Shifting Our Projects to PBL

Shifting Our Projects to PBL

Every Project Based Learning workshop I host, someone asks how to shift projects into PBL. It’s a hot topic, to be sure! So today’s post is all about how to flip that script, no matter where we find it! 

Scenario 1:
I got some PBL training this year and I’m in love! We built a unit in the training and now I’ve run it. The kids LOVED the work and the learning & engagement was off the charts. And now I’m trying hard to come up with (and design) the next PBL unit for my class but UGH. It’s not easy. I search online for ideas, but almost all the results I find are projects, not PBL. And some of them are good, but … well they’re not PBL. And I’m not sure how to shift them to PBL. 

Scenario 2: 
I love PBL. I’ve had the training and done a couple units. But I’m sad that some of my favorite projects (not PBL) that I used to do aren’t what I want to do any more. And to be honest, they took a lot of work to develop and I hate to let them go. I just wish I could see how to shift them from “just a project” into PBL. 

Scenario 3:
As a busy, BUSY teacher in a full-time PBL classroom, it’s hard to always come up with delicious PBL units. I’m not using the textbook. I’m not following a scripted curriculum. I’m looking at my standards and what must be addressed this year. I’m also looking at my kids, their interests, and my local (and broader) community’s resources and how we can bring our work closer to the world outside the school’s four walls. And I’m slammed busy with the unit we’re currently in. I’m surrounded by a billion ideas for projects, but none of them are actually PBL. I wish there was an easy (and quick) way to shift those project ideas from Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers into PBL! 

Friends, I hear you! Whether we’re upgrading our own work, or we’re finding other ideas online and then reworking those activities into PBL units, teachers want to know how to shift projects to PBL.

So let’s talk about that process today!  

When we pull a fun project out of files, it’s often where students are learning something (reading a selection, watching a video, listening to an expert, running a simulation, etc) then doing something to show us what they learned. That’s learning and then doing. That’s a project.
We want to shift the learning where students are met with a delicious question or challenge that is tasty to them…and then in the process of answering the question or challenge, they learn. That’s learning by doing. That’s PBL.

Step 1: Find the core academics the project covers

Let’s do an analysis and autopsy of what the core learning is in this project. What are the main ideas? What are the smaller details? What are the skills students are supposed to practice in the project? Are there other content areas outside the main focus that could be incorporated, even if the current project doesn’t call for it?

For instance, if this is a Social Studies project, is there any potential for science, math, or language arts to come into play with the topic? Where might this content be used in the world outside of the walls of school? Where would a person find others using this information for everyday life? For instance, if the project is about Native Americans and their homes, back in the 1800’s, consider that there are still Native Americans around nowadays and they still live in homes, albeit very unlikely to be the homes the project mentions. In fact, you might know that the issue of home is a topic of contention and struggle in many First Nation communities. Keep this info in your back pocket at this point. Just make a note where the topic might meet “the real world.”

And as a second level of analysis and autopsy on the original project, what skills does the current project (not the PBL) ask students to practice? Are they reading/writing/speaking/listening? Are they practicing collaboration? How is critical thinking being leveraged, if at all? Do they really get to practice full and actual creativity or is it simply a drawing activity? Are they practicing time & materials management? Are they learning to prioritize items & work?

Step 2: Flip the script

Stop the “I teach you and then you do” script of traditional education and shift the entire unit to learning by doing. In order to do that, we want to find/build a question or a challenge that entices our kids to want to know more and then dig in to finding out more info. So that in answering the question or challenge they’re interested in (that you crafted), they will have the chance to encounter the content you need them to know, while practicing the skills they need to have to be good human beings.

For instance, I might have found a project that has the students read a chapter about the homes and living environments of Native Americans and then build a diorama of one of the types of homes. Typical project.

So to flip this script, I would want to ask a question or pose a challenge that would cause the students to, in addition to whatever else they’re learning about Native Americans, be able to learn — and share what they learned — about the homes of 1800’s Native Americans. I say, “in addition to” because the challenge or the KADQ (Kick Ass Driving Question) might include a topic surrounding the lives of Native Americans not as just artifacts of history, but as living beings of today. This would make the topic both standards-meeting, as well as timely and relevant, not to mention, potentially a lot more culturally aware than what most Social Studies classrooms might currently be.

Of course we’d still be operating with student choice/voice, an authentic audience, and outside experts, in an engaging way, but that’s after the script’s been flipped from learning and then doing to learning by doing.

Flipping that script gets our kids to become learners instead of being simply passive students in a seat, waiting to be told what-to, when-to, how-to. So as you’re considering how to flip the script, consider:

  • what do learners need to know in order to answer the challenge or question?
  • how and where can they discover that information?
  • where does this information and these skills to fully answer the challenge/question exist in the world beyond school?
  • how do I get my kids to interact with this info and these skills in a real-world setting with real-world stakes?

At this point you’re ready to build your KADQ (kick ass driving question) and your PBL hook.
Want to learn more about how to write those KADQs? 

Step 3: How will I know if they’ve learned it? 

Once you’ve seen how to flip the script (and I’m assuming you’ve had some PBL training before this), you’re nearly home-free to just build the details into your PBL. And one of those details is to consider how you’ll be assessing the learning. Where can you catch your learners practicing those desired skills and how could you document (and assign points to?) that work? Where can you get them to tell/show/demonstrate they understand the bigger and smaller academic concepts?

If you haven’t had any PBL training, please know this blog post is not a substitution. Check out our menu of services and supports for you.

Step 4: Get going!

By the time you’re at this step, you have already eliminated the “project” and are left with a strong skeleton of a true PBL unit.  It’s time to fill in the rest! Take a look at the Essential Components for LifePractice PBL planning to see what else needs considered.

And keep on keeping on, PBL-style!

If you want to know more about bringing PBL to your school and community, let me know



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Written by GingerLewman

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