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Place-Based Learning

PBL and Culture

September 5, 2011

I was digging around and wanted to resurface some key elements to what constitutes a fully developed, 21st century project. There are 7 components to this model, developed through the work at the Buck Institue for PBL. There is a good article here: .

According to this model, a fully developped, rigorous project, includes aech of the following elements:

1. A driving question - these questions need to be carefully crafted to be open ended, and yet give direction for inquiry. Cultural questions, not merely surface level ones, but deeper cultural viewpoints and values, are excellent starters for such questions.

For example: what do "target culture" individuals/people groups believe is important about ____? You would insert the topic into the frame, and change "target culture" to your own focus for students in your language class. For example, in my level 3 French classes, we do an in-depth study of Francophone Canada in the Spring, and some of of our driving questions are: "What do French-speaking Canadians believe about their own distinct cultural identity within Canada? How are their values expressed in their literature, their institutions, and the ways they express their identity to each other and to the rest of Canada? What means do they use to express these distinctives?"

I know this may seem like a daunting set of questions, but believe me, beyond the questions lie some amazing opportunities for inquiry which in turn have led to some amazing student projects! The students have really risen to the challenges presented with such questions!

2. A need to know - this naturally flows out of the driving question if it is crafted correctly. Given the driving question, students should have some sense of where they are going with their inquiry. They will need coaching to think it through, to look for good sources, and to manage their time and work. This is the teacher's role - coach, guide, reflective questioner... I have found this to be a fun way to teach, especially when I see so much evidence of higher level thinking and learning. It is a challenge to remain in the target language, but I do stick to French, and use many tools to support my students.

I use the Promethean board extensively to demonstrate good search techniques, where to go, what vocabulary to use. I also keep favourite links on a class wiki where students can find them readily, including on-line dictionaries (for both standard French and for Canadian French in this case), on-line language tools (like CAVILAM in Vichy), and videos any of us have found and want to share. The wikispace supports our collaboration, another 21st Century skill!

3. Student voice and choice - I like to give students the opportunity to choose the platforms they want to use to demonstrate their learning. They may choose to do a video, a slide show, or create a wiki... no matter what, I want them to demonstrate both written and spoken French in response to what they have read and heard in their research. They have choice within a framework.

4. 21st-century skills - since we live in the 21st Century, this makes sense, doesn't it? I want students to use technology to do their research, and I give them opportunities to use technology to demonstrate what they have learned. There is a caveat here, however. I am not keen on using technology simply to use technology! Tech is a great support to learning, and can be great fun to show acquired learning and skills, but the tech is not the end point in itself. It is a tool, and insofar as it supports what we seek to accomplish, I am keen to use it.

I let the kids be as creative as they want, but the standards for my course are based on linguistic proficiencies and cross-cultural competencies, not technological prowess !

5. Inquiry and innovation - this is one of the most important outcomes of this model - students, as they work together, will need to learn how to solve problems, where to look for good information, how to distinguish good information from bad, how to confirm their hypothesis before coming to conclusions, how to test those conclusions, and more. It is a big help to pair a class with another one in the target language culture. This adds another dimension to learning which is of inestimable value!

6. Feedback and revision - students need help to develop critical thinking and the ability to offer constructive criticism for improvement of their group's project. They will need a protocol for scaffolding their discussions. It is important to teach students how to offer critique, and to provide sentence starters in the target language to help them stay in L2 as much as possible.

7. A publicly presented product - for the model to be complete, students must actually produce something that can be viewed and understood by another group, an audience, a community member, and in my case, who is Francophone, since the product will be in French.

Luckily, we have access to a fairly large French-speaking community here in Napa Valley! In addition, I like to include parents when possible as well, and when they do not speak French, I ask the students to provide an outline in their parents' language (usually English and/or Spanish in our area), so they can follow the presentation in some manner. They also have opportunity to offer feedback and comments on the outline which they return to the students. This approach has been well received by both parents and students.

I have found the PBL model allows much room for the incorporation of culture. In fact, the culture actually lies at the heart of the project, so it is naturally embedded! The language outcomes are then shaped by the need to know. Students learn the language of study in connection with the cultures of the people who speak the language they are studying. Both vocabulary and linguistic structures are more authentically acquired as students listen and read in the other language whilst doing their research and inquiry. They practice speaking and writing as they interact with their group, the teacher and others as needed. I know it seems challenging, and I am sure, if you are reading this, you must have a billion and one questions, so why not respond by listing the questions in the reply box below.

If you would like to see more on this toipic, let me recommend the summary of our discussion at this link, on my team mate Erica's blogsite: I would also like to recommend to you our #langchat wiki at:

One more! I have started a WL PBL wiki for teachers who would like to share project ideas. The site is new, and there are not yet many things posted, but you may enjoy collaborating with me and several others who have already joined, in creating PBL model projects for WL students using this approach! Here is the link:

Until next time,


This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Place-Based Learning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • World Languages
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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