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Help Designing a PBL School/Classroom

Scott Cusack Kindergarten teacher from Santa Clarita, California

Our school is slated to be completely rebuilt and is currently in the design stages. When we reopen, we are considering having a Project Based Learning focus. To those of you who have taught PBL, do you have any suggestions for what needs to be included in the design of the campus and classrooms?

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Project Foundry Guru

Don't take queues from classroom PBL

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Hi Scott,


We work with 100+ authentic PBL schools across the country. I'd recommend checking out the groups below that have done just as you describe and continue to do so for the last 10+ years. I'd also be very cautious of those who tell you PD and design of classroom PBL and a holistic PBL school are interchangeable. Granted there are similarities, but if this distinction is not protected/understood you'll end up recreating what you were trying to NOT design once all the silos and traditional class structure has been established.

EdVisions Schools-
BigPicture Company Schools-
High Tech High-

Meet with people who've done exactly what you are doing by attending:

- 3rd Annual Project Foundry / PBL Un-conference
- EdVisions Summer Institute-
- 1st Annual Wi PBL Network Conference

Best wishes,

Shane Krukowski
Project-based Learning Systems
Milwaukee, WI

Journalist and PBL advocate

All PBL Design

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Hi Scott,
What an exciting opportunity. Starting with a wall-to-wall PBL focus offers many advantages (and thanks, Shane, for sharing several good examples of schools that have gone in this direction).
Now you have the chance to plan how the design and physical spaces of your school will support the kind of teaching and learning you want to happen. I'd suggest visiting some PBL schools so you can see this style of learning in action. I'm constantly hearing from teachers about how they try to stretch/remodel their traditional classroom to carve out places where students can easily work in small groups, where there's room to spread out, where the noise level caused by productive discussions won't be overwhelming, where technology is invisible but ubiquitous. These are all things you can plan ahead for, and there are some excellent school design experts who can help you with the visioning process.
At the same time, you'll be considering your instructional approach and building the structures that aren't physical, but are also key. In particular, you'll want to think about how to use time effectively. Longer class times, shared teacher planning time, time for faculty to work as a professional learning community are among the processes that help PBL go.
At this point, you're facing some provocative, open-ended questions. Try using the same strategies we encourage in PBL: Think about what you need to know, consult with experts, bring together a team to yield better ideas, be innovative, and throughout, keep your end goal in mind.
Maybe some school design experts would like to join this conversation thread?

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

PBL, Montessori style

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Hi Scott,

You don't mention which level you're teaching, and that makes a difference, but I'll tell you how we handle some of the challenges Suzie has noted in our upper elementary classroom.

We have two work periods each day, morning and afternoon. Our morning focus is on building basic skills. We schedule reading groups, math lessons, creative writing workshops, and daily practice of skills such as editing, vocabulary, etc. according to the needs and speeds of the students. Students work independently and schedule their own tasks around any lessons or other teacher-led groups they are working with each day. They are responsible for managing their own tasks, asking for help when it is needed, and working either individually, or in a buddy pair. The work period spans 2.75 - 3.0 hours depending on the length of our morning meeting.

Afternoons are reserved for cultural work which includes the social sciences, the hard sciences and the arts. Most tasks are structured for small groups or buddy pairs. Curriculum is presented in a unit study format, and students are presented with a variety of tasks depending on their skill levels and the subject matter. Efforts are made to encourage peer teaching by matching students across grade levels. Many activities are presented as a number of centers which students can explore in a variety of ways.

Our room has a number of features which make this level of variety possible. We have a large open carpeted area where students can meet if they need to work together. Students are based at light tables, and they store materials in "cubbies," so they can make a number of different seating decisions, as well as reconfigure table space easily.

Teacher tables are arcs, in fixed positions,and accommodate up to five students in a work group or 3 individual workers. Backjack floor chairs provide students with light support for floor sitting. Carpets encourage students to work in prone or reclining positions (a very popular choice). We also have an alcove which features a bean bag chair, a stress reducing activity box, and a small measure of privacy. There is also a library area in the room where students can meet to work together, or just get a change of scenery.

Another resource we have is our easy access to the local public park. We use it about once per week. Sometimes we are doing PE activities, but other times we use our park time for project tie-ins such as nature observations or ecology games.

Perhaps the most important attribute of our PBL classroom is the preparation we do to help students take advantage of the opportunities which are available. Each year we take a great deal of time during the first six weeks of school to establish the practices which will allow students to work autonomously as well as in buddy pairs and small learning groups. Students and staff work together each year to establish a set of agreements for the class which allow us to operate as a community of learners. We refer to (and amend, if needed) these agreements throughout the year.

