photo of 3-4 teachers talking/meeting

I know Professional Learning Communities are designed to NOT pigeon-hole teachers into one type of instructional strategy.

PLCs are meant to provide teachers with the autonomy to adjust their instructional practices based on the needs of their students, whether that means PBL or not. I acknowledge this, but hear me out. Reading my friend and colleague Gabe Fernandez’s blog post about leading his school’s PBL work in 2019 inspired me to formulate some additional thoughts around PBL and PLCs. 

What do we want students to know? How will we know if they know it? What will we do when they don’t know it? Those three key questions that PLCs should focus on have resonated with me since I started learning about Rick DuFour’s model of Professional Learning Communities. Professional Learning Communities have the potential to make such a high impact on learning. Providing teachers with opportunities to collaborate on crafting their own collective goals around student learning might be one of the most valuable things we can do as educators. 

Project Based Learning can serve as a comprehensive framework to help cultivate meaningful conversations around DuFour’s three key PLC questions. 

If I were to ask you what instructional practices (routines, strategies, activities, assessments, etc.) have proven to be successful for your students, you might say: 

  • Socratic Seminars 
  • AVID tutorials 
  • Cornell Notes
  • Direct Instruction 
  • An array of formative assessments 
  • Bell ringers 
  • Exit tickets 
  • Scaffolding content to make it more accessible 
  • Writer’s Workshop, Reader’s Workshop, Math Workshop 

The list can go on. These are all fantastic strategies and activities. This leads to step 1 in how to connect PLCs to a PBL implementation effort at a school. 

STEP 1: View PBL as a comprehensive instructional framework NOT just a “teaching strategy.” 

The above list are all strategies and activities that can be implemented within the context of a PBL unit. PBL is NOT one more “strategy”— it is a comprehensive instructional framework used to design units of study. Even if you don’t implement wall to wall PBL, consider focusing on a few of the elements for each unit of study (my friend and colleague Kristyn Kamps wrote a great blog on this). 

STEP 2: What DO we really want students to know?  

When planning a PBL unit, you generate a driving question or challenge.  Great driving questions provide a context for students to see how the content is applied. This forces us to immediately think about the application of the content and gives students a “why” for learning. It prompts us to think beyond the basic facts and key vocabulary of our content and gets us to think about how students can apply those basic facts and key vocabulary in an authentic context. Our common summative and formative assessments can be planned using this idea as a starting point. 

STEP 3: How will we know if they know it? 

This is often where PLCs fall short: PLCs create norms for the team, they discuss multiple choice common assessments, and they plan SMART goals—but what are those goals around? How has evidence of learning been defined? How has quality student work to reflect that learning been defined?

Viewing learning through the PBL framework can help answer those questions. Formative and summative assessments are essential in the PBL unit design. In addition to a performance and/or public product, I recommend that students also take a traditional written assessment in some format prior to the performance/public product. Furthermore, they should be given a preassessment prior to the launch of the project. This can help measure growth in their learning and provide for meaningful dialogue between both the students and teachers and among teachers during PLC time.  

I recommend using protocols to examine student work. Bring artifacts of student learning (rough drafts of writing samples, video clips of student presentations, products that students have produced, etc.) and run a critique protocol. 

PBL grounds the conversation around deep learning. PLCs provide the framework to have those conversations.

STEP 4: What will we do when they don’t learn? How will we extend the learning for students?

One scaffolding technique within the context of a PBL unit is running workshops based on student generated need to knows. Workshops can be small group guided and/or direct instruction to students that need additional help or have specific questions. Sure, you can run workshops outside of a PBL unit. However, running them within a PBL unit with a driving question/challenge provides an authentic context; it provides the “why” and it keeps the focus on deep learning and application. 

In terms of extending the learning, which in many ways is already the case in PBL, go further. What additional outside experts could students consult? What is the opposing perspective to how they answered the driving question/challenge? In every PBL unit, students and teachers should reflect after they have completed the unit by asking, we have just answered an open ended question/solved a complex problem—what could we have done differently? 

PBL and PLCs function best when work is done as a team.

PBL is the comprehensive instructional framework that can deepen conversations during PLC time. If the ultimate destination in learning is application and transfer, then PBL is an outstanding vehicle to reach that destination. PBL is implemented best when teachers have had the opportunity to collaboratively plan, discuss evidence of student learning, and problem solve solutions based on data. This cannot be done well without designated teacher collaboration time. 

Brad Sever, National Faculty
National Faculty member Brad Sever has experience with Project Based Learning in various capacities. He has helped implement PBLWorks' Gold Standard PBL since 2010.