Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Creating Schoolwide PBL Aligned to Common Core

February 11, 2013
Photo credit: virtuallearningcenter via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Green Street Academy is a two-year-old public middle and high school in urban Baltimore, Maryland. One of the school's focuses is to embrace the green eco-sustainability movement and the new career paths it will generate. Like most schools, GSA is designed around extremely high academic standards that capture students' imaginations, stimulate their curiosities and inspire their successes. Unique to our program, though, is that last year we began the process of transforming the entire school to a true project-based learning (PBL) environment by the end of this school year. Here, are some of the transformation experiences -- both positive and negative -- we've had since beginning the shift.

Facilitating the Transformation

The transformation of a 300-student middle school from a traditional lessons and units curricular approach to a true schoolwide PBL pedagogy is not an easy process, and it required us to work on several interrelated fronts. Specifically, these were:

  1. Working with teachers to affect a deliberate culture and practice shift from teacher-directed instruction to inquiry-based learning
  2. Alternative pedagogical development
  3. Resource identification

Before approaching systemic change, we first considered the most prevalent instructional models. What we saw over and over again were relatively autonomous and singular teachers working with discrete groups of students. They were using directive instruction modes designed to impart information and learning within a specific topic area, often in isolation from other topic areas, and they were having inconsistent student achievement results with inner-city middle school populations.

We also saw that our school reform efforts attempted to bring "best practices" to that common instructional model by introducing research-based elements such as multi-sensory and differentiated instruction, while also encouraging faculty to work together in cross-curricular planning. We were concerned, though, that despite applications of the best reform initiatives, too many of our students still did not achieve to their potential; that authentic learning (which we believe so critical to urban student success) was largely missing; and that the fundamental issue of how to teach critical thinking was rarely addressed as an integrated element of instruction.

Project-Based Learning Model at GSA

In contrast with that traditional approach, several of our faculty came together to design a true PBL environment in which our teachers taught in a very different manner, creating a new pedagogical relationship between learning and teaching. That relationship meant that, rather than working in relative isolation, our faculty worked together to create and implement standards-based projects. Rather than acting as directive teachers, our faculty members were more like coaches in a student-led inquiry environment. Rather than relying on books and worksheets, our faculty led students through a less certain learning path. Rather than perceiving critical thinking as a "result" (of directive teaching), we saw it as essentially an immersion mode in which exploration informs and develops students' thinking processes.

In order to make that true PBL environment a reality, last semester (spring 2012), GSA ran two pilot PBL initiatives. Those pilots were designed to a) introduce PBL to our students, and b) provide teachers with the time and authority to design how PBL looks at the school. One of those projects involved the entire sixth grade (over 100 students and four faculty members), and one involved the eighth-grade Language Arts and Science classes (100 students and two faculty members).

How Project-Based Learning Works at GSA

1. Standards Map

Those pilot projects enabled us to identify and create particular process supports, which we developed and honed before, during and after the pilot experiences. Specifically, we saw that we needed a comprehensive, cross-curricular, Common Core-derived Standards Map that visually explicated every standard across each discipline -- literally a diagram on a large whiteboard of each subject area's standards across the school year.

We also saw another benefit of the Standards Map; it enabled us to globally review the standards to determine which could stand alone, and which had to be clustered together.

For example, a standard related to identifying the topic sentence may be arguably met as an isolated element, whereas a standard related to calculating square roots must be bundled with other math building blocks. Understanding which standards must be bundled then directly informed how we developed our next step.

2. Project Route

With the Standards Map in place, we were able to build a Project Route that outlined a project through time with specific skill sets and that overlaid the Standards Map. Our faculty members saw this as a great opportunity for creativity, as this was where they actually designed a "big question" project. We saw these steps as critical, as they attached concrete learning goals to any given project.

3. Preparation for Success

Once the Project Route had been created, we could then identify Preparation for Success classroom modules, which are needed for scholars to be successful in completing a given project. In addition, we identified which standards were not met by the project scope and planned auxiliary methods to meet those requirements. Finally, we identified student evaluation instruments to use throughout the project, including the culminating product.

Those support elements presupposed a curriculum that was concise and delineated over time. With the Standards Map derived from the Common Core, curricular requirements and project-based learning projects at GSA are now coupled to a very high degree. Once any given project has been created and the Project Route determined, we easily see what resources are necessary to the project's implementation. Those resources may be physical tools and materials, or they may be personnel offering support in technology, special education or the arts.

Pilot Project Lessons Learned

After our first week of pilot project implementation, we identified several critical "lessons learned."

  1. Throughout any given project, we must be able to informally touch base at any time.
  2. Backup resources should be available (when computers fail, for example).
  3. We need to plan together in a very detailed, day-to-day way.
  4. We have to be able to easily communicate "on the fly."
  5. How we introduce the project to students is much more important than we thought (and we thought it was very important).
  6. As a teaching group, we must maintain a flexible, problem-solving attitude to productively work through the inevitable implementation challenges.

With those lessons in mind, this year (fall 2012), we are coming together in grade-level teams to implement true PBL throughout the school in the spring of next year. In that time, our approximately 20 teachers will continue to work together to create authentic learning experiences for Baltimore urban middle school students. In doing so, we are attempting to dissolve the distances between individual teaching methods and dramatically expand the notion of what a classroom can be. We hope that our work will incorporate the best of what we know about effective education as transparent aspects of how students are taught.

Issues Still to Be Resolved

As evidenced by last year's pilot projects, this year an observer at GSA will see students enthusiastically engaged in standards-based learning, actively working in group cooperation, problem-solving and critical thinking. We clearly see that there are still large issues to resolve as we work our way through this unique transformation. For example, we know that without excellent classroom management, project-based learning efforts devolve to classroom chaos. In addition, we are still grappling with how to best prepare our students to be successful in a project-based learning environment when they have difficulty working together cooperatively. As we move the school closer to a true project-based learning paradigm, we are actively working as a team to address those core issues.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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