Post e-Learning, educators are reporting a greater need to design learning experiences that facilitate equity and identity conversations while simultaneously engaging students at newer, deeper levels. As a result, they are exploring pedagogical approaches that can help foster safe spaces for these conversations and learnings to emerge. Gold Standard Project Based Learning (PBL) is one of those approaches. 

The Gold Standard PBL framework provides educators with the foundation to design and implement learning experiences that unravel racial equity, equity of commonly shared resources (nature, climate, food), and also foster spaces for students to explore their identities and make connections between content and community. This foundation is established by:

  1. Leveraging the PBLWorks equity levers to make instructional decisions;
  2. Creating a structure for designing and delivering instruction that is more inclusive and relevant;
  3. Providing a framework for having difficult conversations; and
  4. Developing products that are useful and make an impact outside of the classroom.

At PBLWorks, our vision is that all students—including and especially Black and Brown students—have access to high quality project based learning. Let’s explore how embedding the four elements above in your PBL work will lead to powerful discussions on race and equity in your classroom(s).

Leverage the PBLWorks equity levers to make instructional decisions

In “4 Equity Levers in Project Based Learning,” Sarah Field describes how knowledge of students, cognitive demand, literacy, and shared power promote equity in project based learning by enhancing the two core elements that comprise Gold Standard PBL: the Essential Project Design Elements and the Project-Based Teaching Practices. Within any given classroom, these four levers can be seamlessly integrated into a project’s design and a classroom’s structure. The chart below offers specific examples of how the levers can be used in a project based learning classroom.

Equity Lever

How to use the lever in a PBL Classroom

Knowledge of Students

  • Encourage students to digitally capture aspects of their communities, neighborhoods, families 
  • Students can craft personal autobiographies, beginning with the stories of their names and how to correctly pronounce their names, no matter the culture

Cognitive Demand

  • Create time for students to tinker with and explore ideas, encouraging productive struggle 
  • Build in opportunities for scaffolded challenges and sustained inquiry over time. Sustained Inquiry promotes growth mindset; students can take ownership of their learning as it is developed over a period of time.
  • Use workshop time to provide differentiated support

Literacy

  • Design tasks where students use diverse language to consume, critique, and contribute to their communities and the world around them
  • Foster student-to-student collaborative talk and structured discussions using Thinking Routines

Shared Power

  • Build tasks where students can make decisions on which resources to use to achieve a goal; allow students chances and structures to make collaborative choices with a team
  • Co-create norms and expectations for how the classroom or project will take place; this doesn’t just have to happen at the beginning of the year but can take place at the onset of units, lessons, and new projects. 
  • Have students give feedback on the driving question and incorporate their suggestions into the question. This will increase the extent to which the project is relevant and meaningful to students in a given classroom and increase motivation.

Gold Standard PBL creates a structure for designing and delivering instruction that is more inclusive and relevant

Learning experiences that are designed to reflect the communities where students live will reflect the culture, character, and needs of the community and be more representative of the students themselves. By designing and implementing PBL with the four key equity levers in mind, educators can create learning environments and deeper learning experiences that ensure the perspective and lived experiences of all students are included. 

This design counters a common drawback of “sit and get” instruction—specifically that it frequently falls flat with students who do not have lived experiences like those of their peers who reflect the cultural majority. For example, a science lesson that focuses on the ecology of a mountain lake may not make any sense to students living in an urban city or a midwestern town. 

By contrast, PBL is designed with the participating students at the center, resulting in a more inclusive learning experience. PBL encourages designers to leverage local issues or resources to create complex and engaging challenges for their students. Revisiting our science lesson, students in an urban area might be better served by ecology lessons focused on reservoirs or city green spaces, while students in plains states might feel more connected to the streams or rivers that crisscross our nation’s heartland.

Gold Standard PBL provides a framework for having difficult conversations

The Gold Standard PBL Frameworks include opportunities for students to build important success skills such as critical thinking and conducting difficult conversations. The need for critical conversations is undeniable, especially if we want to help students consume information critically and use their thinking to positively contribute to their communities. 

Critical thinking includes understanding and empathizing with multiple points of view. An excellent example of this is the Revolutions Project where students take sides analyzing and arguing the effectiveness of world revolutions in improving the lives of the people who fought them. Students learn structures for critical thinking, recognizing other points of view, and most importantly, how to conduct respectful discourse in a way that promotes consensus. 

Products are useful and make an impact outside of the classroom

Learning in a PBL classroom doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It must go beyond the school walls in ways that are meaningful and impactful. Students can supplement their own knowledge and that of their teacher with experts from outside, opening them up to possibilities for their next steps that might not have previously been considered. This is an important (and often overlooked) aspect of real-world learning. 

By going beyond the school walls, students become more prominent in their communities. As they realize the positive impact of their projects, they become more engaged in their learning and invested in their community and the people within it. 

Gold Standard PBL isn’t your traditional “sit and get” instruction, my friends. Taken collectively, the strategies mentioned above can be used to create learning experiences that result in learning that works for all students, regardless of who they are or what their zip code might be. 

This framework is key to a liberatory education. It enables all of us to envision an education approach that is dependent on community participation, pushes back against narrow mindsets that don’t acknowledge the potential of all humans, and above all, serves as a vehicle for both equity and inclusion. 

As you infuse these ideas into your classroom, be sure to share with us on all things social media @PBLWorks; we’d love to hear from you! 

Charity Marcella Moran, Ed.S., National Faculty – South
Charity Marcella Moran, Ed.S. is a former high school PBL teacher, School Development Coach, and middle school-alternative programs Instructional Specialist. Charity believes that PBL is a powerful and transforming instructional strategy that, when leveraged appropriately, dispels achievement disparities and empowers ALL stakeholders to become lifelong learners.
James Fester, National Faculty – North
James is a teacher coach at an independent school just outside St. Paul, MN. He enjoys spending most of his professional time supporting teachers in the areas of technology integration and project-based learning. Outside the classroom, he volunteers as a guide for the Nat'l Park Service.