource for PBL classroom structure...

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Comments (68)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Young-Buckler's picture
Amy Young-Buckler
Librarian, Meade Heights ES, Anne Arundel County Public Schools

When I work with teachers to plan long term projects for their students, we start with the planning process we want our students to use to map out how they will meet the teachers goals (we use the Big6 for our model). Then, the teacher and I work through the project requirements and create a model project. This way, we can see what might need to be changed in the task, figure out how much time the students will need for research, writing/storyboarding/creating, and how much time we will need to assess the projects and give the students meaningful feedback at each stage of the project. We also make sure to build in opportunities for the students to reflect on their own work and how they completed the process.

Donna B VanSickle's picture

The new GPS curriculum in Math in GA is all Standards Based Classroom and Performance Based Learning. The students do Learning Tasks to discover math concepts. This is done K-12. Visit the website You will find the frameworks for the tasks. Hope this helps.

Mele Thompson's picture

When I taught art at the middle school level, I teamed a few times with the music teacher and had my class design and construct props, masks, and murals for her productions. The kids loved seeing their creations on stage. I also had my students enter local poster contests which had a large range of topics and causes.

Jennifer Duann's picture
Jennifer Duann
10th grade biology teacher in Lima, OH

I wouldn't call myself a PBL veteran by a long shot, but I've crash-tested it with middle and high schoolers. Here's some general advice, in no particular order...

1) Start planning with the end in mind. What do you want students to know or think about, how will you know they have learned, and how will you get them to that point.
2) Make sure your project is "minds-on" as well as "hands-on," especially with science. I nearly lost my mind when I heard the comment, "Are we doing a lab today or just learning stuff?" Students need a lot of guidance, whether through discussion, journaling, reflection, or other metacognitive strategies, to think about their own learning process.
3) Stay organized and consistent!! Projects are a lot to manage. Starting with the end in mind helps a lot with that.

As for establishing a conducive classroom culture for PBL, a few things to remind students from the get-go:

1) They are responsible for their own learning. This will come as a shock to many of them!
2) Life's not easy. In your classroom, you'll try to make it fair, but it's definitely not easy, so they shouldn't expect a free ride. They will probably not like it. In fact, they'll probably hate you for it even if your project is fun and snazzy...and worse if it isn't!
3) Respect everyone's strengths, weaknesses, opinions, differences, and preferences.

I wrote a longer reflection PBL camp on my blog here:

eudora stephens's picture

I want to redesign my first grade classroom for PBL. We've already started the year(Florida private school)and I've spent this first week having students work together in small groups on small "projects". (I had lots of parent volunteers.)At the end of each day we discussed behaviors that would help/hinder working on projects in groups. Today we will finally meet and come up with a final list of three to four rules. I am still trying to design a project that my first graders can do collaboratively.

eudora stephens's picture

Hi everyone, this year I want to redesign my first grade classroom for PBL. We've already started the year and I've spent this first week having students work on small "projects" in small groups. (I have lots of parent volunteer helpers.)At the end of each day we discussed the behaviors that helped/hindered working together on a project. Today we will finally meet and come up with a list of 3-4 rules. I think that it's important for students to help make the rules. For this first quarter I am designing a project on water conservation. Any suggestions?

Kelly KJ's picture
Kelly KJ
Instructional Coach in Newport News, VA

I worked in a school which used PBL for 11 years. Now I am in a school where there is no support for this type of learning. Either way, the real heart of PBL is what the teacher and the students make it TOGETHER. If you you are just starting out, I would suggest going small-scale. Start with something you (and your students) are passionate about. Whether you build it in to every day or every week, the point of PBL is to learn with purpose. When I was in a PBL elementary school, we built our entire curriculum around the projects, integrating math,science, reading, writing, etc. We looked at the state and local standards and planned which projects we would take on and how we would incorporate the standards across the entire semester or year. In my current situation, I am required to teach specific skills and content each week and to follow a strict pacing guide where discreet skills are tested each marking period. Even with these limitation, I am still able to coordinate a couple of projects a year with my class, working on our research and products one day a week. Some of my colleagues in high school in the same situation are able to work out at least one long-term project throughout the course. I have always incorporated a community-service piece to my projects. Students start with the big questions, do field investigations and research, and then share the experience in a real-life way with the community at large.
Start with something happening in the world or your community and build from there. Follow the passion and interests of your students. The best laid plans don't always lead to the best projects. I started out the year with a plan for the second semester's project that ended up going by the wayside when the earthquake hit in Haiti. The students had so many questions and concerns about it, that we decided to change our project altogether, looking for a way to help.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Here are some resources and thoughts on getting started, pbl as well as teachers in general:

I guess the big take away for me is to get clear expectations set, clear procedures for all the various transitions set and practiced. Because without decent class management and atmosphere, pbl can be scary chaos.

But to keep things focused on the excitement awaiting (so there's some REASON for them to behave :-)I'm going to have a project bulletin board with upcoming project challenges and questions on them, to get kids started thinking.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Thank you, starting with the end in mind IS the key to good pbl. Being flexible to what kids are interested in is key too.

Rachel Pickett's picture
Rachel Pickett
10th grade Social Studies

I love the idea of a project bulletin board with upcoming project challenges and questions. Thanks!

Teaching the procedures and transitions and management of PBL seems crucial to me. What procedures and routines help keep the classroom well managed?

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