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Illo of a Swiss Army Knife with classroom tools

Quality unit instruction combined with differentiated instruction transforms "the game called school" into a meaningful journey where learners understand and connect with the curriculum on a daily basis, whether the approach is project-based learning (PBL), Understanding by Design (UBD), or any other unit design that connects a deep understanding of content and a mastery of skills and concepts to real-world contexts.

The Game Called School

When kids come home from school, parents and guardians ask a common question: "What did you learn today?" or "What did you do today?"

The common responses are: "Nothing" and "Stuff."

Having surveyed many groups of educators -- they're parents, too -- I've found that almost all of their kids have those same responses. The truth is that students do work. Teachers do plan and provide experiences that will help students learn and grow. Yet the sobering reality is that if children are communicating differently to their parents -- who are teachers -- what does that mean for those same teachers' students who go home and spread the same message?

The Checklist Challenge

One reason for this miscommunication is that many students have a "checklist" mentality about class assignments. They complete work so as to check it off their to-do list. If we reduce or eliminate homework, they can focus on what they want to do upon leaving school grounds. When each day's work is reduced to a checklist, students lose any connections to the big picture of the curriculum's purpose. This checklist mentality becomes a major roadblock to their developing in-depth understanding, as each day's work is a set of isolated tasks to accomplish and forget.

Establish a Driving Question for the Unit

In PBL, a driving question (DQ) is introduced at the start of the unit, based on the major concepts and ideas that students must know by the end. It’s the "big idea" of the unit in question form, or the student-friendly version of an essential question, as proposed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Students answer the DQ by the final product assessments concluding the unit. Here are resources for more details:

  1. Buck Institute for Education Webinar (Video)
  2. DQ Basics
  3. Concept-Based DQs (Advanced)
  4. Tubric (Video)
  5. Minding your Ps & Qs for Better DQs
  6. Writing Effective DQs

Support student learning by relating the DQ to the learning outcome(s) at least once per day. Relating the connection helps students see the big picture and how that day's work fits. This 15-second daily sound byte helps learners tie the different lessons together into a cohesive message. After a couple of weeks, teachers can, as formative assessment, ask students to reflect on the connection between the DQ and their current work.

Open Source (Authentic) Product

There are many high-quality options for products that students can use to demonstrate learning. Work artifacts can vary based on students' interests. Product choices should include a mix of learning styles or processes so that learners find several ways to make sense of the work and viewpoints that may challenge their thinking.

Open-source products (to coin a phrase) is when students determine what their PBL product will be. They design the artifact that, in their opinion, will best demonstrate the learning outcomes. The key is ensuring that students have a clear understanding of the academic criteria. This way all product and performance options address what is intended for students to demonstrate. For example, analyzing author intention in nonfiction can be done through journals and essays in print, video, audio, and other multimedia formats. Authentic products that give students voice to influence an outside audience brings purpose and taps into their own interests, while building context for academic concepts. Here are resources regarding authentic products:

An easy step to create open-source products is to offer learners three options. The teacher designs the first two. Option three is student generated.

Need to Know Process: A KWL Alternative

On the first day of a unit, after sharing the DQ and the end-of-unit product expectation, have students generate questions about the unit. The Need to Know Process (N2K) is a brainstorm-like list that's posted on a board, easel pad, and/or digitally (think of it as a kind of KWL table). The practice addresses content based on students' readiness and interests. Differentiation comes from ongoing formative assessments. N2K is one of many effective strategies.

The N2K are reviewed several times a week, when the teacher thinks some of the posted questions have been answered. Using a response system, like "thumbs up or down," students communicate if they feel confident that a question is answered. If even one student shows a thumb down, the question can't be checked off the list. The teacher determines what supports to put in place depending on the number of students. As questions get checked off, teachers have students ask more questions, which tend to be more complex because their understanding base had deepened.

N2K fosters #studentvoice because students determine when a question is answered. This eliminates the comment, "I taught it, but I don't know why they don't know it." Just because something was taught doesn't mean that all students have learned it.

