a list of "need to know" for a PBL project

One of my last posts described Using a Project Wall to support Gold Standard Project Based Teaching. One part of a project wall is the Need to Know list. Since then I have coached many teachers on how the Need to Know (NTK) is a physical list in the classroom and an integral process that enhances student learning. It does this through making student inquiry visible and central in an authentic PBL unit, as well as provide evidence for developing your Gold Standard Project Based Teaching.

Design and Plan, Align to Standards

As you develop your PBL unit and the driving question or problem statement you will make a list of all the content standards and skills you want students to learn through the project. Turn that list into questions and keep them close as you implement the project. Use it to guide the class creation of the Need to Know list—if students don’t ask about a particular piece of content or skill, you can lead them to see that it’s important. Refer back to it throughout the project and reflect on how you have formatively assessed student learning. Have they had opportunities to learn and deepen those content standards and skills? If not, how could the project be revised for next year?

By keeping a record of standards alignment and formative assessment work, you’re collecting evidence of your own teaching practice—no matter what evaluation system your school or district uses, they all ask for evidence!

Build the Culture 

Launch your project with specific protocols that get students creating the lists of what they will need to know and learn based on the driving question and problem statement. Here a couple of great ones: NTK Process and Question Formulation Technique. A crucial teacher move here is NOT providing answers! The answers come through the project. The teacher role is to ask more questions, follow up questions, and "What else?". You want to build the culture where questions and curiosity are the norm. 

Teaching inquiry, creating and posing questions, and making conjectures about solutions are now part of speaking and listening standards, mathematical practice standards, science and engineering practice standards, and all decent College and Career Ready standards. Take pictures of the NTK lists in your room to build evidence for your teaching practice in terms of classroom routines that build a culture of student engagement.

Manage Activities, Scaffold Student Learning 

For the NTK list to become central to student learning you must make it an active part of your teaching. Use it as an exit ticket - "How did what you learned today help answer one of the NTK questions?". Use it as a hook into the next learning activity, whether student work-time or more teacher led - "Your goal today is to answer the NTK question ___ ." 

Crucial to the NTK process is having students physically handling the list itself. Have each student team consolidate all the different class sections’ lists into one summary list that all sections will start with. As a differentiation scaffold for ELL or students that need more practice, have them work to make a neatly printed poster of all the questions. Let them know that when the poster is done they will need to explain why they think the questions are important. 

I have seen teachers cut NTK posters into strips and move each strip from the NEED to the KNOW side of a project wall when a formative assessment is done; or, put red, yellow, green dots next to items on the poster list. You can give teams envelopes with strips of the cut up questions and have them rearrange them in some sort of priority order; and of course with some sort of justification explanation! I have seen giant classroom “chalk talk” posters that grow and expand as the project progresses.

All of this is more evidence of your teaching practice that help students learn the content and skill of inquiry. Be sure to take pictures and keep samples of student work that shows mastery and growth.   

Assess Student Learning

It should be pretty obvious now how the NTK list is integral to your formative and summative assessment. Be sure to create an Assessment Map in your planning, and try to return to it, making annotations as you go to the NTK list. This will make the project better next year. And again, provide evidence of your teaching and professional learning!

Engage and Coach

Active use of the physical list in the classroom is a powerful tool for facilitating student learning. Any good sports coach has tools of the trade (whistles, clipboards, stopwatches, play books, game film to watch, etc.). The NTK list is one of your tools. 

Gather teams around the list on your project wall for quick ‘huddles’ to focus their work time. Ask students questions related to the NTK questions in your individual and group check-ins. Make early project teams based on which questions students choose to learn about as a way to leverage the power of student choice into engaged learning; of course, this has to result in some sort of jigsaw so that ALL students learn the basics all the content. Keep a copy of the list on your own clipboard with annotations of student learning.

Once more: all of this is evidence of your Project Based Teaching! You may need to point this out to the administrators as they do their evaluation observation cycles. Work on these strategies with your instructional coach and have them collect the evidence for you. The more you use the NTK list in your teaching, you will be amazed to see students start to refer to it, and what you hear them asking!