Co-constructing units with students can be a daunting prospect for teachers. While many of us like to cultivate students’ agency when it comes to their learning, a crowded curriculum can limit just how much say we can let them have.
However, there is one way to honor the curriculum and empower students to take ownership: sharing yearlong curriculum expectations with students and asking them to choose their own standards for project-based learning (PBL) units.
As I’ve seen firsthand, the result is powerful student-driven learning.
Co-construction in Action
I recently observed this strategy being used with a group of fourth-grade learners during a PBL experience rooted in this driving question: “How can we create a game that teaches people about body systems?” Students started by rummaging through bundles of curriculum statements to identify two driving standards that related to the driving question of the project: one standard relating to how “organs perform a function” and another relating to how “organs work together as part of a body system.”
Once students had identified those driving standards, they identified supporting standards—skills-based standards from across the curriculum that they found relevant to their body systems games. They included prior learning from the science curriculum, math standards relating to precision, language standards relating to writing instructions, and a number of standards relating to design and creativity. The young learners selected eight or 10 standards to form unique, standards-aligned success criteria for their project.
Students made connections easily: They quickly identified prior science learning and skills and selected supporting standards, such as “using scientific terminology,” as important to this project. They also made authentic interdisciplinary connections. As one student said, “This isn’t just a science project. If we aren’t accurate in our measurements, then the final game will look terrible, so that’s also art and math.”
Each group created success criteria that were rigorous but also very different. Aside from the driving standards associated with body systems, each group focused on different aspects of the curriculum as their supporting standards. As a result, each group’s body systems game varied significantly in how they looked and gameplay. Some of the games integrated digital literacy, others featured complex word problems, and others included intricate design elements. Students clearly chose supporting standards that emphasized their own strengths (such as drawing skills) but also had the chance to focus on areas of the curriculum that they felt they needed to practice.
Upon completion of the project, one student reflected, “I insisted that our group focus on spelling and punctuation, which I find really challenging. I wanted to make sure that I was reminded to pay attention to that.”
Implementation in the Classroom
This approach can be applied to any PBL unit and requires just a single lesson to develop the initial list of standards that underpin student-generated success criteria. The body systems game project took place over a four-week period, with a single 40-minute session dedicated to selecting driving and supporting standards for each group’s success criteria.
After that initial session, students’ success criteria were the central focus for the rest of the project.
The steps of the body systems game project were as follows:
- Share the driving question for a PBL experience and discuss what students think the main learning will be for the unit. For example: How can we create a game that teaches people about body systems?
- Provide students with age-appropriate versions of the standards or benchmarks for that grade, across all disciplines. Cut the standards into strips so that the students can move them around easily as they discuss their ideas and develop their thinking. Depending on the number of standards in your curriculum, you might remove some so that younger learners aren’t overwhelmed.
- Have students work in groups to identify the driving standards that link to the main purpose for the unit—in this instance, learning about body systems. They should be able to infer this from the driving question of the PBL unit and from the discussion from step 1. (These are the only statements that should be consistent among groups.)
- Have each group choose five to eight additional standards that they wish to focus on throughout the unit, from any area of the curriculum, as long as they articulate what it would look like to apply that skill or understanding with their project. These supporting standards combine with the driving standards to create student-generated, standards-aligned success criteria for their project.
- Ask groups to post their chosen success criteria on a shared display board or working wall. Order the standards in terms of priority, with the driving standards at the top and supporting standards underneath. Make sure that the text is large enough to be seen from wherever the students are working during their project.
- Create a gallery walk to prompt students to consider the selections that other groups make and to reflect on their own selections. That gives groups the opportunity to articulate the why behind their choices and share how they intend to meet each standard within their project.
- Draw attention to the success criteria throughout the unit. The list becomes a handy tool for coaching and reflecting with students during the project. Supporting standards in the success criteria can be added to or removed in response to the needs of students. Suggest that learners return to the overall curriculum to make adjustments and swap out certain standards if needed.
- Use the list of standards to create rubrics that allow students to self- and peer-assess, in a way that is personalized and authentic. This rubric can also provide structure and focus when students present their final project to the class. Students naturally refer to their selected standards and talk through the ways in which they met each one.
Creating a culture of shared responsibility and ownership of the curriculum can be an important part of developing student agency. This approach is not limited to group-based PBL units; it can also be valuable when setting personal learning goals or working on individual projects, or even during home-based learning.