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Help Designing a PBL School/Classroom

Help Designing a PBL School/Classroom

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Our school is slated to be completely rebuilt and is currently in the design stages. When we reopen, we are considering having a Project Based Learning focus. To those of you who have taught PBL, do you have any suggestions for what needs to be included in the design of the campus and classrooms?

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Noa Jones's picture
Noa Jones
Education Coordinator, Lho Mon Education, Bhutan

I've read through this thread and am grateful for all the good advice. I am developing a curriculum for a pilot project in Bhutan and am looking for just this sort of thing.

On Thursday, August 25 from 11 am-1 pm, a group of educators and curriculum developers have agreed to meet with me here in New York to learn about our project. The gathering will include a brainstorming session to develop the first 12 of the curriculum's thematic units, identifying essential questions and outcomes, and sharing resources.

We have a few more spots if there is a good fit.

About Druk 3020

The Druk 3020 is a secular curriculum designed for Bhutanese students under the auspices of the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative ( The objective is to create a model of curricula that integrates principles of Gross National Happiness using a holistic approach with a strong focus on teacher training. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche chose the name Druk 3020 because he wanted educators to think not only about 100 years into the future, but a full millennium ahead. What will this planet look like and who will be leading it? Druk 3020 is comprised of a set of twenty-four comprehensive secular educational units. These integrated units will incorporate many of the learning objectives found in the standard Bhutanese educational system (i.e. math, science, social science, technology, health). An English language course will be developed separately. The first set of six thematic units is being prepared for pilot implementation at Chokyi Gyatsho Institute (CGI), a monastery in Dewathang, Samdrup Jongkhar, East Bhutan for CGI's incoming class of June, 2013. The long-term goal is that after the trial period, these units can be implemented in other monasteries and non-formal education institutions in Bhutan and perhaps influence the future of public education in the country and beyond.


Chuck Stoffle's picture

I agree whole heartedly with Mary Kate and Asma. As an occasional teacher I have taught in hundreds of classrooms but find that the availability to laptops or computers is somewhat limited. In every classroom I visit I make every attempt possible to turn the day into a PBL or Inquiry Learning atmosphere. However, when research is required the day seems to come to a standstill due to lack of resources. Last year I decided to turn the tables in my favor and the students loved the new approach. Now I just tell the students who have Ipods or cell phones to get them out, turn them on and use them for researching. They absolutely loved the idea. In most classrooms there are always a handfull of kids who have one of these devices so small group research is very simple. Sure beats booking the laptop cart and finding out that some of the laptops are not working.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Let's hope your kinders don't all have cell phones!

Fiction can be a great anchor for PBL in the early grades. Many an awesome project has been built around a theme from a story, or the story itself.

Book research is probably more appropriate for your crowd than working online, but technology can be handy for exposing the children to film of things they might never get a chance to see in real life. Our school works with a local public television station to provide classroom access to a very wide range of educational programming (including Reading Rainbow which can be VERY thematic!).

Technology can also help link your school's classrooms with the outside world in order to magnify the importance of the students' products. This provides a motivation toward excellence that drives the PBL process.

When does your school year begin, Scott?


Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear Mary Kate Land et al,
Thank you all for discussing ideas for setting up a PBL Classroom; I have several friends and colleagues associated with Montessori schools, so this is part of my philosophy and practice.

I would simply offer a List of Arts Quotes that a fellow teacher just posted at the Edutopia Arts Group, her name is Susan Waddington. Her list is inspirational for a lifetime...and certainly a great resource for any PBL classroom...
Check it out and make a copy for your classroom use...


Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

This has always been my dream to help redesign a school so that it is PBL oriented. When I went to the High Tech High campus I saw an elementary, middle and high school dedicated to that end. That is where I would make my first visit if I were you.
Next, I do feel that your campus should be a blended-learning environment. The online and real world offer so many opportunities to do local, state, national and international activities that it is a bit overwhelming. The opportunities for students to do real world projects and make a positive contribution to their communities are very exciting.
Next I would make sure that all the teachers have the training and common planning times to do the types of integrated curriculum that are necessary to make this successful. Last year I worked on the stem curriculum and it is a great way to start on a simple hands on approach. You can create literacy, math, science, etc. lessons very effectively.
The technology end is another story and I have used and developed the online and blended learning lessons that can make this very effective. It is an exciting and daunting undertaking but with the right planning and open minded work it can reap incredible benefits for students and teachers.

