An overview of the 7 Essential Project Design Elements in the PBLWorks model for Gold Standard PBL. Adapted from “Gold Standard PBL: The Essential Project Design Elements” white paper by John Larmer and John Mergendoller (2015).
Gold Standard Project Based Learning
Project Based Learning is a powerful and transformative pedagogy that–when done well–can help all of our students learn and thrive. But what are the features that differentiate Project Based Learning (PBL) from other instructional approaches, and how can teachers ensure that they are implementing PBL in ways that will be most impactful for their students? In order to help teachers do PBL effectively, PBLWorks has developed a comprehensive, research-informed model for PBL – a “gold standard” to help teachers, schools, and organizations to reflect on and grow their practice. Our framework for Gold Standard PBL is designed to meet the needs of all learners, and includes several key components:
- Essential Project Design Elements: These seven elements (the focus of this article) are the characteristics that differentiate a Gold Standard project from other forms of instruction– the key features that are evident in the design of an effective project.
- Project Based Teaching Practices: These practices are the instructional moves teachers make to bring a project to life in the classroom. Many of them are familiar practices to teachers, but they look different in the context of a project. In addition to focus areas such as scaffolding and assessment, these teaching practices include the intentional practices teachers use to build a culture of interdependence in the classroom. (Learn more.)
- An Equity-Centered Vision for PBL: In addition to knowing the nuts and bolts of PBL pedagogy, effective PBL teachers hold a clear vision for how their project design and implementation will meet the needs of all of their learners. This includes attending to four “levers” for equitable PBL– knowledge of students, cognitive demand, literacy, and shared power– and regularly using these levers to reflect on and refine practice. (Learn more.)
Each component of the Gold Standard frameworks is intended to support all students in deep learning of meaningful and relevant learning goals, so let’s begin our discussion there.
Student Learning Goals
Student learning of academic content and skill development are at the center of any well-designed project. Like the lens of a camera, our framework puts the focus of PBL on helping students gain the knowledge, understanding, and success skills they need to thrive:
- Key Knowledge and Understanding: Gold Standard PBL teaches students the important content standards, concepts, and in-depth understandings that are fundamental to school subject areas and academic disciplines. In good projects, students learn how to apply knowledge to the real world, and use it to solve problems, answer complex questions, and create high-quality products.
- Key Success Skills: Content knowledge and conceptual understanding, by themselves, are not enough. In school and college, in the workplace, as community members, and in their lives generally, people need to be able to think critically and solve problems, work well with others, and communicate effectively. They also need to manage projects and approach novel tasks with creativity and innovation. We call these kinds of competencies “success skills.” They are also known as “College and Career Readiness Skills" and are often seen in "Graduate Profiles" created by schools and districts.
It’s important to note that success skills can only be taught through the acquisition of content knowledge and understanding. For example, students don’t learn critical thinking skills in the abstract, isolated from subject matter; they gain them by thinking critically about math, science, history, English, career/tech subjects, the arts, and so on.
We recommend that each project explicitly teach and assess one or two specific success skills, even though students may learn other skills as well. Projects can also help students to develop and strengthen other personal qualities (such as perseverance and compassion), rooted in the needs and values of students and their local community.
Essential Project Design Elements
So what characterizes an effective project? Based on an extensive literature review and the distilled experience of the many educators we have worked with over the past several decades, we believe the following Essential Project Design Elements outline what is necessary for an effective project that maximizes student learning and engagement.
Challenging Problem or Question
The What: The heart of a project – what it is “about” – is a problem to investigate and solve, or a question to explore and answer. This question should be aligned to learning goals and, as much as possible, should connect to students’ interests, identities, and communities. The challenge could be concrete (the school needs to do a better job of recycling waste) or abstract (deciding if and when war is justified). When teachers design and conduct a project, we suggest they (sometimes with students) write the central problem or question in the form of an open-ended, student-friendly “driving question” that focuses their task, like a thesis focuses an essay (e.g., “How can we improve our school’s recycling system, so we can reduce waste?” or “Should the U.S. have fought the Vietnam War?”). Note that this problem or question should not be simple to answer, but should be cognitively demanding for students and require them to engage in deep and original thought.
The Why: A well-designed problem or question makes learning meaningful for students. They are not just gaining knowledge to remember it; they are learning because they have a real need to know something, so they can use this knowledge to solve a problem or answer a question that matters to them. This also helps students develop a problem-solving disposition, and creates the context for building skills and confidence that students can apply to other challenges in their lives, communities, and work.
The What: To inquire is to seek information or to investigate – it’s a more active, in-depth process than just “looking something up” in a book or online. The inquiry process takes time, which means a Gold Standard project lasts more than a few days. In PBL, inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, students ask questions, find and use resources and other learning experiences to help develop answers to those questions, then ask deeper questions – and the process repeats. Projects can incorporate different modes of seeking answers, mixing the traditional idea of “research” – reading a book or searching a website – with other learning experiences such as labs, field trips, or interviews with experts and end-users.
The Why: Learning through sustained inquiry helps students engage with the world from a place of curiosity. Students who do inquiry-based projects develop the capacity to ask meaningful questions and the agency to effectively seek answers to those questions. Sustained inquiry also helps content and skills “stick:” students are not just passively receiving knowledge, they are actively seeking and co-constructing it.
