When it comes to implementing Project Based Learning in a meaningful and manageable way, The Gold Standard is, well, the gold standard. It’s comprehensive, research-supported, and essential if we want to ensure high quality results for students. However, turning theory into practice is the challenge.

Gold Standard Design

To make Project Based Learning meaningful, students have to latch on, opt-in, and have true voice and choice. To make it manageable, educators can’t feel stressed, anxious, or time-strapped while juggling the unique interests and abilities of every student.

That’s why it’s so important for PBL educators to become experts on process as much as (if not more than) they are on subject matter. When I ran my classroom at Palo Alto High School, I recognized that it took repeated trial and error to get this process right. After 40 years of teaching project based learning (even before it had an official name), I learned four key ingredients that can accelerate your success:

  1. There is no such thing as a bad idea from students in a classroom setting (no matter how creative or ambitious)
  2. Students learn so much when they have to lead, teach, mentor, and support each other (this can’t be left solely up to only you)
  3. Multimedia (ie. videos, websites, articles/blogs) is the base building block, but technology is the enabler not the driver (students are)
  4. There has to be a real, authentic audience beyond your classroom (break down those walls)

This is all still theory, though. What does it actually look like to provide students with a safe space to learn, create, share, and teach each other?

Let’s explore what happened in Lisa Adler’s classroom in Yorkville, Illinois during Black History Month this past year.

There is no such thing as a bad idea from students in a classroom setting

When Black History Month came around, Ms. Adler wanted to go beyond the usual topics that are thrown at students every February. She wanted to put students in the driver seat where they could explore topics and create projects that were meaningful to them and relevant to the Black history theme.

To support the projects, Lisa leveraged a new PBL-focused technology called Tract to give students guidance on what topics to research. “Leveraging Tract as part of my PBL unit took the student’s work in a direction I never could have imagined!” Lisa said.

Her students chose to research famous people (Jesse Owens, Hattie Mcdaniel, Lizzo, Jay Jaxon), culture (jazz, fashion, food), and events (Civil Rights Movement, Kwanzaa). The topics explored were as diverse and dynamic as Black history itself. 

Students learn so much when they have to lead, teach, mentor, and support each other

With so many topics being explored at once, the class and Ms. Adler could learn more in a few weeks than could ever be covered across multiple years when everyone is studying the same exact topic. 

That’s far from the only benefit though.

Every project presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities that, when shared between students and across projects, organically turns students into leaders, teachers, mentors, and cheerleaders for themselves and their peers.

Within Lisa’s class, students helped each other and she had the chance to learn alongside them. That’s how you know things are going right—your students are teaching you and they're excited!

“​​Tract has completely transformed the way students engage in PBL time in my classroom. In fact, until Tract, I’ve never had students email me before. Once they saw the platform, my inbox was flooded with students asking when they can use Tract again,” said Adler.

Multimedia is a critical building block and prepares students for the real world

The number one thing kids want to be when they grow up is a YouTube or TikTok Creator. For many adults, this gets little more than an eyeroll, but all we have to do is dig a little deeper to understand the obsession.

Kids love creating and consuming multimedia, and they love teaching and sharing their passions. YouTube and TikTok are obvious mediums to do both.

The medium is relatively new, but the obsession isn’t. I saw this in my classroom even before those platforms existed. Back in the pre-internet days, kids loved creating with pen and paper, writing stories, and coming up with movie ideas.  But not until the advent of YouTube was the average person empowered to create. Today all kids want to create using movies.

Today’s multimedia platforms (and technology, overall) present a tremendous opportunity for us as educators to use our connected devices and make project-based learning the main course, rather than just a rare dessert.

Best of all, with tools like Tract, we can implement The Gold Standard with learners as young as eight years old.

There has to be a real, authentic audience beyond your classroom

One of The Gold Standard’s seven elements is “Public Product.” We must extend student work beyond the classroom and school walls.

For Ms. Adler’s class, they shared their product across Tract’s member community – a safe, supportive, authenticated group of kids and educators. Giving their work a large, authentic audience expanded the small district’s reach and, best of all, “This kind of recognition skyrocketed student confidence and engagement, even amongst more reluctant learners,” Lisa said.

What I love about Ms. Adler’s approach is that she had her students focus on an important topic—Black history—while providing them with the opportunity to make the final choice in how they learned.

Not only did students have voice and choice, but they were also able to make their work visible beyond the classroom walls—creating a strong incentive to put in their best effort.

If you’re looking for a way to merge PBLWorks’ Gold Standard framework with 21st-century skills, I invite you to try Tract.app free in your classroom. Teachers can sign up easily at Teach.Tract.app and use access code PBL to join the community of teachers on the leading edge of education innovation. You too can be an effective PBL teacher and create learning that matters to kids. It is easier today with Tract.

Esther Wojcicki, Cofounder and Chief Learning Officer at Tract.app