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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A Recipe for Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning

Successfully integrating project-based learning across multiple classes requires careful coordination of learning outcomes and the teaching workload.

April 13, 2022
Middle school students in cooking class
Jeff Gilbert / Alamy

In the project-based learning community, we use the metaphor that projects are the main course, not the dessert. Previously, I’ve written about how to integrate PBL across subjects into “full course” projects. With effective teamwork, teachers can cook up a full-course meal project that integrates and creates connections for students to make learning even more meaningful.

5 Steps to Improve PBL Integration

1. Determine the recipe: As a team meets to plan an integrated project, they should bring their various ingredients: the standards and learning targets that guide their curriculum. One effective strategy is to cut these into strips and put them on a table and create an affinity map where teachers identify strong connections between content learning standards in different disciplines.

For example, a world language teacher and a social studies teacher might have content that overlaps with oral communication, so they could label that connection “similar content.” A math teacher and a science teacher might find that their standards both connect to “adult world” work such as exponential equations related to illnesses and disease. It’s important to look for authentic connections and possibilities.

In this process, certain standards (ingredients) will be omitted, and that’s OK. It’s important to have the norm of “authentic fit” so that the integration is meaningful to students. At the same time, the norm of “being open to possibilities” helps teachers plan flexibly, so that opting out of integration isn’t the default. Instead, teachers can continue to look for authentic connections.

This process can lead to generating possible project ideas. An example of this is the Making the Grade project in math and English, which focused on math standards related to statistics and ratio and proportion, as well as English standards related to multimedia and crafting arguments. In it, students use their math skills to analyze and design new grading policies for their school and try to persuade teachers to use them.

Another example was in a humanities project on historical fiction. In it, teachers found connections between civics standards in social studies, speaking and listening in English, and creative production standards in media arts. Students were asked to write an excerpt for a historical fiction for World War II. They created sample book covers and marketing materials and then pitched the idea to a panel of experts.

2. Measure the ingredients: Once the recipe starts to become finalized around meaningful ingredients and project ideas, it’s time to determine the amount of time and effort each discipline can offer. One misconception for integrated projects is that all disciplines and courses must devote the same amount of time. I have seen this lead to resentment among team members who come to believe that individual members are not equally committed to the work.

On the contrary, focusing on authentic connections will lead to greater commitment where the integration is meaningful and not forced. Here, individual team members need to be honest about how much they can devote to the project. It may be that a technology teacher can devote up to three weeks, while a world language teacher can offer one or two weeks. That is perfectly OK. What is most important is that teachers come to a shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities in the project.

3. Appoint a head chef and sous-chefs: Sometimes, it is appropriate to select a leader, or head chef, for the project. This is often the teacher devoting the most time to the project. This is not intended to create a hierarchy but instead to provide clear leadership.

Some of the responsibilities of the leader might include the following:

  • Schedule and facilitate team meetings
  • Serve as chief documentarian of the project, from planning to implementation
  • Refine student-facing documents based on feedback
  • Be the point of contact with administrators and parents
  • Coordinate critique and collaboration opportunities across disciplines

For example, students recently participated in a Chinese school tour project, where they used both their Chinese and English language skills to create a tour of their school and incorporated technology to support the creation of their tour products. In this scenario, the world language teacher assumed the role of head chef. The English and technology teachers acted as sous-chefs in support, bringing in presentation standards and video production standards to the project.

4. Plan the serving order: As teachers continue to plan student projects, they need to consider how all the courses will be served. Projects might run concurrently, where the same project would be taught across subjects at the same time. Concurrent scheduling allows for co-teaching, common launches and critiques, and other collaborative opportunities. However, it is only appropriate if teachers are able to devote an equal amount of time to the project.

Another model would be to structure the project periodically, where a project moves between subjects. For example, a project might begin in math class during the first eight weeks before then being taught in science the second eight weeks and art class the third eight weeks. While this may limit collaboration, students do get an experience that builds upon itself in rigor and application.

Many schools combine these models, where courses devote differing amounts of time on the project, and there is more freedom to jump in and out of the project. The project may run for the entire semester in English but then alternate between world languages, math, and technology over time. Here, a few side dishes might be offered at the same time alongside one main course.

5. Don’t eat too much: Health is important, and all of us need to reflect on how much we can “eat” in a project. We don’t want to get too full. We should listen to our students and seek their feedback on the project to see if it is overwhelming or too much. Be honest and open and encouraging with students to ensure that the project can truly be an exciting full-course meal.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Integrated Studies

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