The What: When people say something is authentic, they generally mean it is real or genuine, not fake or contrived. In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or the task is. A project can be authentic in several ways, often in combination. It can have an authentic context, such as when students solve problems like those faced by people in the world outside of school (e.g., entrepreneurs developing a business plan, engineers designing a bridge, or advisors to the City Council recommending policy). It can involve the use of real-world processes, tasks and tools, and performance standards, such as when students plan an experimental investigation or use digital editing software to produce professional quality videos. It can have a real impact on others, such as when students address a need in their school or community (e.g., designing and building a school garden, improving a community park, providing support to local immigrant families) or create a product or service that will be used or experienced by others. Finally, a project can have personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.
The Why: When a project is designed with authenticity in mind, students are engaged in learning for a purpose. Their motivation increases because they see why what they are learning matters. Students also understand how to transfer their learning, as they apply the concepts and skills from the standards to life beyond the classroom. Finally, designing projects with authenticity in mind helps to bridge the gap between school and home, and provides an opportunity for students to use and share the knowledge and skills they bring into the classroom (including cultural competency, community wisdom, place-based knowledge, and language skills).
Student Voice & Choice
The What: Gold Standard projects include opportunities for students to make their voices and perspectives heard, within and beyond the classroom. Students are invited to speak in their own ways and to express their own opinions, rather than speak in ways they think the teacher wants.
Effective projects are also shaped by student choice: students can have input and (some) control over many aspects of a project, from the questions they generate, to the resources they will use to find answers to their questions, to the tasks and roles they will take on as team members, to the products they will create. More advanced students may go even further and select the topic and nature of the project itself; they can write their own driving question and decide how they want to investigate it, demonstrate what they have learned, and how they will share their work.
The Why: Having a say in a project creates a sense of ownership in students; they care more about– and bring more of themselves to– the project. When student voices are centered in projects, they are able to learn from one another, and they learn that their voices and ideas matter.
Creating opportunities for student choice in a project also increases student engagement and ownership. Additionally, students learn how to evaluate options and strategically approach challenges– critical skills that will support their leadership and agency within and well beyond the classroom walls.
Finally, both voice and choice within a project contribute to a culture of shared power– students learn to recognize their own power and that of their peers, and learn to use that power responsibly to benefit each other and the larger community.
The What: John Dewey, whose ideas continue to inform our thinking about PBL, pointed out that we do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience. Throughout a project, students – and the teacher – should reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning, as well as how they are changing as learners. Reflection can occur informally, as part of classroom culture and dialogue, but should also be an explicit part of project journals, scheduled formative assessment, discussions at project checkpoints, and public presentations of student work.
The Why: Reflection on the content knowledge and understanding gained helps students solidify what they have learned and think about how it might apply elsewhere, beyond the project. Reflection on the project itself – how it was designed and implemented – helps students decide how they might approach their next project, and helps teachers improve the quality of their PBL practice. And reflection on their own growth as learners– including in the area of success skill development– helps students to take ownership of their learning, celebrate success, and identify new goals for continued growth.
Critique & Revision
The What: High quality student work is a hallmark of Gold Standard PBL, and such quality is attained through thoughtful critique and revision. Students should be taught how to give and receive constructive peer feedback that will improve project processes and products, guided by rubrics, models, and formal feedback/critique protocols. In addition to peers and teachers, outside adults and experts can also contribute to the critique process, bringing an authentic, real-world point of view.
The Why: Giving and receiving purposeful feedback helps students build a shared understanding of what quality work looks like with regard to the targeted content and skills. It also expands responsibility for formative assessment and collective learning from the teacher alone to the whole class, helping to create a culture of interdependence and investment in collective learning. Finally, regularly engaging in critique and revision processes helps students to develop a growth mindset– moving from a paradigm in which work is “right or wrong” to a paradigm in which work is always improving.
The What: In Gold Standard PBL, students share the work they create with an audience beyond the classroom. This can take many forms: a tangible product that students design or build, or the presentation of a solution to a problem or an answer to a driving question. A public product can be complex– the launch of a large-scale event, website, or change effort in the community– or simple– a video conference with classroom family members or a presentation to another class in the school. What’s important is that someone beyond the teacher will see students’ work and hear about their learning.
Many PBL schools and districts reinforce this message by repurposing the traditional “open house” into an exhibition of project work, which helps build understanding and support for PBL among stakeholders. When the public sees what high-quality products students can create, they’re often surprised – and eager to see more.
The Why: There are three major reasons for creating a public product in Gold Standard PBL. First, like authenticity, a public product adds greatly to PBL’s motivating power and encourages high-quality work. When students have to present or display their work to an audience beyond the classroom, the stakes– and the bar for student performance– are raised.
Second, by creating a product, students make what they have learned tangible and thus, when shared publicly, discussible. Instead of only being a private exchange between an individual student and teacher, the social dimension of learning becomes more important. This has an impact on classroom and school culture, helping create a “learning community,” where students and teachers discuss what is being learned, how it is learned, what are acceptable standards of performance, and how student performance can be made better.
Finally, making student work public is an effective way to communicate with families, community members, and the wider world about what PBL is and what it does for students. When a classroom, school, or district opens itself up to public scrutiny, the message is, “Here’s what our students can do – we’re about more than test scores.”
The Essential Project Design Elements are designed to serve as guideposts for teachers when planning Gold Standard projects for their classrooms. They are also intended to be developed over time– not all Elements will be strong in a teacher’s first project, but they will become more evident as teachers and their students gain experience and confidence with the project process. What’s most important as teachers begin to work with the Essential Project Design Elements is that they do so with a focus on the transformative impact that PBL can have for all students.
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