I firmly beleive that the emotional preparation is the key element. Less than ideal physical conditions can be ameliorated by emotionally healthy culture, but an emotional climate which does not promote student independence will not support learning, even in the finest physical surroundings!


Journalist and PBL advocate

Quote: I firmly believe that

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I firmly believe that the emotional preparation is the key element. Less than ideal physical conditions can be ameliorated by emotionally healthy culture, but an emotional climate which does not promote student independence will not support learning, even in the finest physical surroundings!


Mary Kate,
Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. You've hit on some great points here, from scheduling to teaching style to physical space. It all adds up to a coherent vision about teaching and learning. And as you point out, getting kids ready to thrive in a PBL environment takes more than moving the desks out of the way!
I'm curious what educators are experiencing at other grade levels. More great ideas out there?



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I would suggest that 2 things are paramount: the right tools and training in project management. The problem is that training is almost non-existent. Most teachers have never studied project management so they don't know the steps to teach students.
I created as a solution to the hated 'group project'. It provides a platform with tools like outlines, tasks, shared calendar, IM, email, etc all in a web 2.0 private network. Also importantly there are many articles to help students learn how to work in groups and manage their tasks.

Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Tools for Success

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Hi Sal,

Isn't it interesting that the tools which, today, can make tasks more concrete, are, themselves, so ethereal?

I have to second the vote for incorporating computing and networking technology as a key component in an ideal school design. Students respond so positively to the opportunity to use real tools! I feel as if I've only touched the tip of the iceberg with respect to computer use in my classroom. Do you ever get the notion that the field of computer technology advances so quickly that one can only ever be on the tip of the iceberg?

At my level, students repond to active tasks which allow them to investigate new ideas and learn to use new tools or procedures. Our system has traditionally used concrete manipulatives which model important ideas. These materials become more and more abstract as students progress with a concept. Finding ways to model more advanced concepts has always been a challenge at the upper elementary level.

The meeting tools you described, Sal, are the very things we adults use to make our meetings more productive. Why wouldn't we use them with students?


I agree with mary Kate

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I agree with mary Kate make a PBL programme successful, you need to introduce latest tools which help incorporate challange, investigation, research, exploration and experiential learning method. A PBL school needs to establish curriculum which invilves three main components and they are,integeration of real community and audience,integeration of all subjects with each other and the integeration of emerging technologies around the whole curriculum.All that requires a need based planning. you may start with just one computer or can initiate with large fully equipped ICT suits with multimedias, interactive boards, laptop for each learner and so on.As a part of proect management, effective use of available resources is the main essence of success.

If you're seriously thinking about classroom design...

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Then you need to check out, in particular this page:

Fielding and Nair, the principal architects, are simply incredible when it comes to designing schools. They actually base many of their space on Multiple Intelligence theory and Brain-based learning concepts. As well, they seem to be adherents of Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language" and have created their own text (which I cannot recommend enough), "The Language of School Design."

Take a look at the link I copied above and scroll through the different patterns they outline. It's bound to help you. I would especially look at their "Case Studies" menu to see what they've actually designed:

Arts Integration Specialist

I'd also like to point out

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I'd also like to point out that a lot of project-based learning uses teaching the content areas THROUGH the arts. The arts are all about the process and are assessed through projects and performances. Many successful PBL schools I know are also arts-integration schools. When designing your school and the organizational structure, consider where the arts will be in your building and how you will utilize them effectively in PBL. Try not to place them in a separate wing of the building, but throughout the building as core areas that can help you in implementing PBL.

Also, when structuring the school day for PBL, try to allow for the fine arts teachers (maybe not all together, but at least one every day) to also have common planning times with a grade level. This makes it easier to have the fine arts and the content area teachers collaborate to create authentically-aligned, engaging PBL units of study.

I also agree that professional development for your teachers is key to a successful PBL program. Look for ways to bring in master artists, others who have used PBL, providing some sub time so that your teachers can visit other PBL schools in action (this is KEY!), as well as providing classes and professional book clubs. If you need online training, provides classes throughout the year for both arts teachers and classroom teachers on how to effectively use arts integration and PBL. I'd also recommend the book "Artful Teaching" for hands-on ideas and processes for incorporating PBL. Best of luck on this exciting opportunity!

Kindergarten teacher from Santa Clarita, California

Good input. I currently teach

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Good input. I currently teach Kinder, but spent most of my career in upper elementary. I don't think we had considered scheduling at this point so it's good that I can bring that up.

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