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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Scaffold Student Learning, differentiation


January 9, 2012
How does PBL support Differentiated Instruction?

The following interview with John McCarthy, a member of BIE’s National Faculty and expert on differentiated instruction, highlights key points made in his webinar, Differentiated Instruction and PBL.

Why is Project Based Learning a natural structure for differentiated instruction?

In differentiated instruction (DI) we talk about differentiation in terms of students’ readiness, interests, and learning profiles. PBL can be designed and managed to include all three of these aspects. When you design a project, you should take into account where your students are in terms of knowledge and skills to make sure the project’s topic and learning goals are right for them. When you’re managing a project, you can provide varied scaffolding to meet different students’ needs. PBL also takes students’ interests into account. Teachers develop ideas for projects based on what will engage and motivate their own particular students, drawing from their lives, communities, and concerns. And finally, PBL provides many ways to create opportunities for students who learn well visually, verbally, interpersonally, and so on, and yet stretch them to learn in new ways.


What are some examples of ways that students with different learning styles can be successful in PBL?

To begin with, the Driving Question for a project is open-ended, so it offers multiple ways for students to come up with their own solution or formulate an answer. Another one of the Essential Elements of PBL is “Voice and Choice,” which means students can be given different options for how to do project work and what products they will create to demonstrate their learning. Some students, for example, might create visual multimedia while others choose to create podcasts or written materials. And when students work in teams during a project, each member can contribute by drawing from his or her strengths. But it’s important to make sure each member of a team takes a cognitive role in creating project products. A student can’t simply draw pictures or create PowerPoint slides ¬– he or she also has to be a speaker, a writer or at least an editor who thinks about the content, the concepts, the answer to the Driving Question, and so on.

How can a teacher provide differentiated support during project work?

During a PBL unit – when done well, I always add – a teacher has many opportunities for meeting the needs of diverse learners. Another element of PBL is the 21st century skill of collaboration, which means students often work in teams during projects. And they often work independently, as they engage in inquiry. This allows the teacher to provide differentiated support to teams and individuals. Instead of being stuck in front of a room of 25 or 35 students, instructing all them at the same time in the same way, the teacher is “unshackled” during project work time. You can monitor the room and move from team to team, having one-to-one conversations, pulling some students or teams aside for a mini-lesson, or directing students to technology or other resources for support. Sometimes teachers jigsaw students into temporary groupings based on skill level or interest, then they return to their project team with increased expertise or knowledge. And students can support each other during a project, too, so a student who needs differentiation understands, “I’m not alone in figuring out the work.”

How does assessment in PBL support DI?

As long as assessments are aligned well with standards, students can be assessed in a variety of modes, both formatively and summatively in a project. For example, you might give individual students a writing task, an oral quiz, or just sit and talk with them. Or you might check for understanding and progress on project products with a whole class or with each project team, using the same strategies you’d use in traditional instruction. The key to differentiation is to provide assessment alternatives. If some students are not good writers, for example, you could give them opportunities to demonstrate their learning in other ways besides a written assignment or test. But hold them to the same standards in terms of what content they should learn.

Where can someone learn more about DI and PBL?

Along with BIE’s resources, you could check out, where I‘ve put together some resources.


Differentiated Instruction and PBL

How do we meet students' needs through effective Differentiated Instruction? PBL is a natural structure for supporting success for all of you students. John McCarthy, BIE National Faculty, shows proven strategies that support readiness, interests, and learning profiles.


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