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Aligning the Projects With the Standards

Crellin Elementary School

Grades PK-5 | Oakland, MD

Dana McCauley

Principal, Crellin Elementary School
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Teacher standing talking with a student as they watch a girl pouring liquid into cups at a counter
Fourth-grade teacher Carrie Hordubay talks to students about their plant experiments, designed to measure how variables such as music, pH, and light color impact plant growth.

The emphasis of project-based learning is for students to explore real-world problems and acquire a deeper knowledge. As our teachers at Crellin Elementary plan their instruction, they refer to the Maryland Common Core Standards for guidance. These standards outline what we need to teach students, but they don't mandate how we have to teach. While research-based best practices are published and readily available, it's ultimately up to the teacher to decide, based on students' needs, the strategies that are appropriate. To accomplish this, Crellin follows a process that I will outline in this post.

Looking at the Big Picture

It is important to know the skills and processes that your students have already been exposed to, as well as the skills and processes that they'll be expected to have in the future. As a staff, we have studied the standards at each grade level to ensure that teachers are familiar not only with their particular grade level, but with vertical expectations as well.

When we began with the adopted fifth-grade standards and our expectations, we asked ourselves:

  • What is it that we need our students to know and be able to do before they leave our school?
  • How will we know that students have those skills and processes?

As we moved through the grade levels, we continually went back to be sure that we were setting our expectations high enough to prepare students. The conversations dug into the developmentally appropriate activities and instructional scaffolding that we would need.

7 Steps to Planning a Project

By understanding the big picture, teachers are able to plan instructional, authentic projects that build upon foundational skills and prepare students for subsequent learning. The projects that we delve into are student driven. The ideas stem from interests and questions posed by students and are most often place-based. Projects might address the animals in Sunshine Farm (our schoolyard agricultural project), a community concern, or an environmental issue.

1. Possible Outcomes

Once a project idea is proposed, we again look at the end that we have in mind, asking ourselves: "What is it that our students will learn and be able to do through their participation in this project?" We acknowledge that there will be teachable moments and unexpected events that may change our original course of action.

2. Focus on Process

The end product may be known -- it could be the construction of an animal playground for our farm animals -- or the project may be a study of a topic to determine the end product. Either way, the most important part is the process.

3. Integrated Studies

Teachers think about the content subjects that can be woven into the project. Disciplinary literacy, writing to inform, math skills, presentation skills, technology skills, and content knowledge are subjects and skills that may be integrated.

4. Outside Resources

Content experts and Learning Partners may assist teachers in the sequential planning of content knowledge instruction. They ensure that the content information presented is factual.

5. Student-Centered Learning

Teachers use their expertise in student development to match the content that needs to be taught with developmentally appropriate instructional strategies.

6. Projects That Evolve

As often as possible, the time frame is flexible. We allow the process and student need to guide the project plan and timeline. Knowing the big-picture objectives, teachers are free to allow for the unexpected and to make in-the-moment instructional decisions. (For example, when students are installing a new garden, it may become evident that additional instruction is needed in calculating area and perimeter). The projects are often works in progress that aren't always planned out completely before implementing. It's a kind of action research project, where students base their next steps on what they are learning through the process. As the project progresses, the teacher finds opportunities to ask questions that will deepen students' thinking, while also finding ways to connect previous or new knowledge and skills.

7. Student Documentation

Students are expected to share their learning. They share their experiences and understandings through written publications, videos, or presentations to interested community groups.

Real Learning

Through this approach, students are engaging in critical thinking and problem-solving activities that embellish their understandings. It's not about reiterating what they read in a book or acquiring isolated facts or knowledge. It's about learning for a reason and applying that learning to a new situation. These projects require students to cross disciplines, weaving their understandings together to complete the task. This is when connections are made. This is when real learning occurs.

How do you align PBL projects with the standards? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Crellin Elementary.
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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Thom Markham's picture

Sorry, going to push back a bit on this article. Great ideas that align with PBL, but it's so important that 'projects' and PBL not be confused. Successful PBL (place-based or otherwise) depends on key design elements, such as using a good driving question to knit the project together and focus on the problem to be solved, and assessing students based on a set of solid 21st century skills rubrics. Otherwise, teachers really can't know if students are better critical thinkers or collaborators, or even if they have a deeper understanding of the content standards.

