George Lucas Educational Foundation

When designing a school curriculum based on PL, how broad should it be?

When designing a school curriculum based on PL, how broad should it be?

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I am in the midst of designing a pilot PL module for a start up school based on PL. The vision of the school is to bring together Judaic/Religious studies with secular subjects, environmental/sustainability education, arts, technology, personal growth, and community leadership. That is 7 broad core disciplines. What PL design accommodates bridging 7 core disciplines over the course of a year, plus organizing areas of content throughout individual modules? Please advise.

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Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Tristan de Frondeville
Project Learning Consultant for PBL Associates

Jane's book on Project Based Learning is excellent. BIE ( has just released a PBL Starter Kit for those of you who already have the BIE PBL Handbook, which is the 'bible' of the PBL world. And while we are on books, Malcom Gladwell's "Outliers" is the best argument for why we should be teaching PBL in schools. We can talk about why I think that if people are interested.
Michal and Donelle have both expressed interest in PBL that integrates themes across an entire school. The best example that I have seen of that was a School of Building, Construction, and Architecture, in New York City. I was working with the Priestley School of Architecture in New Orleans when I discovered this, and I have contacted my friend, Michelle Biagas, to see if she can get me the link to the curriculum outline (which was impressive when I saw it), and/or perhaps her own school's outline if they have created it by now.

Jeannie's picture

It sounds like the first thing you need to do is find ties between some or all of those 7 disciplines, and then create a project. For example: What is an aspect of Judaism that ties into environmentalism? What style of art could students learn to represent that connection? How can you put the word out and create some change (leadership) by creating a website with pictures of these projects?

michal oshman's picture
michal oshman
start up Jewish school with PBL curriculum

Jeannie, thanks for your response. We are doing just that. We have picked a theme based on Jewish content that has aspects of our 7 main areas of content,skills, and experience. We will see how it goes!

Armando Di-Finizio's picture
Armando Di-Finizio
Principal of a Secondary School in Bristol, UK

PBL can be used as a means to deliver discrete subject areas/disciplines in a more effective and motivating way, however this only touches on the potential PBL has when delivered as a broad multi discipline program. A multi discipline project enables the student to participate in a far more relevant and therefore motivating curriculum. I believe it should be as broad as you can make it.

Look at the world and decide what your students need in order to flourish in the 21st century. PBL is not about knowledge acquisition, the process of PBL is the priority; this is what develops our students into flexible independent thinkers and learners. In my opinion I don't think it's worth getting too hung up on subjects or disciplines. Use subjects to provide a context when it is appropriate. You'll find those subjects and disciplines crop up in any case again and again, quite naturally.

Armando Di-Finizio's picture
Armando Di-Finizio
Principal of a Secondary School in Bristol, UK

I should have mentioned that at our school we have developed a 'phased' curriculum. At Phase 1 (The students are 11-12 yrs when they begin high school in England) the students only do PBL. The focus is on developing literacy an Numeracy and good habits of learning. They do not progress to Phase 1 until they have developed a certain identified standard in literacy and numeracy, and have turned specific dispositions and skills into habits.

At Phase 2, after a transition program with subject tasters, they begin a more discrete subject based program (although they still carry this out through PBL) which follows the national exam (GCSE) criteria. PBL is still practiced in this phase we are finding it the best way to develop our students.

Nadirshah Velasquez's picture
Nadirshah Velasquez
10th & 11th Grade PBL English Teacher at the METSA Academy in Carrollton,TX

I highly recommend conducting a little research around the New Tech Network. Its a small school model that implements PBL as its primary mode of instruction.

Malaika Costello-Dougherty's picture
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

[quote]Donelle-- making my way through this book as well. Great read and resource![/quote]

Hi Donelle and Rebecca,

Our very own Suzie Boss is a co-author of that book. (It's in arm's reach from me now.) You can find more of her Edutopia writing here.



brian goodwin's picture
brian goodwin
Director of Grants and Special Programs for North Wasco County Schools

One method that worked for me was to have service learning (project based with a service component to our community)as a theme for our new alternative high school. I asked the staff to take their curriculum and develop meaningful and powerful learning experiences for the students. This tapped into their passion, and allowed for time for the projects to get started and mature. I have had positive experiences as a building administrator giving staff a broad mission (i.e. let's build as school on PBL) and then allowing for the staff to run with it at their own pace as learners. The projects I most wanted to see staff create often times did not succeed...but the projects that staff and students derived would have never dreamed of more than made up for it. I think the biggest contributor to teachers and students taking the mission of the school and running with it is the building leader - setting the tone that learning is messy, mistakes are a good thing, and handing them all a license to dream. We have given our teachers offerings of Place Based Education workshops (Greg Smith, Lewis and Clark College in Portland) which started with theory and ended up with application (how do I set up PBL?). This has been a huge help as well.

Good luck!

michal oshman's picture
michal oshman
start up Jewish school with PBL curriculum

Dear Brian,
Just revisited this thread after many months of having posed my initial question.
I am excited to read that you mentioned service learning as a thread running through the school curriculum. My team and I have incorporated a service learning component which will run through our 20 week program. Students will present their final presentation at the end of the program, but will also be asked to participate in smaller (in scope) pbls at the end of each unit. THe final pbl to be presented at the end of the program will be their service learning project.

This way we have managed to have students involved in smaller pbl related to essential questions running the 2 units, plus cumulatively work on a larger service learning project presented at the end of unit 3, which of course is connected to and incorporates the units preceding.

Thanks for your insight.


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