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by Bob Lenz
Executive Director

by Justin Wells
Vice President of Program, Envision Education

by Sally Kingston
Senior Director of Research & Evidence

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January 4, 2017
PBL Can Start in Your Classroom

by Bob Lenz
Executive Director

by Justin Wells
Vice President of Program, Envision Education

by Sally Kingston
Senior Director of Research & Evidence

(This is an excerpt from Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, Jossey-Bass 2015. The authors draw from their experience in the Envision Schools.)


“Project-based learning is great, but it is too hard for teachers to do well.” We have heard this belief stated more times than we can count. Is PBL really so difficult that only a select number of masterful teachers, innovative schools, and dynamic school leaders can pull off high-quality projects? We don't think so.

So far in this chapter, we've depicted PBL in rather grand strokes. The Campaign Ad Project (described earlier; see this video) is indeed PBL writ large: three disciplines coming together over the span of months, culminating in an all-school evening event.

We are aware of the fine line between generating excitement and creating anxiety. So let us repeat here that large-scale is not a defining feature of PBL. Projects don't have to be as big as the Campaign Ad Project. They don't have to extend for so long or involve so much collaboration or culminate with such a big production. Smaller-scaled projects, whether in terms of timeline or amount of collaboration, are just as legitimate and maybe even more important than the big ones.

Think back to our simple definition: a project is an act of creation over time. This is something that can happen in a day, and often does. Most projects in the world operate on a much smaller scale, often within the walls of a single classroom.

Rather than ask teachers to become master orchestrators of project-based curriculum overnight, we should encourage teachers to tweak or adapt their current work to give it a more project-based flavor.

This section describes some easy ways to start implementing PBL in your classroom, right away and in the context of what you are doing right now, applying a few of our design principles.

Ask, “What's the Creative Next Step?”
PBL is not a radical upending of the educational paradigm. We see PBL quite simply: teachers and students taking the time to finish whatever learning journey they've started. If you accept the principle that creation is the highest form of understanding, then PBL is nothing more than taking learning to its logical conclusion. Figure 3.2 shows some simple examples.

Reverse the Order: First the Challenge, Then the Instruction
Kevin Gant, one of the most talented and inspiring PBL teachers in the country, likes to say that PBL is not so much about changing your instruction; it’s more about changing the order.

In life, challenges tend to come first; then we learn how to meet them. Yet for some reason, education has fallen into the habit of reversing this order. Teachers give instructions first, then students are given a challenge (usually a test).

Try it: take one of your existing units that provides a challenge after instruction, and simply reverse the order. Present the challenge first (though you may have to spice it up to make it more provocative or engaging.)

After presenting the challenge, have a class discussion on what students think they will “need to know” to meet that challenge. Brainstorm every big or little thing that students feel is a missing piece of knowledge or undeveloped skill that they will need to be successful. Record it all on chart paper. This is now the class’s “need to know” list. If you’ve designed the challenge carefully enough, then the student-generated need-to-know list will closely match what was already on your “need to teach” list.

The unit becomes working through the class’s need-to-know list. Most of your original lessons will work perfectly, only now the students are asking for them.

The radical shift in PBL is situated not in the mechanics of teaching but the mindset of the learner. Teachers tend to overestimate PBL’s difficulty and underestimate its power.

Put Your Unit in the Form of a Question
Another way to think about the point made in the previous section is to use inquiry as a driver for almost all projects, units, and lessons. A physics teacher who has a solid unit on bridges need only change the focus. Instead of a recipe lab that produces structurally strong bridges, she can ask the students the question, “What is the best structural design to produce the strongest bridge?” She can teach the content as she always has, but now students will need to apply that knowledge to their bridge design. Not all of the bridge designs will be strong, but many will be. Most important, the students will own the content because they applied it.

Get Students Conducting Interviews
Envision students are required to write a college-ready research paper to graduate. This could be a completely academic affair, or it can be an opportunity for one of Adria Steinberg’s (1997) six A’s of PBL: Adult Connections. For a history paper, for example, require students to interview an adult—not at the school—who was alive during the studied historical period or is recognized as a content expert, such as a college professor.

In addition to learning the research process and the history content, students learn how to locate a source and set up and conduct an interview. We have seen the attention to detail and quality rise significantly with this approach. The students want their interviewee to be impressed by their paper.


Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards may be purchased at


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