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by David Ross
Global Education Consultant

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Topic tags: what is PBL, school reform, how to do PBL, common core


May 11, 2012
The Common Core is the “what.” PBL is the “how.”

by David Ross
Global Education Consultant

About a year ago I wrote a blog that detailed explicit connections between the 8 Essentials Elements of Project Based Learning and the Common Core. Not a lot of educators tuned in.

Can you hear me now? I guess you have a Need to Know.
Forty-five states have signed on to the Common Core. Louisiana is first out of the gate and will begin implementing the Common Core in the 2012-2013 school year, with the expectation of full implementation in the 2014-2015 school year. Two years from now the Bayou State will have plenty of company.
PARCC is scheduled to make its performance task items available this summer following a pilot in the spring that targeted large urban districts (New York, Washington DC, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and St. Paul, MN).
To the PBL world, the most interesting of these locations is New York. The city invited nearly all the Deeper Learning network models, including the Buck Institute for Education, into its iZone
Smarter Balanced, which awarded a contract in April to a design and development group led by CTB/McGraw Hill, plans on a January 2013 pilot of its test items/tasks. The curious can view recently released annotated examples of the Smarter Balanced performance tasks. 
How about this little nugget from an example performance task: “Students engage strategically in collaborative and independent inquiry to investigate/research topics, pose questions, and gather and present information.”
Sounds like PBL to me.
Everyone knows that content is king and Common Core wears the crown. Significant Content is one of our 8 Essential Elements. Make an easy connection: Significant Content = Common Core.  Now let’s use a shorter word. When designing a rigorous, relevant and engaging project, Common Core is the “what.” 
But what about the “how?” In our minds the answer is obvious: PBL is the solution for Common Core implementation.  PBL is the “how.”
Is the vital connection between PBL and the Common Core that easy to make?  Let’s return to the original analysis and then update it. Let’s look at the numbers and text.
As a reminder, the importance of significant content is a default assumption in both effective PBL and the Common Core. What we are looking for is evidence of other Essential Elements, in particular any push toward 21st century skills (collaboration, communication, critical thinking/problem solving, creativity). Evidence of other Essential Elements, such as extended inquiry or public demonstrations of skill and knowledge, would tighten the bond.
I’m short. Let’s pick the low-hanging fruit first. 
A good place to start is the two-page PDFs  (one for Math and one for English Language Arts) that provide key talking points:
  • “Research—both short, focused projects (such as those commonly required in the workplace) and longer term in depth research —is emphasized throughout the standards …”
  • “The high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges …”
The ELA standards align quite easily to PBL, the development of the aforementioned 21st century skills as well as the 8 Essential Elements:
  • “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions …”
  • “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners …”
  • “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others …”
  • “Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) …”
About those Math standards… A year ago, in the first iteration of this blog, I warned the PBL world it would have a tough time finding fertile ground. Two days later a friend, who had bridged careers in civil engineering and K-12 teaching, dinged me. He told me I was focusing on the wrong indicators. He said I should count the references to real-world problem solving. This time I did, and found that phrase 14 times. 
Citizens of the PBL world should find an open door in the general introduction to the Common Core: “By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached.”
That sounds like an invitation to explore the “how” of Common Core implementation.
Say it loudly. The Common Core is the “what.” PBL is the “how.”


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