#TLConf2015: Is your PBL Up to Gold Standard?

Is Your PBL Up to Gold Standard?
Rhonda Hill & Ashley Ellis

I decided to attend this session because my new school next year is currently in the process of training its teachers in project-based learning (PBL), and I want to be sure I’m ready! I do some projects in class, and I think I get what PBL is, but I haven’t been formally trained, so I have no idea if I’m doing it “right.” I’m looking forward to getting some guidance and learning more about this. (Edit: I learned a ton!)

As with my last post, this is mostly in notes format. It’s late, and I’m tired, and I know if I don’t just post it now I never will! There might be typos, and not everything will be sentences. So, no judging!

So, what is the gold standard of PBL? 

  • Project design elements, combined with
  • Project teaching practices

Every project has a good driving question. Today’s is:

  • How can we design gold standard projects?
  • Need-to-know questions. Design projects around what kids really need to know. Design instruction around what you anticipate what students need to know.

Good driving question will help develop:

  • ownership
  • authenticity
  • buy-in
  • the ability to ask and answer their own darn questions
  • sustained engagement

One way to sustain inquiry is to ask the students what they need to know.

PBL is a little bit harder, and it’s different. People will be resistant at first. Kids will even say “can I just have my worksheet?”
PBL can sometimes be seen as dessert. Teachers teach, teach, teach, and then tell kids, “ok guys, now let’s do this thing!”

The goal is to make PBL the main course, not the dessert.

Designing projects
Rhonda and Ashley handed out an article on essential project design elements (it will be on bie.org some time this week, and I’ll try to remember to link it here when it’s up). She split us up into teams and assigned us sections. We then created posters that defined the element, gave evidence from the article, and incorporated a visual aid. Since our group focused on authenticity, we drew a word with lots of hands around it. We added things like microscopes, music notes, phones, and more to take a look at some of the authentic tools we can use when designing a great project with PBL. You can see our beautiful poster below! I meant to take pictures of all the posters but forgot. C’est la vie!


Key knowledge/understandings; Key success skills

  • Intentionally design projects with a focus on the content standards but also the ways in which kids turn into the “ideal graduate”

Challenging problem or question

  • enables dialgoue
  • provokes thought (critical thinking)
  • fosters inquiry
  • challenges what’s intimidating
  • forms the foundation/building block for the students

Sustained inquiry

  • taking challenging problem or driving question and finding creative ways to engage kids in solving problem/answering question
  • leads to deeper thinking/questioning
  • This is one of the hardest things for teachers to do in a project. We sometimes answer our own questions because the kids might not answer them right away.

Important! Need to know list should be the first step in inquiry. That sets up the questions and helps sustain the questioning/inquiry.


  • local or global context
  • audience (blogs, etc)
  • have experts come in; have kids see application beyond school
  • skype in experts; bring authentic audience into classroom
  • choice, choice, choice. (why does everything come back to choice?)

Student voice and choice

  • ownership
  • input
  • choice
  • Some teachers are not comfortable with relinquishing some control. But remember, we have the background decisions; the teacher designs the bigger problem and allows for some choice in getting there.


  • carry on throughout your life. If you really want to learn from your experiences, you need to think about them.
  • formal or informal (sometimes systematic, sometimes impromptu)
  • can build from project to project or day to day
  • reflection helps internalizing the learning; becomes ingrained
  • pushes for continual improvement
  • need to be fearless to reflect; there will be things you don’t do so well, but you can also see the good
  • the biggest problem with education is that we never have enough time, and the first thing that always goes out the window is reflection because we always have to move on

Critique and revision

  • creating a culture in the classroom where it’s ok to not get it right the first time

Public product

  • should extend beyond the classroom
  • give an audience so kids want to share something they are proud of
  • kids feel good that people actually care enough to see what they have done. give them these opportunities!

Big takeaway: must create the need to know! you can’t just say “learning the three branches of government is important, so study it.”

“You show that you know something deeply through the process of creation.” (This was a quote from the movie they showed us; I don’t have the citation.)

Check project design rubric on bie.org to make sure your project design is solid. If we want our kids to care, we have to make sure what they’re learning is authentic and relevant. Projects need to be rooted in standards and success skills.

Build the culture in the classroom

  • facilitate meaningful conversations (socratic seminar, fishbowl, etc.)
  • start w/ low stakes. Give them things they aren’t graded on! Yay; this validates my own philosophy and instructional choices!
  • Manage activities- put structures in place that our students know where to do.
  • Can still use direct instruction in PBL; it does not go away. Use mini-lessons to jump in with direct instruction when they need it.

Be sure that the product is truly an opportunity to show that they have solved the problem or answer the question, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of content standards.

PBL can be a way to create conditions for perseverance.

Don’t forget to check out bie.org! They have everything you’d need to design a project on the web site (and it’s all free and downloadable!). They also have a project library of hundreds of projects that teachers have designed and implemented. This could be a great way to start brainstorming ideas and coming up with PBL topics.

BIE signature product: 3-day workshop to help teachers design PBL projects. If you are an instructional leader and you want to have your staff do more PBL, this could be a fabulous resource for some relevant PD! I learned a ton in an hour; I can’t imagine how much I’d learn in 3 days!

Thanks, Rhonda and Ashley, for a terrific session! I can’t wait to design a project using your methods!

3 thoughts on “#TLConf2015: Is your PBL Up to Gold Standard?

  1. Pingback: NJ NBCTs at Teaching and Learning! | New Jersey National Board Certified Teacher Network

  2. Pingback: Teaching and Learning Conference (EDAD 692 Week 8) | Global Educational Leadership Internship

  3. Pingback: Teaching and Learning Conference (week 8) | Global Educational Leadership Internship

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