Thursday, April 12, 2012

Chicken or the Egg?

This post is part of a series where I look at the "recipe" of PBL (problem based learning) and give an overview of each step and then explain how I have adapted it to the "flavor" of my teaching philosophy and style. I also use SBG (standards based grading) for my assessment method and that influences some of my methods. My hope is that it will be both a good introduction to someone new to PBL and a source of ideas for those who are already teaching with PBL.

by ecatoncheires

The age old question of which came first applies to how many teachers feel when attampting their first PBL project. Where do you start designing a PBL project? Should you start with the standards or with an end product in mind? Should you start with an authentic audience and what their needs might be? In short, the answer is YES! There really is no right or wrong way to start to design it and different people start at different places.

I think starting with someone from the community who will partner with you in planning a project is one of the best ways. This ensures that the project will be authentic and serve a "real world" purpose or solve an actual problem as opposed to a fictional one. That said, I have yet to have a project using this method. The disadvantages are finding a community partner who is willing to dedicate the time and energy to plan, introduce, and assess the final projects. But if you have the opportunity and I have seen projects that have this is a great method.

My Method:
For my Global Studies class I started out by focusing on the standards rather than audience or product. I did have some products in mind that I want students to produce throughout the year such as video, hands-on art piece, graphic novel, debate, etc. I knew I wanted students to create a variety of products through various methods both on the computer and off. I also knew that I wanted my first products to be simple so that students could be successful while they learned the process and build up to more challenging products and more choice as the year progressed.

The way that I started with the standards was that I printed out a list of all of my state standards and cut them into individual strips. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 of them. I then sorted them by theme ignoring for the most part chronological order of events. I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of them. Then I discovered that the standards had been graded into power standards of a sort and color-coded by which topics most commonly appeared on the state assessments. There were only 8 blue ones that are on every test and 9 green ones that one third of are on the test each year. The rest were the less common red ones. As I looked at the red standards most of them were actually sub-standards of the larger themes of the blue and green ones. So I ended up throwing away all of the red slips and focusing on the blue/green ones.

I explain all of this to bring out one important philosophy of PBL that would serve you well to accept. You are not going to "cover" all of the standards. You should intentionally skip some and focus on what you in your professional judgment consider to be the most important. The PBL philosophy is to go deeper on fewer things that students will actually retain and remember rather than shallowly hitting everything.

For a social studies class I also decided to teach thematically instead of chronologically. That topic probably deserves a post in and of itself, but this choice allowed me to combine events from different time periods and tie together the larger themes of history. For example I tied together the Black Plague with small pox of the Columbian Exchange in a project focused on disease.When we looked at the Arab Spring Revolutions we traced the tensions in the Middle East back to imperialism and all the way back to the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Once I had the standards grouped by themes I put those themes in order creating a scope and sequence for the year. This gave me an overall plan and helped me visualize how the different projects would build off from each other.

The next step was to create Driving Questions, which will be my next post...


  1. Would be interested in reading about the PBLs that you are doing in your Global Studies class along with the themes. I also have a Global Studies class and teach in a district whose direction is moving towards PBLs. Any and all suggestions would be appreciated.

  2. Here is an overview of my year