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by Randi Downs
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


October 28, 2015
Project Based Learning with Students with Disabilities

by Randi Downs
National Faculty

Back in March, John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss enhanced the Buck Institute’s original Project Based Learning (PBL) framework, highlighting essential elements that lend themselves to deeper learning. Many of the original pieces are there, but this new model, Gold Standard PBL, gives equal billing to reflection as an important part of the PBL experience. While students have always been encouraged to reflect throughout PBL, I think its appearance on the Gold Standard Design graphic serves as a reminder for all of us when we are facilitating student learning.

So, with that in mind, I would like to reflect on our initial exploration of PBL as a vehicle to engage students with disabilities as we prepare them for career, college, and civic life. While not all students with disabilities will attend a traditional college, they all will experience a post-secondary life that will include academics, advocacy, and accomplishment. Last year, a group of exceptional educators embarked on a journey with me that would change the way we look at instruction; these teachers decided that PBL offers an approach that leads students toward a life after high school where content knowledge is just one aspect of the whole adult. There is so much more that our students require when they leave us. Mr. Larmer, Mr. Mergendoller, and Ms. Boss, in Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, discuss the acquisition of “Success Skills” as an integral part of learning. It is this emphasis on critical thinking, collaboration, and self-management that provides even more opportunity for our students with disabilities as they strive toward independence in their post-secondary life.

Last year, we deemed that all kids “CAN PBL” when Onondaga-Cortland-Madison NY (OCM) BOCES students in 12:1:1 and 12:1:4 classes grew a community garden, created and distributed leisure activity brochures, fed the homeless, and educated fellow staff and teachers about autism. Others utilized technology to communicate the importance of animal habitats to zoo visitors, staffed a diner for fellow classmates, created posters promoting a balanced diet for the school cafeteria, and prepared families for a natural disaster. That is just some of what our students with disabilities accomplished in a few short months. It is important to note, however, as John Dewey stated, it’s not the experience, it’s the “reflection on experience” (1938) that elevates us to that metacognitive platform. To honor reflection as a part of the learning process, I invited the teachers involved to share in a “fishbowl” protocol. As I listened from the perimeter, the teachers spoke about what their students learned and the nature of transfer, a result of deep learning. Students were making content connections for days, even weeks, after products were shared with the public! As the reflection continued, the teachers recalled collaboration among students who were so prone to parallel play in the traditional teaching environment. Now, those students accomplished tasks as a team and celebrated together. They looked into each other’s eyes and handed items back and forth, a feat that can be difficult for some children with disabilities. They helped each other if someone struggled. As the reflection continued, teachers shared how their students, so often marginalized and forgotten, became advocates through this experience. They became problem solvers, helpers, makers…

Reflection leads to planning next steps; so with this in mind, I look forward to year two. I look forward to supporting teachers as they design projects intent on facilitating academic proficiency and promoting advocacy while providing opportunity for rigorous inquiry for all of our students. And when those students have learned, they can revel in their accomplishments as they prepare for post-secondary life.


Do you have questions, advice, or stories to share about using PBL for students with disabilities or in Special Education? Please make a comment below! 


  • Great article! You are addressing one of my reservations about PBL that it i was geared towards the more academic successful student. Keep blogging!

    Simone84 on October 29, 2015 
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    • PBL for All, right? Another blog we did in 2014
      ( contained this story from a SPED teacher in Nashville:

      Another project that “brought tears to my eyes,” recalled Sonya, was done by their life skills class (Special Education) students. It began in the previous year. There was a washer and dryer in the students’ classroom, and the sports teams would come in and do laundry, but sometimes not pick it up. “So the life skill kids said, we can do this for them, why don’t we take this over?” Their teacher developed this into a project to create a laundry service, which expanded to serve a local homeless shelter.

      “Some of the kids are nonverbal, or have cerebral palsy or other physical conditions that limit what people think they can do. This project showed how much they can do. It opened a lot of eyes.” The best part of it, Sonya said, was at the exhibition night. The students’ teacher, who is with them all day, is allowed to stay with them during such events because it’s in their IEPs. “But the kids said, no, you have to leave, we’re going to do this by ourselves.” As people came around to their table, “the teacher stood in the aisle and cried (happily) because they didn’t want her to be around, they knew they could handle it on their own.”

      John Larmer on January 6, 2016 
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      • I think this is a good lesson for us all. There is always a challenge or problem to be solved, and everyone can contribute something.  Engaging students in PBL is a powerful way for all students to practice advocating for themselves and others! I can’t wait to share this powerful example!

        Randi D on January 7, 2016 
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  • I have done PBL with regular and special needs students for nearly 20 years. My current students have functional skills and they just finished making a movie on bullying. IT can be done they need guidance but it is the best way to teach and the way most kids learn

    Mamaferryman on November 19, 2015 
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    • Yes! Advocacy is what all students need to learn! And as you stated, facilitation, those important “teacher moves”, help a PBL experience run smoothly. Believing that our students can communicate messages to the public opens the door to deep learning!

