George Lucas Educational Foundation

Establishing Real-World Connections in Projects (Keys to PBL Series Part 1)

Students are more engaged when learning relates directly to the world they live in. See how to extend your projects beyond the classroom walls.
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Establishing Real-World Connections in Projects (Keys to PBL Series Part 1)(Transcript)

Peggy: Usually by starting with an authentic problem in the community, or in the neighborhood, you anchor the unit with a driving question. So students are given this question, for example, "What's in our water? And how did it get there?" And then the students choose different paths to explore that question.

Sheela: Start to examine what's happening in your local community. What are some problems? What are some needs? Who are people that you can connect with, that perhaps can offer insight into a need or an opportunity? Very often when you are able to bring in a person or a group of people, or a representative to a community issue, a community need, it becomes very real for kids.

Lisa: It's knowing people. And knowing that the teachers in your building know people. So reaching out, sending out a mass email, "Hey, does anybody know in the community that works on this?" And then just being very persistent. Emailing, calling. A lot of the experts that we had only came because I wouldn't stop emailing them.

Sheela: We find that the best way is to take the kids out into the community. If that's not possible, then make an invitation to who from that organization can come into your classroom? If that's not feasible, we have done really well with using technology as a means of connecting with people who may not be able to find a way to come into the classroom, to the school or for us to get to them. So we found some powerful experiences through Skype, through email, through telephone conferences.

Peggy: Once you're aware of this type of approach to teaching, it's like you have little antenna out. And you start to look around, and you see things that could easily make a good driving question. You might see something in the newspaper. You might see something from a movie. Or you hear a conversation, and that is a great way to start a problem in your classroom. So usually these questions are really all around us, it's just kind of paying attention to the things people are talking about.

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5 Keys Video Series

See Edutopia's core strategies in action with our Five Keys video series. Take a deeper look at each strategy as we share the nuts and bolts of program implementation, give voice to examples from schools around the country, and illuminate the research behind the practices.

 Click here to watch "Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning." 

Learn more about the 5 Keys to Rigorous PBL: 

  • CORE STRATEGY PAGE: Project-Based Learning

    Use this roundup page to discover why project-based learning is a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.

  • ARTICLE: Project-Based Learning Research Review

    Studies have proven that when implemented well, project-based learning (PBL) can increase retention of content and improve students' attitudes towards learning, among other benefits.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

SueTrechka's picture

Excited about PBL & real world connections. Still struggling to get my head around what it looks like in a Grade 1 classroom. Authentic questions? Need connections to other Primary teachers.

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Hi Sue! Great question. Take a look at the comment I just left over on the main video for someone else with the same question -- I've linked to a great blog about PBL at the elementary level and a few videos from our archives showing PBL in K-5 classes:

You can also always start a discussion thread from our PBL Planning topic page here:

Or our Early Elementary topic page here:

Best of luck to you!

SMK's picture

I am a high school special education teacher. PBL is awesome! Thanks for the good ideas.

Sharlene's picture

Thanks for the great ideas. I am excited to implement PBL into my teaching. Question: Does any direct instruction occur? For example, what if I am teaching how to write expository essays? Should I not teach the structure first and then assign a project that incorporates that style of writing?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Sharlene. I think that the firs rule of good PBL is "stay open to anything!" I like to think of individual PBL units as connecting loops (like the top of one of one of those chocolate cupcakes?) Between the individual loops (the problems or projects) are connecting lines of various lengths. In those spaces between, (we call that stage "reflect and connect" here at Antioch), you can do all kinds of things- including direct instruction, lecture, watching videos, reading various texts, taking field trips- that help the students to process the the problem they just solved, fill in any gaps in their learning that you observed when they presented their projects or solutions, or to set up their next project or problem. One caveat though, typically kids can figure out much of what we feel we need to "teach" before they embark on the PBL unit. I warn teachers to give a lot less at the front end of the experience- you can always fill in gaps along the way (when kids are primed and ready to learn what you have to offer) or at the end (when they realize what they missed or needed to know to be fully successful). Giving too much at the outset keeps them from really figuring things out- which is always the goal of PBL. So in your case, I'd suggest that you give the students an example of the kind of writing you want them to do (or a couple of examples) and provide a 1-2 sentence summary of the purpose of the structure (This is an examples of a persuasive essay) and then ask them to take a swing at writing something similar in structure. After they have drafts in hand, have them look at them together in pairs or groups (or look at one together) to see what they have in common with the example. THEN take some time to analyze the similarities and differences in the pieces and teach the pieces that you see that they've missed. Good luck!

Sharlene's picture

Awesome! Thanks for your response. It's a lot clearer now. You can still use a variety of instruction to help fill in gaps throughout the journey, but it's important not give too much away which would allow students to create their own meaningful experiences. I'm ready to go. Thanks again!

Frances O'Donnell's picture

Agree with lots of these and presenting this as 5 keys is a compact way of sharing this info. I am in a school about to implement 'Impact Projects' school wide. The assessment aspect is one I feel we will struggle with most. Key 5 on assessment discusses assessing throughout which I fully understand and agree with but making clear links to standards from projects without over directing the projects is something I am less clear on.

misterchris2014's picture

Really love how PBL offers the opportunity for students to work with, in, and around the local community. Will definitely be working with more of a PBL focus this year. Cheers

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