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Practical PBL Series: Design an Instructional Unit in Seven Phases

Amber Graeber

Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator, AP Coordinator
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AP Government Class Moot Court: Lincoln (Judge Vaitheswaran listens as a student justice asks a question during oral arguments.)

As a new teacher, I once believed that teaching and learning were one and the same. I taught, and the students learned. In creating a student-centered classroom, I began to embrace project-based learning. However, I did so in a very superficial way. I thought I had PBL nailed if my students did a presentation or poster at the end of an instructional unit. My room was full of student work. Anyone who walked in my room could see learning . . . or could they?

I enrolled in professional development courses, started a graduate degree, and collaborated with more experienced colleagues. I reflected on my practice and began to understand that teaching and learning were two very separate things. I may have been teaching every day, but I soon realized that I had no idea whether or not my students were actually learning. I came to realize that the posters on my classroom walls were not the results indicators I thought they could be.

In the spring of 2008, my colleagues and I were approached by a local university to participate in designing a project-based learning course. Our team researched PBL, met with experts in education, and set about the task of designing a course driven through projects. The intention was to give students authentic roles and engage them in solving relevant problems, creating a link between the classroom and our larger community and world. The goal was to transform our classrooms from posters and presentations to problem-based experiences.

The Seven-Phase Model

You can transform your classroom. While there are many approaches to project-based learning, we have had the most success with the model our team developed -- a model called "The Seven Phases of a Project Cycle." Each and every one of our instructional units is designed using these seven phases.

To begin, ask yourself these questions:

  • What instructional unit do I want to transform?
  • What engaging, relevant, real-world problem could students attempt to solve that is related to the concepts and skills in the unit?
  • What authentic roles can students take on to try solving this problem?
  • How might students be asked to work collaboratively to try solving this problem?

Phase 1: Introducing the Driving Question

The instructional unit must have a strong driving question. Many practitioners also refer to this as an "essential question." This question should be compelling, open-ended and meaningful. It must be a higher-level question requiring students to think deeply. A strong driving question has no right or wrong answer. It is important to ask students to respond to this driving question before any instruction has taken place. This provides you with an opportunity to ascertain differing levels of prior knowledge and plan appropriately for instruction.

Phase 2: Introducing the Culminating Challenge

The culminating challenge needs to be some type of authentic assessment or performance in which students clearly demonstrate learning. Examples include a moot court, election simulation, authoring a children's book, developing a web site, a town hall meeting, etc. Phase 2 is also when students are provided with guided choice concerning the options for authentic role(s).

Phase 3: Developing Subject Matter Expertise

Phase 3 is the longest part of your challenge cycle (instructional unit). In this phase, individual and team tasks are created to lead students to success on both the culminating challenge and summative assessment. Students embody authentic roles and thus have a "need to know" more about the concepts and skills. Utilize inquiry methods to help students explore new concepts, but provide enough background information on the new vocabulary and concepts that students can figure out how to move forward.

Phase 4: Doing the Culminating Challenge

This is the big day -- the chance for students to demonstrate their learning in a performance assessment. If possible, bring in subject matter experts to help assess the quality of student work. We have reached out to local professionals, college students majoring in the content area, or even building administrators or fellow teachers. An outside perspective will "up the stakes" for students who are used to performing for you.

Phase 5: Debriefing the Culminating Challenge (Ideally with Subject-Matter Experts)

This moment for debriefing is easy to overlook or breeze past due to never-ending time constraints. However, the reflective practice of debriefing is extremely valuable for students and teachers alike. If time allows, invite the subject matter expert to participate in this experience. Immediate feedback from the expert can be especially powerful for students who routinely get the teacher's feedback on their performance. Taking 15 to 30 minutes to debrief through a writing exercise, a discussion or a combination of the two is vital to student growth.

Phase 6: Responding to the Driving Question

As the challenge cycle comes to a close, ask students to respond to the driving question once again. They should have new vocabulary and a deep, conceptual understanding of the material covered during the cycle. The responses will be more sophisticated than those given on the first day of the cycle. As students complete this exercise, hand back their initial responses. Allow them time to examine the differences between the two writing samples and acknowledge the learning.

Phase 7: Summative Assessment

Whether this is a common summative assessment, district benchmark assessment, practice Advanced Placement exam or other unit test, a summative measure is an important way to assess student learning. It provides the teacher with another measure to determine individual student achievement of the learning objectives. If the individual and team tasks align with your instructional goals, then the summative assessment should measure student proficiency on those concepts and skills deemed important.

If you have any thoughts or questions on this process, please share them in the comment field below. There will be two more posts in this series -- one on classroom practices, and one more on challenges -- each written by one of my colleagues.

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Educator Voices: A Project-Based Learning Primer
Three teachers share best practices for unit design, implementation and assessment for project-based learning in the classroom.

Amber Graeber

Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator, AP Coordinator
In This Series
Three teachers share best practices for unit design, implementation and assessment for project-based learning in the classroom.

Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Before your stage 1, I think you have to start with student interest, relevance and needs. Whether this is driven from IEPs, interest surveys, conversations, real-world problems your students are facing - the rest of the stages will fall apart if the project isn't created out of what the students need and want to learn.

Dario Martinez's picture

I whole-heartedly agree with Alex (see comment above). Immediately when I started reading my thought was: "This is "top-down", as in no student participation in choosing the subject first. For me, a truce lies in creating engaging "driving questions" by adults, letting Youth ADD to that list, let them choose...and see what happens.
Thank you for sharing Amber.

Heather's picture
1st Grade educator

I went to a STEM lesson study workshop this summer that sounds a lot like this process. I was very excited to be working with other core teachers to develop more in depth lessons. We are a K-12 school and started our 1st unit planning meeting. After that or school decided it was to costly to continue. I was a little bummed because the discussion we had as educators drasticly changed how I taught the same lesson that I taught for the past 8 years. The students were much more engaged in the learning. And for those comments above, yes it was driven off the common core we are required to teach, but because of the essential questions and the way I presented the knowledge the students took over the learning. This is a powerful method to improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Time consumming, YES! But worth the investment of time. I've never seen such deep thinking from 1st grade students. It encompassed all subjects. Thanks for sharing a different approach to the lesson study thinking.

Amy's picture

I chose to look at your blog because I had no idea what it was by the title! As an educator, this is one thing that our school district really doesn't do at the elementary level, that I am aware of. I liked the four questions to ask ahead of time. Our current reading series does have an "essential question" like stated in phase one that we do discuss each week before we begin the unit. However, this would be great for our hands-on science kits.

This would definetely be something I would take a course in to further my teaching. Thanks for sharing this blog

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