PBL Planning

PBL Elementary Teachers Offer Field-Tested Advice

Elementary PBL teachers encourage their colleagues to start small, build success skills and background knowledge, assess intentionally, share the story, be patient, and trust yourself.
A group of elementary students are huddling together in class, looking at a pie chart and bulletin board on the wall.
Photo credit: ftfaust via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I've worked with so many teachers across the world, much of it on the subject of PBL. I've learned more from them than they have from me, because who better to give advice about PBL than the teachers doing it? In fact, this post is based on advice from elementary PBL teachers in the field. We can all learn from each other, so here are some of those field-tested strategies.

Build Success Skills

Although many like to kick off the year with a project as a context for building success skills like collaboration and communication, many elementary teachers recommend taking time before the project to set the stage by scaffolding these skills to ensure that content learning in the project is even better. Erin Starkey says:

Start with teaching the skills -- critical thinking, collaboration, communication -- before you start a PBL unit. I start every school year with what I dubbed "20 days to PBL," where I strategically taught students what those skills looked like, sounded like, and meant in a unit.

If you take time to build these skills, the project may go more smoothly, but don't forget to scaffold and assess them in the project as well.

Start Small

Before jumping into a full-blown PBL project, many teachers try out some PBL components in the classroom, not only to familiarize students with processes and procedures, but also to familiarize themselves with these elements and master them as teachers. For example, a teacher might start by giving students some voice and choice in activities or doing a smaller inquiry unit. You don't want to go crazy in your first PBL project, nor do you want your students to feel overwhelmed. Elementary art teacher JoAnne North says:

Start small and focus on making a few of the PBL components really solid -- you will get better with each project (and so will the kids). Use your strengths and you will feel more comfortable with the process.

Build Background Knowledge

It is crucial that, even when launching the project, you start to build background knowledge with students. When students have knowledge to start with, they can experience successes. First-grade teacher Abby Schneiderjohn says,

As a PBL teacher, it is crucial not only to assess background knowledge, but to use that information to scaffold learning for students. Students will feel engaged and empowered when they can connect their new learning to their past learning.

As you build background knowledge, apply it immediately to project work rather than waiting until the end.

Be Intentional With Assessments

We want to make sure that our PBL project and products truly assess student learning, so we need to build and allow our students to build products that will show their learning. Use the right amount of voice and choice with students to ensure alignment with learning goals, and make sure to have them in place before the project begins. Myla Lee did many PBL projects in her elementary classroom and now coaches teachers. She says:

Be intentional about assessments, check points, and reflection time. Put it in your plans. As a newbie, you can get caught up in the excitement of student engagement and forget those important accountability pieces.

Share the Story

While PBL is quickly becoming well known, not everyone is truly going to understand it. In fact, when you say the word "project" to a parent, a look of dread may appear in their eyes as they imagine creating a volcano science project while their child does something else. It's simply baggage that takes time to leave behind in the process of PBL. Communicate with parents about the great work that students are doing, and celebrate the success. Teacher Lori Burkhardt says:

Tell anyone who is willing to listen about project-based learning, and it will allow an opportunity for the community to be part of the process.

Be Patient

Building the culture for PBL takes a lot of time and effort. Any climate takes quite some time before it actually becomes culture. The same is true for PBL. It takes months for routines and norms to be part of the classroom culture, so as students engage in more and more PBL, the culture will come with it. Brianna Hand, who teaches third grade, echoes this concern:

Be patient. It's not going to happen overnight, but when it does finally "click," the culture of the classroom is amazing!

Trust Yourself

You work hard for your students every day, and you know what works and what doesn't work in terms of their learning. When trying out PBL, there will be mistakes, and projects won't always go how you want them to. That, however, is where the great learning is. You'll reflect on the project and make improvements for your students. Fifth-grade teacher Cary Grimm says:

Do what you think is right for you and your class. What you are doing in PBL is best practice. There will always be obstacles and questions from administration and peer teachers. Stay true, and the truth of what is awesome of PBL will come out.

All of this advice just goes to show you that the "wisdom is in the room." We can all learn from each other to make our PBL projects and practices even better for our students. In addition, although this advice is from elementary teachers, it can of course be applied to PBL teachers at all grade levels.

What's your advice for getting started with PBL?