PBL 8 Essentials: Significant Content (and the Common Core)

Common Core GraphicProject Based Learning (PBL) is taking off in CNY!  As we train more and more teachers and administrators, we continue to hear the question, “How do I fit this in?”  We talk to educators about the fact that Common Core is the “WHAT” we want students to know and be able to do and PBL is the “HOW” we are going to get there.  The beauty of PBL is that “Significant Content” and “21st Century Skills” are two of the 8 essentials – essential in the fact that they NEED to be there to make a project be more than just the “Dessert” at the end of a unit. For many years we’ve thought of a project as the alternate to the summative assessment at the END of a unit.  We teach the content, quiz along the way, and then assign a project so the students can show us what they know and what they are able to do.  This is what we call a “Dessert” project because it is at the END of the meal – the end of a unit where students have been digesting the information we feed them.


PBL is an inquiry-based way of getting students interested in our content.  We start with an Entry Event that gets them wondering and asking questions – finding out what they Need to Know to answer these questions.  We then present a Driving Question that is inquiry-based and drives or leads our students down the investigation and research path to find out more about the topic.  It is a student-driven process; our students are asking more and more questions along the way as they research and learn more about a topic.  Does that mean there isn’t any direct instruction?  Not by any means!  As we formatively assess where students are along the way – we will find there are topics that need to be taught directly to the whole class – a mini-lesson to get everyone the same information.

Ovals artPBL is also a standards-based way to plan a unit.  Standards-based planning involves pinpointing what we want students to know and be able to do in a particular topic of study. We train educators to consider priority content standards when they are trying out PBL for the first time.  We ask them to think about those topics or units that students struggle with or that content that they are always re-teaching or the standards students consistently “Don’t Get” on a summative or Regents exam.  It is only when we know this information that can we start thinking about how we will assess students along the way to make sure they are “Getting It”.  Building checkpoint assessments into the project is key to making sure we don’t get off the standards-based path and stray onto the “Wow, this is fun!” (but we’ve lost sight of the content) path.

Significant content should also include Literacy Standards for Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.  Reading and writing for information and making claims using evidence from informational text are not only fairly easy to build into PBL but they should be what every teacher, no matter the content area, is shifting to in their classroom.  These Literacy Standards are the responsibility of ALL teachers.  Careful planning and management of a project can help students grow as readers, writers, listeners and speakers. PBL, with its integrative approach to weaving standards from multiple content areas into a project plan, is ideal for thinking about how content is related from one subject to another.  Collaborative group work and project presentations to a Public Audience are a natural forum for teaching and assessing the Listening and Speaking standards. Sara Hallermann, BIE Curriculum Development Manager, and John Larmer, Editor in Chief, just wrote a great blog, “What Does it Mean to ‘Align’ PBL to the Common Core?” – five key considerations for project designers to consider as they align their project to the Common Core.

Finally, the 4 C’s of 21st Century Skills, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication and Creativity, are the third set of standards that should be incorporated into PBL and assessed along the way. The Buck Institute for Education has rubrics for assessing these skills.  We’ve found that different teams of teachers we are coaching are focusing on different 21st Century Skills depending on the needs of the students in their classes.  Some teams have found that their students are coming up with blanks when they are asked to think critically; the focus for these teams, critical thinking, is then taught and assessed throughout the year.  Other teams are finding that collaboration is the skill they need to focus on because their students don’t have the skills they need to work together.  Once again, this needs to be taught and then assessed.  Peer critique and self-assessment are excellent checkpoints to build into a project for assessing these skills. As the same rubric is used throughout the year to assess the 21st Century Skill, teachers can collect data to show student growth; great evidence for that end-of-year APPR conversation!

So, think about significant content in your content area, as well as the Literacy Standards and at least one of the 21st Century Skills, as you plan projects for PBL.  I believe PBL is the plate that holds everything else that we are required to do as educators – not another layer to pile onto the plate.  What about you, what do you believe?

Keim_Joanne_SMALLJoanne Keim
OCM BOCES Network Team Coordinator
PBL 101 Trainer

3 thoughts on “PBL 8 Essentials: Significant Content (and the Common Core)

  1. Pingback: How We Respond to Our Choices | The East Side Monday Focus

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