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Read the article below....She hit on exactly the problem that people face when doing an inquiry project. When the students begin their work it is the teachers job to make sure that during the research phase the resources are there thatstudents' need for background information. This adds the content depth to the project and will help make it academically successful. I call this phase 2 (research) and it is where the teacher fits in and does "old fashioned" teaching or using traditional/non traditional resources to fill in the gaps in student learning.
Confessions of an Inquiry Teacher

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

What a wonderful blog! Thank you, Thomas, for linking it to this forum. I love the way she describes using trial and error to find a way to make PBL work for her new situation. What better way to show our students how to learn new ways of operating?

I also give information in what Thomas calles "phase 2," but I avoid lecturing at all costs! Instead I always try to work with students to explore the answers they want me to deliver to them. In the process I have to continually gauge how much "research" the student can tolerate. Sometimes I still end up filling in an answer that a student couldn't track down independently. Of course by that time, they are so starved to get the info that they never forget what the answer was!

We haven't started our first project for the year yet. We are currently still in the community building phase. But reading this blog sure made me anxious to get underway.

Mary Kate

Thomas Stanley's picture
Thomas Stanley
Educational Consultant-former teacher in high school

Montessori is an ideal place to do inquiry learning. What I think would be very interesting to do is base their community activity on something that revolves around science. I worked this summer on a Stem project for K-5 and found that it was amazing to see how the students got involved in the projects. You can include opportunities for research, hands-on activities, literacy, social studies and math in these projects. Think of all the community resources you have---not just local but state, national and international. A simple project like water or activities that include engineering projects with these community groups is exciting for the students to tackle. I think the coolest thing I saw was when students who normally were not good readers do electric schematics and made things work. By using blended learning and including business/educators/college students or even connecting to international groups of students to collaborate on these projects lends itself to an amazing experience

james a. bellanca's picture
james a. bellanca
Exec. Dir., Illinois 21 ( Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools

PBL is not an end in itself. The end is what kids will get to know and do better as a result of what you enable them to do. The same goes with technology. Tech gives tools for developing ideas and schools. You need to know what skills and understandings you want your students to develop. More memory? More facts? Procedures? In this day and age, I hope not. Most schools we know were built to have kids memorize facts, repeat procedures and fill in the blanks. Follow Bob Pearlman's advice when it comes to the physical structures. His website and his article in 21st Century Skills (Solution Tree) give the best insights I know on making form follow function as they have done in High Tech and all of the other schools mentioned in the first column. Money isn't the issue of facny architects. Take a look at Manor New Tech (Tx). Its a redone middle school. Outside it looks like anyother school. Inside the staff tore out walls and redesigned their spaces to fit the learning and the skill development they believed in. Projects are the heart of how they teach. But tutorials, one on one work, small groups and the like all needed their places and they built those places inside the building. Whether kindergartners or high schoolers are the students isnt't the deciding factor. Manor and other project schools have the form of the building follow the functions that will take place. If you figure out the functions that fit what you value for the kids, what they and the faculty need to teach the 21st Century way then the building will provide the variety of spaces you never find in the all things alike factory.
That said, all of the above ideas are crucial to ensure that kids in your school where the project is the key model of instruction enriched by technology tools, supported by small group explicit skill instruction, tutorials and lots of chances to explore what is important to them and you can't go wrong. Make a list of the ideas from this forum, add the ideas to the 21st Century knowledge and skills kids will need for their future world (as best you can predict), and you help but give vastly improved learning opportunities to those kids.

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

I don't think this issue can be emphasized enough. The current trend toward loading up classrooms with as many students as possible precludes the creation of spaces which facilitate differing approaches. It's easy for us to be using all the different work areas in our room for many different purposes all at the same time. I currently have around 50% of the usual student load for schools in my area.

I realize that solutions such as increassed space and better student/teacher ratios are difficult to achieve, but we're not going to create a maximal learning environment if we do not address these specific issues. They are key.

Thomas, funny you should mention it, our first project is science based! We're exploring the story of Earth's formation this year, beginning with the Big Bang. Our planning groups meet next week.


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