WoodsDiscovery's picture

This a great article. However, I agree with what Thom Markham said above. The teacher needs to be skilled in his/her questioning techniques to help the students through their own thinking. I have seen too many times where a teacher comes up with a project and expects the students to come up with his/her same design at the end and they do. Then you are looking at 17 different versions of the same thing. This is not opening their minds to thinking this is simply guiding students down a path exactly like the teacher's thinking. Also when presenting there project the students should be able to understand and identify the path they took to get to their final project. This is also where good questioning techniques come into play to help the students uncover how they learn and not just the teacher reminding them what they did.

alfredohernandez's picture

We are on the verge of transforming our method of instruction to PBL at our district. Our district plans on accomplishing this change through a grant they applied for. All the teachers are worried and confused. Since this is an emerging trend towards education, we don't know what to expect in form of the changes that are coming. This makes it very challenging for our teachers to visualize what our approach in teaching will look like. I am sure there will be tons of training to get us prepared, but as experience has proven, I hope we will have the fortitude to stay consistent with this methodology in the future. I have seen many approaches come and go throughout the years, as have all the teachers in our district, so its often difficult for many of us to completely buy in to another approach that may soon be gone.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Hi Alfredo,

PBL is a challenge, to be sure, but I have LOVED it, and so have my students! There is a pretty steep learning curve, but it is do-able. I recommend giving yourself permission to take it on one step at a time. It is unreasonable to expect that someone will implement PBL wall to wall from day one and sustain it all year. My journey toward PBL (or as we say for languages, since I teach French, PBLL for project-based language-learning) has been one I have taken over a period of years, not days or even months.

I recommend a few things to get you started.
1) Check out the many posts here on Edutopia. As one of the primary areas of focus on our website, there are a lot of resources right here.

2) Check out . The Buck Institute for Education also has tons of resources for implementing PBL, including templates for rubrics, project design, and videos, on-line courses...

3) I recommend a book which I think is the best one available right now. It is called Setting the Standard for PBL by Suzie Boss, and you can buy it on Amazon at this link (or at your favorite bookseller):

This book not only explains the 8 essential project design elements, but gives examples of projects real teachers have implemented in their own classes. I think it is very helpful to see examples!

4) I can also recommend my own website since I have devoted a lot of time to working on PBLL, in case you are also a language teacher. My website is at

Most of all, I recommend taking it one step at a time, as I mentioned earlier. As you study the elements of PBL, try implementing one aspect, for example, student voice and choice. Look for ways you can incorporate one element, and when you are comfortable planning for it, then try adding in the next one. In a year, you can get to a fully-aligned PBL unit, and then refine over and over again as you create new units.

PBL is messy, and it is never perfect! It's ok! Your students will benefit, and will enjoy the journey with you. Keep posting here at Edutopia! We're here to help.

Best regards,

Kim Hopkins's picture

I'm excited to see this article. As a career and technical education teacher, I really understand the value of experienced based learning projects and can appreciate this method of teaching and learning. Acting as a facilitator is a role that I feel well suited to. I also can appreciate previous commenters who suggest guided learning, rather than allowing students to create their own questions to guide their learning.

Bryson Williams's picture

I am in complete agreement with PBL and having a driving question or learning target. I am a believer as well, that as the process runs along, there has to be created checks for understanding that the students are aware of that can help them and teachers know where they are and if they are progressing towards the driving questions being asked of them. Without these created checks, we may have students who will veer off course and it is very difficult and tiresome for a teacher to guide students back on course who may have drifted off from the majority of the class.

Robert Hoepfl's picture

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on how to align projects to standards. In particular, I enjoy that you talk about knowing what you want to achieve before starting and also to be flexible with the timetable.

Amber Nejbauer's picture

I loved this article. I am currently in my final year as an education major and want to go into teaching. With so many different educational programs coming out I love that I am able to get insight into them so that I am able to choose what is best for me. I currently work for two schools, one uses project based learning and the other uses traditional learning styles and it is great to get insight from other people that have been through both styles as well.

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