      Randi on December 31, 2015 
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    • This is a PBL that i would like to do with my students. A movie on bullying. Where can I watch your movie?

      maritza zea on March 1, 2016 
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  • What a fantastic article! I loved hearing about the accomplishments of the students, and how PBL was used to facilitate these victories. I am wondering, were the students with disabilities working together with their non-disabled peers? What types of reflections were used?

    cmmerritt on January 4, 2016 
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    • 7th grade students on an inclusive team at one of the schools where I coach,  completed a Cancer Awareness/Fundraiser project last year. During the design phase, teachers discussed effective and inclusive grouping so that all students would have access to the key knowledge, understandings, and success skills. One thought was to create reflection checkpoints. Each student on a team would share new learning before the group could move on. The teachers discussed how they might modify and differentiate instruction while employing the help of the special education teacher when necessary.
          While I watched this planning session, I realized that while it is possible to have students with disabilities working with their non-disabled peers, PBL designers need time to brainstorm, dialogue, and plan with intention.
          Special educators who support severely cognitively delayed students in a self-contained setting still plan for public audiences comprised of children without disabilities. One teacher shared how her students with special needs had the opportunity to be experts on the subject of homelessness as they presented to a 4th grade classroom.
          As we began to think about reflection as it relates to a population consisting of many non-verbal students, teachers with whom I work found themselves starting first with the BIE Success Skills rubrics.
          Once the teachers and their assistants shared a common language and modified these measures, they created visual opportunities for reflection. With teacher facilitation, students use BINGO markers to measure their mastery of collaboration. Most teachers focus on collaboration at this time, agreeing that their students benefit from this practice, from learning to communicate and work with others, interdisciplinary skills that will support future inclusive opportunities.

      John Larmer on January 5, 2016 
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    • This was indeed a fantastic article. I was also wondering if the students with disabilities were working within their special ed. setting or were they working with the gen. ed population. As a special ed. teacher, I have found it challenging for my students to work with gen. ed. students in this capacity.

      Tylita on April 25, 2016 
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  • I would like the thoughts of some other special education teachers. If special needs students are experiencing quality PBL in their inclusion social studies and science classes, do you think that is the better experience for them rather than PBL in their self-contained classes for math and ELA? Of course in a perfect world where the demands of meeting goals and objectives and such didn’t exist, both would be great I know. But if you had to chose just one setting, would you have your students experience PBL in inclusion (if available), self-contained, or do you think it makes a difference as long as they experience PBL?

    JoAnn Decossas on January 5, 2016 
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    • Great question. I’ll ask Randi, but you might also post this on (see link in our site’s “Community” tab) and you’ll likely get a slew of answers. If you could leave another comment here with what you find, great!
      My first reaction is that if they experience well-managed PBL in the regular classroom so they gain the benefits of it, pick that. But if not, a good project or two per year in the self-contained classroom would be great.

      John Larmer on January 6, 2016 
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  • In regards to experienceing PBL in various settings, here is an answer from our Special Education Director here at OCM BOCES:
    If they are receiving high quality instruction in PBL with their peers I would think they should continue to participate in PBL in their inclusive classes.  I would have the teacher look into “problem based” for their math instruction in the self- contained class.  I think you are able to address curriculum demands and IEP goals through PBL-  I think you can still expose them to maybe one of two PBL experiences throughout the year in their self contained class .

    Randi D on January 12, 2016 
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  • I loved reading your thoughts on project based learning.  As a second year educator for students with special needs it gave me new insight into how I could incorporate PBL with them.  I am interested into how the students with Autism spread awareness to their community. We do peer buddies at my school site and I wander if we could talk to the students about what makes each of our students unique.

    spaceylacey on February 23, 2016 
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    • Hi! I just emailed a couple of special educators I coach to get some more information on PBL experiences around Autism Awareness. I do know that one teacher was charging her students to create a display in the school’s public case to increase Autism awareness. This is a wonderful idea as it allows for input from everyone, even non-verbal students. During a coaching session, we talked about how she might promote ownership. We determined that for ownership and authenticity to exist, she had to be “ok” with a display that wasn’t “perfect”. The work of the display was to inform, and as long as this happened, and the information was accurate, then student handiwork needed to be accepted.  Another teacher had her students present information about Autism to other classes at their school. This seems similar to what you are thinking about for your students. How wonderful would it be if your students could be facilitated in exploring their “uniqueness” so that they might share with others! If all students, with and without disabilities could highlight what makes them unique, what a celebration that would be! What grade level do you teach? What essential content and success skills might be taught and assessed with a project like this? I look forward to hearing more! Best of luck, and thank you!

      Randi on February 29, 2016 
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  • I have done PBL with my students and it was great! I was scared to do this because I though it would be too much for them, but they did great! When I explained what was required of them, they did well. My students were so excited they wanted to do another one. I plan on incorporated this into my RSP classroom because it causes students to be in charge of their own learning, while I facilitate.

    bhenry04 on May 4, 2016 
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    • bhenry04,
      You write about what many of us worry about, that the work of PBL might be too much for our kids. I’m so excited to hear that you took the risk and that the kids did so well! What was some of the deep learning that resulted from the experience? How was this different from how you approached instruction in the past? Today, I had a conversation with a special education teacher about her PBL experience, and she talked about how it encouraged her kids to take risks! PBL highlighted the growth mindset necessary for deep learning! Congratulations on your success! -Randi

      Randi D on May 11, 2016 
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    • I have worked with general education students as well as students with disabilities.  I too was a little nervous about introducing the information because I wasn’t sure if it was going to be “too much information” for them to take in.  This has led me to try to have my students begin with smaller, more manageable tasks in the beginning of the project and then build the skill level up towards their comfort level.  At that point is when I present the PBL assignment in its entirety.  This is where I see the sheer terror in their eyes because for many of my students, when given a large assignment, it is the first instinct to be negative.  It was only when I went over each section of the PBL assignment that they realized they had completed all of the tasks, just in segments.  All they just needed to do was gather all of their information in one final assignment.  I believe Project-Based Learning is a highly beneficial mode of connecting prior knowledge, specific skills taught, and relating the PBL assignment information to their own lives.  Like you say, “...because it causes students to be in charge of their own learning, while I facilitate (bhenry04, May 2016).”  When students become responsible for their own learning, it takes on a whole new meaning for them because they have made a personal connection to their learning; which helps with retaining the information.

      vtamayoteach on June 29, 2016 
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