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by Kristyn Kamps
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Design & Plan, Project Based Teaching Practice: Align to Standards, critical thinking


August 23, 2017
Emphasizing Understanding Builds Better Projects

by Kristyn Kamps
National Faculty

Designing and planning your first (or second or third) project can definitely be a challenging prospect. It takes time and intention to figure out how to expand learning beyond the walls of the classroom, involve experts in the field, and mimic the work adults do in the world outside of school. Choosing the right content around which to build a project is essential in order for deeper learning to occur. Consider the standards identified by a 3rd grade teaching team as the basis for an upcoming social studies project:

  • Identify the three branches of state government and the powers of each.
  • Distinguish between roles of state and local government.
  • Identify the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

After much discussion, the teachers settled on the following driving question (DQ) to guide the work: “How can we tell others about the role of state government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens?” Their project idea included dividing their classes into three research teams, with each team becoming experts on content related to one of the chosen standards. Students would summarize the information and present it to an audience outside the classroom. Their idea was met with mixed reviews from colleagues, but the team was initially at a loss for how to improve it.

What was missing? The teachers’ search for answers to this question led them to revisit their content standards and reflect on their deeper goals, which in turn led them to a more engaging and authentic project idea.

From Knowledge to Understanding
According to BIE’s Project Design Rubric, a Gold Standard PBL project “is focused on teaching students specific and important knowledge, understanding and skills derived from standards and central to academic areas.” The standards listed above are specific and do target essential knowledge outcomes in the 3rd grade social studies curriculum; however, the plan failed to include the bigger understandings that students would gain as a result of their experience.

In his book, Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ron Ritchhart unpacks the difference between teaching for knowledge and teaching for understanding. “Understanding requires knowledge, but goes beyond it. Understanding depends on richly integrated and connected knowledge. This means that understanding goes beyond merely possessing a set of skills or a collection of facts in isolation; rather, understanding requires that our knowledge be woven together in a way that connects one idea to another. Understanding a particular topic then leads not just to familiarity but also to a state of enablement” (2015, p. 47). The difference between knowledge and understanding looks something like this:

While it is important to help students establish a solid knowledge base in each subject area, an accumulation of facts is no longer the sole educational goal. Students acquire knowledge so they can do something with it: discuss it, analyze it, evaluate it, grapple with it, apply it, and so on. A solid project plan balances knowledge and understanding so that a foundation of information can be acted upon in a worthwhile way. 

Upgrading the Project
Going back to the 3rd grade social studies project plan, the teachers had identified what students would learn (the knowledge) but they also needed to incorporate why students would learn it (the bigger understandings). The team followed the steps below to move their project from mediocre to meaningful:

  1. Reframe the thinking to get at the heart of essential understandings. The teachers used new questions like, “What do we hope students will remember five years from now as a result of the project work? What new perspectives about the topic do we hope they will gain? What’s the bigger purpose behind the work?” By the end of the project, they hoped students would learn not only how their state government is organized, but how it works to protect the rights of its citizens, and how citizens can work through government to promote positive changes that benefit communities.
  2. Decide how the work will help students make sense of essential understandings. The teachers decided that, instead of simply reporting information to an audience, their students would take part in a grade-wide simulation in which they became either a member of government or a citizen of the community. They would explore issues affecting students in their school and work with the principal to “pass” legislation to address those issues. Students would not just read about government and responsible citizenship, they would experience it.
  3. Revise the driving question to match the revised project idea. The team’s original driving question was restated as, “How can we, as citizens of the 3rd grade, create a class government that will allow us to make positive changes in our school?” By highlighting the active process students would use to learn the content, the teachers were sure the new DQ would capture students’ attention, activate students’ curiosity, and generate excitement around the work.

The 3rd grade team was committed to designing a project that was not only built on important knowledge but also deepened students’ understanding of social studies content. When the teachers realized their initial plan lacked a greater purpose, they challenged themselves to rethink the “why” behind the learning. By shifting from a focus on knowledge acquisition to an emphasis on deeper conceptual understanding, they were able to create an engaging project that their students would surely remember for many years to come.


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