by Ian Stevenson
In her recent blog "Making PBL Accessible to All: Building a Collaborative Culture" Erin Starkey shared how the time spent building a positive class culture supported student learning beyond the content standards embedded in each PBL unit.
Clearly, the Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practice of “Build the Culture” focusing on student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, team spirit, and attention to quality is crucial. However, in my instructional coaching and professional development work I hear teachers across the country say, “But doing that takes time away from all the content I have to cover!"
I usually respond with an inquiry approach by asking, "How does building the culture align with your standards?" In the back of my mind I am looking to drop bread crumbs that lead teachers to the realization that the Common Core Standards (and most other state standards) and the NextGen Science standards INCLUDE culture building!
First: The CCSS ELA Speaking & Listening standards include engaging "effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners.” From Kindergarten where the goal is to "follow agreed upon rules for discussion" to the 11-12 grade goal of working "with peers to promote civil democratic discussions and decision making." You now have standards aligned to culture building where one of the learning goals is to improve team spirit and open-ended inquiry. The focus and time taken in learning and practicing those skills is now justified.
Second: The CCSS Math standards from K - High School include a math practice of making "sense of problems and persever[ance] in solving them," "reason abstractly and quantitatively," and "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” Those are clear descriptors of a PBL culture where growth, open-ended inquiry, and attention to quality are valued. So be empowered to spend part of your precious time building those skills, and your problem and project based learning plans become even more tightly aligned to standards.
Third: The NextGen Science standards also include building a culture of inquiry and attention to detail. The Science and Engineering Practices of “planning and carrying out investigations to answer prior questions or test solutions to problems” in K-2 extend through grades 11-12 with “formulating, refining, and evaluating empirically testable questions and design problems using models and simulations.” Intentionally building this culture into projects creates the opportunity for students to learn and practice the skills, and you are on your way to becoming a Gold Standard PBL teacher!
Four: Just about all teacher evaluation systems include language around planning and designing lessons and units that are standards-aligned, and promote engaged student learning. As you intentionally scoop these culture-building standards into your project and capture evidence of student learning you are building your own evidence of professional growth.
As you backwards plan your projects using these CCSS and NextGen standards, be sure to check for understanding along the way. Use self and peer reflection along with collaboration rubrics as the formative assessment checkpoints. Use different student-led discussion protocols as the instructional strategy for student learning and practice.
My experience, and Erin Starkey’s, have shown that students appreciate the chance to learn about the WHY behind PBL and that HOW they learn makes a big difference. Administrators appreciate seeing that your planning aligns to standards. Parents appreciate knowing that learning how to communicate will help their child succeed in school and life.
If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have time with all the content I have to cover” try to remember that culture building IS part of your content!
So, just like when I hear teachers say "I don't have time to teach that along with my content" I ask you—how do you build a classroom culture that aligns with student learning?