Project-based learning (PBL) usually involves a student-led process in which learners create a product that is presented in front of a public audience. The approach is valuable—fostering reflection, student engagement, voice, choice, inquiry, and authentic feedback—but it doesn’t come without challenges.
In my work in the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum framework, I’ve gleaned insight into instructional approaches to PBL that work well for students and teachers around the world; I share them here for replication across educational contexts.
Using Visible Thinking Routines Throughout the PBL Process
Visible thinking routines, one element of IB’s approaches to learning skills (ATLs), are an excellent tool for supporting students throughout their projects, kindling and maintaining curiosity, and sparking conversations about perspective-taking in the classroom.
Harvard University’s Project Zero—which IB educators can use for professional development—has a Thinking Routines Toolbox that I find especially useful. When starting a project, I like to use Chalk Talk to activate students’ background knowledge and introduce new concepts. Try a chalk talk with the driving question of a PBL unit, as well as the inquiries that the central question inspires. Questions should be open-ended and discussion-oriented, and they can provide valuable bulletin board material for sustained brainstorming.
To move from idea generation to evaluation, I use Compass Points to offer students an opportunity to consider their ideas from different perspectives—a practice that has proven just as useful in faculty meetings.
Leveraging perspective-taking to further build empathy, Step Inside is a routine that I use to encourage students to consider the perspective(s) of the intended audience for their PBL project. This approach is also valuable for encouraging students to consider the perspective of a guest speaker visiting the class to discuss their work or for inviting students to write from the perspective of a character—such as the protagonist of a novel or a historical figure whose work connects to the driving question of a PBL unit.
And because PBL is grounded in inquiry, What Makes You Say That? is a helpful routine for classroom discourse that encourages the utilization of evidence to back up ideas, allowing facilitators to probe deeply into student thinking.
Finally, to scaffold meaningful, inquiry-based reflection, I use the I used to think… Now I think… frame throughout a unit to track students’ learning and encourage metacognition. Using sticky notes to do this routine allows students to move about the room, and it is easy to hang students’ reflections on a bulletin board or color-code responses to find patterns in the group’s thinking.
Teaching Skills Explicitly to Support Students’ Projects
PBL supports students’ development of skills that are applicable far beyond their time in school, which aligns well with IB’s ATLs: thinking skills, communication skills, research skills, self-management skills, and social skills. The IB breaks these skills down into subskills; in a PBL unit, taking time to talk about and teach these skills explicitly—in addition to the latent learning that naturally happens through students’ projects—can bolster students’ facility with them and create opportunities to discuss how these skills connect to a unit’s driving question.
For example, the IB cites taking effective notes during class as an important skill. You could utilize direct instruction to target this skill and offer a gradual release of responsibility by, first, introducing the Cornell notes system, a model that supports students’ documentation of facts, questions, and summaries of learning. Model this approach in front of the class or in focus groups, then invite students to practice while watching Steve Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford, and compare their results.
Because everyone learns differently, and PBL prioritizes student voice and choice, you could then follow direct instruction and practice with an opportunity for students to choose their own favorite note-taking method, practice it, and share it with the class. Or you might encourage students to blend the skills learned from direct instruction with their own favorite method and then discuss how they feel about this hybrid approach.
Using IB Methods to Create Driving Questions
Driving questions are the heart of PBL, but crafting them can be arduous. The IB Middle Years Programme offers a solution: Educators must create conceptual and debatable questions for a unit of study that are comparable to driving questions, and the following framework scaffolds their creation.
Conceptual questions usually begin with the word how or could, for example: How do creators (authors) use symbolism across different genres of texts and works? In PBL, we look for this style of question plus a more direct connection to student engagement. For example: How do creators use symbolism across different genres of texts and works to _______ teenagers? You can fill in the blank with whatever word most resonates with students: entertain, inspire, influence. Or you can change “teenagers” to another subject—a singer, an actor, or another celebrity.
Notice the word creators: The IB uses this term instead of author to make the question inclusive of other producers of texts—poets, authors, illustrators, playwrights. The words works and texts also connect to IB pedagogy, in which work defines a complete work of literature, and text describes images, oral works, and more. Being intentional about wording can further open students’ minds.
Next, debatable questions: These usually begin with should or to what extent. Using the word should invites debate and discussion. An IB unit, for example, poses the question, “Should violence ever be justified?” To make this question more relatable and engaging to students, we might adapt it to this, “Should violence in _____ ever be justified?” and then work with students to fill in the blank (e.g., video games, sports, movies, books and stories). And to what extent questions—for example, “To what extent should youth be influenced by celebrities?”—also help to move beyond yes/no to invite a range of student opinions in the classroom.
There are many similarities between IB and PBL approaches to education, and by braiding together select practices—such as those highlighted above—we can simplify the sometimes extensive planning involved while reaping the benefits of instructional practices that center students’ curiosity, connection, and idea-building.