George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I wrote a blog about one of the pitfalls of personalization for the ASCD Whole Child Blog. Specifically, that pitfall is the lack of engagement. With all the focus on personalization through time, pacing, and place, it can be easy to forget about the importance of engagement. No matter where students learn, when they learn, and the timing of the learning, engagement drives them to learn. When we factor all the pieces of personalization together, we can truly meet students where they are and set them on a path of learning that truly meets their needs and desires. Project-based learning can be an effective engagement framework to engage students in personalized learning.

Moving Past "Course-Based" PBL

Due to the antiquated restraints of the education system, most educators are forced to implement PBL in a "course-based" manner. This means that the project occurs within the traditional discipline structures, where there may be integration, but learning is framed within grades and competencies. In addition, start and stop times, driven by the Carnegie unit, force teachers to start and stop a project for all of their students around the same time. What if PBL wasn't held to antiquated rules of time, space, and discipline constructs? In that ideal situation, students could be engaged in personalized projects.

Student-Designed Projects

Students at Phoenix High School have been engaged in a model similar to the one I've described. In it, students design their own driving questions and select the 21st century skills they want to work on, as well as the content learning objectives. They select and design their own products to show their learning in a true commitment to performance assessment. They decide on due dates, benchmarks, and the authentic audience of the work. There is also a heavy push toward community impact and work outside the four walls of the classroom.

My PBL colleague, Erin Sanchez, (formally Erin Thomas), created an amazing graphic of this continuum that shows the power of PBL truly aligned to the learner. As teaching colleagues, we did our best to implement personalized projects for students, and we experienced many of the same challenges faced by teachers who attempt to do this. However, we also saw the payoff: engagement! When students are truly in the driver's seat of their learning, the impact of their work and the learning associated with it can be powerful!

Role of the Teacher

When teachers move toward personalized PBL, their role continues to shift, just as it does when teachers move traditional instruction to "course-based" PBL. While still involved in the design process, they also serve as advisors. Teachers frequently use question techniques to help students focus and crystalize their projects and project plans. They coach students in creating effective driving questions and student products. They're still involved in frequent formative assessments, but instead of planning all instructional activity for the students, they help students plan it themselves. In addition, teachers help students select standards and learning targets that will align with the project and products. Teachers at Phoenix High School, for example, help ensure that all standards are targeted for a year, but do not limit the standards that students may want to hit in a project. Here the teachers create and facilitate the infrastructure for the learning rather than designing the PBL projects themselves.

Not every teacher may be ready to jump into this type of personalization. To make it work, they'll be required to adopt a different teaching role. They'll need strong management skills and a commitment to disruptive innovation. In addition, the current constructs of the education system may hold us back. What if we could make this dream of personalized PBL a reality? I say that we work toward it, creating a push on the system that demands change in the education of our students.

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Another great example of this idea is the work of the QED Foundation-

JoeLeggio1's picture
Special Education Teacher (ED/SLD) & Doctoral Student

This type of learning works particularly well with students with behavior challenges. Even though the literature does not support our entrenched system of having all students of the same age being forced to complete the same assignments on the same timeline, we continue to do it. Change in education is slow. We need to speed up the changes in the 21st century, or we will continue to get light years behind the changes that happen in society. Thanks for your article to further the discussion about project-based and student-based learning.

ChristinaMgnn's picture

Dear Andrew,
After reading your blog, it brought me back to when I had my fourth grade students do a PBL on invasive species. Being a first year teacher, I did not know what a PBL was or what the students were going to be asked to do. While going through the project, just as you mentioned above, managing the disruption was a task in itself. I found my students always engaged, but if one student was not researching, they were often distracted and not completing their work. I find it interesting how you mentioned the students choosing the start and stop times. When I did this project, I decided the start and stop times, but I'm thinking next year I will have them choose. I think PBL's should be more frequent in the elementary classrooms and not limited to only one grade level, like at my school. I really enjoyed reading your blog and the information you provided about the PBL's.


John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Second Grade Teacher in California, are you wanting more info on PBL in younger grades, or more specifically the personalized PBL projects Andrew speaks of?

Here is a link to information on the former.

I would also like to know more about personalizing PBL in the younger grades, especially given the additional support that younger students generally require in more personalized learning situations. Just one of the issues to deal with seem to be finding resources easily accessible and on the reading level of the younger students. Another would be the organizing and planning capacity of the younger students. This graphic that Andrew provides on the differences between individualized, differentiated, and personalized learning is thought provoking.

Rick Leib's picture

Andrew - I really agree with the ideas that you shared. I implemented this for 18 of juniors who had individual projects. Managing 18 projects was unmanageable. It was difficult to find 18 meaningful needs in our community. Assessing content knowledge was difficult. I would like to continue but I need resources. Suggestions?

Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School

Rick, good concerns here! I think maybe you could select or co-select with students, what content standards you want to fit, and then create a rubric all students could use. has some standards based rubrics you could use. Also, focusing on skills (writing, collaboration, speaking) might be good for all students and easier for you.
I also think you having students craft their plan, calendar, and then you being the person to check in an assess is best. Like I said, build infrastructure protocols to ensure their self-management. Never Easy. Try for student handouts! Really excited you tried this out!

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