lens focus on a mountain view

I was leading curriculum and instruction for our school district when the accountability war started. Like many wars, it began with adult politics and ended with children being hurt. At first, my colleagues and I naively believed that the skirmishes over national standards and standardized testing would not change our work much. We had always designed learning experiences linked to academic standards. We had always been accountable for students’ learning. The movement for high stakes accountability would not impact how teachers designed learning.

We realized soon enough that we were wrong.

One of the greatest challenges of teaching with a PBL mindset has been the current national pressure for “accountability.” The standards-based movement that began back in the 1990s has morphed over twenty years from a well-intentioned push for consistent learning goals into an ominous whip constantly cracking over teachers and learners. It’s easy to fall into believing our greatest charge is to ensure students pass the tests proving mastery of discrete tidbits of content and uncoupled skills. We can accept that belief without question, or we can do as we charge our students to do: identify problems, challenge assumptions, and find better solutions.

“Covering” Standards vs. What Really Matters

Teachers do not have to justify the value of quality PBL by linking every project to a long list of “covered standards” to check off, proving that the project approach was credibly worthy of instructional time. We must unapologetically stand our professional ground as instructional experts and show that PBL helps our learners master the only standards that truly matter.

Whether you teach in a state that adopted the Common Core standards or live in a state like mine where political pressures led to a “we’ll develop our own” mentality, each discipline’s long list of standards begins with a rationale for why a committee believed these skills and not others matter most. Rationales are designed to make us trust the logic of what follows. But nowhere in these rationales do I see mention of the coming challenges our learners will face in this rapidly-changing world they will inherit from us. And that is the reason PBL is so critical. Although they may have to tie projects to at least some state standards in the current environment, I hope Project Based Learning teachers will begin to courageously focus instead on the critical standards for which all students must be truly accountable. And it’s a very short list.

The decades ahead will present incredible challenges and opportunities for those living on planet Earth. If the ocean levels rise as predicted, entire cities may no longer be located where they are at present. Climate changes may shift food production and animal populations. Medical breakthroughs may extend lives beyond a century. Quantum computing, genetic engineering, expanding knowledge of the universe and easier space travel or off-world colonization… these promise a world unlike the one our learners inhabit today. We can only guess at its ethical dilemmas, pressing problems, and daily experiences. Today’s learning objectives cannot be based upon the needs of today’s world if tomorrow’s citizens are going to survive and thrive.

Three Questions to Guide all Projects

I propose three simple questions instead of our voluminous standards lists. They should drive every learning experience and define every project K-12:

  • What are the most important ideas here and why?
  • How can I communicate these ideas to others?
  • How can I solve this problem?

Consider how a project evolves if students always know that these are the driving forces in all our learning. As we begin any topic of study, we survey everything we can find about the topic—print materials, videos, primary source interviews, online reading, being-there experiences—with our sole goal being to identify “the most important ideas here” and why we have homed in on those particularly.

Next, learners should always be thinking about communication strategies. What are the best, most effective ways to get those ideas across to an audience? Different projects will require different strategies for communication—some brief, some most extensive. But the goal doesn’t change. The standard is “can you clearly communicate these important ideas and convince someone to care about them or find them interesting?” Think of the fascinating, complex analysis that can take place as students begin to self-assess or peer-assess what would have made that communication more effective. Did it work? Did a listener catch the main ideas and their significance? This standard automatically raises the bar on all learning with the goal being constant improvement through the years in the process of getting ideas across to others.

Finally, learners should always be seeking the problems inherent in any topic or process and finding ways to solve them. If the content is weather, what problems do we see with our weather on earth and how could we solve them? If the skill is solving quadratic equations, what problems do people encounter when working through these efficiently? If the content is teddy bears… should we rethink the content? Learners need to eat a hearty and nutritious meal of ideas daily; sometimes we don’t feed them anything worth consuming or bog them down with content not rich enough to do anything meaningful with beyond following a pre-laid trail. (I’ve seen this all too often in the ever-popular “animal project” where every child’s presentation contains the same five sections: basic facts, the animal’s food, the animal’s home, etc.) Project templates for identifying “what’s most important here?” only serve to hamstring our learners and prevent them from having to wrestle with that question for themselves, weakening the decision-making muscles they’ll need for successful futures. Project Based Learning must introduce rich fields of ideas and skills to mine and let students practice digging into them.

So I propose a different kind of “accountability” for our PBL classrooms: rich content coupled with just three universal standards: find what matters and why, communicate it effectively, and solve problems well. If our graduates can do these things, the future is in their good hands.

Jenny Froehle, Educational Consultant, Froehle Consulting