The Perfect Equation for Learner Success

Quality unit designs such as UBD, PBL, and others are effective structures to plan prepared differentiation so that all learners succeed. One difference of a great unit design, such as PBL and UBD, from the traditional unit is empowering student voice in decision making. Components like driving questions, open source (authentic) products, and the N2K process are essential because they support students tackling content that's appropriately challenging (readiness) and engages them in work that's meaningful to them (interest and learning profile). They also focus learning that leads to useful formative assessments. If you've included or would consider including these three components in your unit to eliminate the checklist mentality, share your thoughts below.

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Differentiated Instruction
When it comes to how students learn, one size does NOT fit all.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tangela Woodley's picture
Tangela Woodley
We help schools and universities become incubators for innovation. Our partners range from K12 districts to Big Ten universities to the United Nations

Project based learning is so very important for getting students interested in the things they are learning. Additionally, incorporating integrated learning topics across a variety of subject allows students to draw connections to everyday life. Learn more here.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi ilakowalska
Glad you found it helpful. There's more to come.

S. Crowder's picture

My school district has embraced the idea of through STEM education which involves a great deal of Project Based Learning (PBL). I currently teach at one of the more "urban" schools and they are looking to ieducation a STEM program within the next year. I agree that pbls can help to appeal to the learning of or students, but I am concerned about the students that exhibit extreme apathy even when the are incentives involved. My other concern is that PBLs sometimes require a higher level of level of thinking or a process of thinking in which my students are not used to doing. Would these issues be handled simply through differentiation?

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Tangela,
I agree that PBL can prepare students for College and Career Readiness (CCRs). From reading your posts, I would only add that the authentic work that students do must truly be authentic, and not an exercise in philosophical exploration or scenario-based "real world situations. When students have a "real" voice to propose ideas or solve a problem that an adult audience grapples with, only then are they "sharpening the saw" (Stephen Covey) of the CCRs. Here's an article to further the dialog:

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi S. Crowder,
STEM and STEAM programs can be great experiences for learners to content with "real world context." PBL and STEAM (or STEAM) is a powerful team, as I've seen from working with schools across the country. So to your two important concerns: Apathy and Higher Level Thinking--Let's dialog about both:
Students show lack of interest for a variety of reasons. From the students' perspective, they might believe that the "game called school" is just a daily checklist to get through. Differentiation addresses this in so many ways, so here are 2 to start with:
1. Mediate students' perception about the STEM (STEAM) PBL curriculum
Recognize that part of student apathy are the boring or negative experiences they've had in the past. This is not a critique on teachers, but rather on the outcomes of "coverage" instruction. Address students' perceptions head on by using relationship building and "truth" telling to convince them to try this different approach called STEM (STEAM) PBL--which the message will be tailored to what different groups of students need to hear. Then ENSURE that the learning experiences ARE different. For example, start with an Authentic Purpose for an Audience: In this case, get to know students as people and how they learn based on learning profiles ( and interests ( These considerations will get students to have an open mind.

The 2nd point is we need to differentiate (sometimes) by Readiness or skill levels. Yes, students can struggle with academic critical thinking because as you say very well, they might not be use to it--in the classroom. But students use critical thinking all the time where--to them--it matters most. Outside of school, they strategize in gaming, shopping (sometimes), or critical discussions about movies, products, and other entertainment. My teen son and I today discussed current gaming technology on desktops vs the growing tech of mobile apps, which let to projecting tech trends for the next 10, 50, and 100 years. The novel, Feed by MT Anderson, entered the conversation. This happened because the topic was something that he cared about and saw value.

The place to start is in two phases:
1st: Use formative assessment data to diagnose student needs--both where they struggle and where they need challenge. Included in this is reflecting on one's practice to find different ways to teach concepts beyond the educator's comfort zone. Consider this article as a starting place: Once you have this information, activities can be crafted based on Readiness needs:

2nd: Teach critical thinking through Think Alouds for modeling and student reflections via protocols like Fishbowl and The Last Word. Debrief the protocol experience so that students can think about their thinking.

Hope this helps you with some first steps.


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