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by Jenny Pieratt, Ph.D
Former BIE National Faculty

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Topic tags: equity


December 20, 2016
3 Tips for Increasing Access to Gold Standard PBL

by Jenny Pieratt, Ph.D
Former BIE National Faculty


As Project Based Learning becomes more mainstream it offers promise for delivering deeper learning experiences to students across our nation. With this promise comes a responsibility to ensure that all children have access to rich and rigorous PBL experiences. Below are three tips to ensure that we are lowering the barriers for accessing Gold Standard PBL for all students to benefit from learning deeply.

1. Broaden your lens
A critical component to the important work of increasing access to quality learning experiences is to first recognize that “same is not equal.” My big “aha moment” for understanding this perspective came when I attended an institute by National Equity Project that introduced me to this powerful image (Ed. note: This image is controversial and raises many questions about what equity means):

Creating equitable learning experiences in PBL requires a facilitator to acknowledge that while a final product may be the same for all students, the journey which students take to get there may look rather different. That is both the beauty and the burden of PBL; it provides a wonderful opportunity to truly personalize learning for students, but it also requires that we differentiate every step along the way. This new lens by which we view our work helps us to rethink our teaching moves for reaching every students’ needs.

2. Develop relationships with your students
The only true way to know what your students need is to know your students well. While we often dedicate time to familiarizing ourselves with students at the beginning of the year, it is critical to continue developing relationships with students—this is the bedrock to “building the culture” which is a tenet of a Gold Standard PBL. With a strong understanding of student needs, interests, hopes, and fears you can leverage this knowledge to create learning experiences that allow students to reach their potential. While PBL can often be a “big ask” for some students, having a strong relationship allows you to “engage and coach,” thus providing the supports necessary to yield student success. (Zaretta Hammond explains more about the brain research behind why relationships are particularly important to historically underserved student populations in her recent podcast on Culturally Responsive Teaching strategies with Teaching Channel.)

To see what this looks like in practice, check out this in-depth study on teacher-student relationships in PBL at High Tech Middle North County.

3. Plan ahead for learning for ALL 
When I was a classroom teacher at High Tech High North County, I was privileged to work with a talented, committed (and creative) inclusion staff. One eye-opener I experienced was seeing the power of planning ahead. Following the Essential Project Design Element “Design and Plan” well in advance of my project’s launch or lesson date allowed me to truly create more accessible learning activities for my students, with the help of my inclusion colleagues.

You may or may not have a support staff to co-teach with you in the ways I did, but regardless of your context here are a few tips I learned in preparing for projects for ALL learners that can apply to you:

  • Create a project calendar in Google Docs so it can be altered. In this format it is easy to create a copy of the class project calendar and create modified dates for students who may need it. This could look like smaller benchmarks from the class deadlines or “alternative challenge option” due dates.
  • For students with special needs, take your class project plans and break down assignments. By breaking down benchmarks into smaller assignments it allows you to provide additional scaffolds for skills and content. Resources like these may prove to be helpful in providing additional scaffolds for deeper learning/PBL.
  • Provide “Voice and Choice” in final products. The more freedom you provide students in the outcome, the more likely you are to provide students from all backgrounds better access to learning deeply. Not only does this type of autonomy engage student interests, but it allows students to show what they know in ways that best suit their learning needs and styles.

Providing equitable learning opportunities is no small endeavor, but it begins with small steps toward creating access for ALL students to learning deeply. I hope you are feeling inspired and equipped to make one small step toward delivering on our nation’s promise for a quality education for all students!


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