Structure in Project-Based Learning: The Freedom to Learn Requires Planning

November 28, 2007

When a colleague at another urban high school commented to me that because his students needed more structure, he no longer employs project-based learning, I replied that his decision presumes that PBL is unstructured. My experience as a teacher, an instructional coach, and a school leader has taught me that effective PBL is highly structured -- structured to facilitate student learning -- whereas traditional instruction is often structured to support teacher-directed instruction and student compliance.

To many educators, the model of teacher as coach implies lack of structure. However, all my coaches in high school, college, and postcollegiate athletics have been highly structured in their approach to their work: They have taught me strategies and techniques in a direct manner. They have put me through drills and critiqued my performance in practice with little empathy for my feelings. They have inspired me to go further than I thought I could physically and mentally.

When it came time to perform in a game or match, however, my team and I were on our own: We needed to apply what we had learned in real game situations. After each performance, the coach asked us to review our performance; he or she gave us feedback, too. Both coach and player used this reflection to adjust our practice and refine our game plan. Often, it meant relearning a skill or tactic. Other times, we needed to fill a gap in our knowledge, and we needed to learn something new.

The best coaches map backward from a vision of outstanding performance in their sport. Coaches assess their athletes' skills and knowledge and make a plan for the season that will get their team ready for peak performance. Paradoxically, coaching should imply tons of structure, and so should PBL.

At Envision Schools, highly structured projects begin with our design tools. We coach teachers to identify the standards (content, academic dispositions, and twenty-first-century leadership skills) and plan their assessment first. Like a good coach, it is important for you as a good teacher to first envision the performance you plan for your students to achieve. Given the outcomes for student learning, teachers need to determine what prerequisite skills and knowledge are required to complete the project.

Logically, teachers will have to assess what kids already know and can do and then make a plan to teach what they need to learn. Each piece of building toward the performance will require thoughtful structures -- how large the groups will be, what roles and responsibilities each group member will have, what collaboration skills students need to learn to be successful, what the teachers will teach directly and what students will learn through inquiry, and how both types of learning will be assessed.

Envision Schools teachers map clear benchmarks with deadlines for each task or product and post these on their Web sites. The benchmarks help the learners climb the learning scaffold toward a high-quality product and/or performance. People often think a PBL classroom will be very noisy and out of control. In an effective learning environment, there is a healthy buzz, but students are moving around and talking with each other for a purpose and are clearly in control of their behavior.

And at last, it is game day, and the students exhibit their product and their learning to an authentic audience. The teachers can only observe and support their students now: The outcome is up to the learner. Like a good coach, the good teacher will debrief students' performance with them, assess the outcomes, and adjust plans for the next project.

Does this analogy alter your perception of what project-based learning is all about? Does it match the model you or your school have adopted in implementing PBL? Share your thoughts.

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  • Assessment
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Formative Assessment
  • Professional Learning

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