by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
One of our guests on a recent hangout spoke the truth: aligning projects to standards is an “often overlooked” aspect of PBL. I was discussing one of the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model of Gold Standard PBL with BIE National Faculty members Teresa Dempsey, Jean Kugler, and Todd Wold.
I began by asking them why aligning a project to standards deserves to be called out on the list of best PBL practices. Teresa said it was critical for making sure PBL is “done well” (as the BIE tagline has it). She noted that aligning to standards might seem deceptively simple but it really is an active process, essential for ensuring the project has rigor, as opposed to being “just a pet project” that might be “fluffy.”
Jean agreed that when teachers are planning a project, it is important “go to those standards documents” and think of what you want students to master. Todd made the point that people often say, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” so think of the standards as the journey; it’s what students learn along the way toward completing the project. Todd said that for him, the core standards targeted for a project are key to answering the question, “Why are you doing this?”
I then asked a question that often comes up when we work with teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders: When designing a project, is it best to start with the standards, or map the standards back onto the project after a teacher comes up with an idea? Our guests acknowledged that it depended on the teacher and the context. Jean said that "we have to meet people where they are, at their comfort level. Some teachers may need to be strategic about which standards will lend themselves best to authentic PBL.” Teresa added, “It’s not, ‘Where’s the starting point?’ It’s making sure it’s all aligned – the idea, activities, and products, grounded in standards.”
We also discussed the important point that “aligning to standards” doesn’t just mean checking a box on a project planning form; it means aligning the project’s scaffolding, assessment, and products to the standards too.
For example, in the “California Propositions Project” high school students created a video commercial to advocate for a yes or no vote on a state ballot measure. Jean explained that this product was not like a research paper; it was instead well aligned with the ELA standard for writing arguments to support claims based on evidence. To achieve the rigor embedded in the standard, she emphasized, you have to unpack “the actual language from the standards, you really have to look at the verbs and nouns” to plan the project’s products.
The standards play a key role in diagnosing student needs and planning instruction during a project. Teresa mentioned the processes she learned from Understanding by Design that looked at student work samples in relation to standards: Do we see alignment of tasks and standards? Are students meeting standards at this point? What are the implications for instruction?
Todd talked about making sure formative assessments and rubrics aligned with standards and the need to “make it transparent for students” so they know where they are in meeting a standard. Even elementary-age students, Jean pointed out, can do this if we put standards in their words; “Let them think about their thinking – where am I in relation to this?”
To wrap up, our guests gave a few last tips for aligning a project with standards. Todd offered the idea of including “standards from industry” for real-world projects and products. To meet the common challenge of deciding how many standards to include in a project, Jean recommended thinking of them not as a “shopping list” used to check off items but to consider, How much time do I have for students to really learn something? Teresa agreed that depth over breadth was important, and reiterated that aligning to standards in PBL takes careful thought. “It’s not the most exciting activity, but given the lack of time we need to make sure we’re focused on the right stuff.”
Do you have any tips for aligning projects with standards, or questions about it? Please make a comment below.