3 Tips When Your Content Standards Aren’t Screaming “PBL”

While project-based learning is a phenomenal way to contextualize learning in meaningful ways, not all content is made equal. I’ve been involved in designing hundreds of projects. All too often during the design process, projects just come together naturally. Sometimes you find you are passionate about an issue and it connects beautifully to your content. Other times, you review your content standards and they jog your memory about an intriguing current event. I’ve looked at standards that scream for a problem-solving challenge or a design challenge!

But sometimes when I review content standards, nothing jumps out at me. I’m stumped. The content seems factual, low-level and…unless you’re interested in memorizing the atomic mass of every element on the periodic table, just plain boring. How do you handle that content? How do you create a rich, meaningful project out of a laundry list of low-level learning outcomes?

Tip #1: Begin with the content that is screaming “project!”

Our seemingly endless scope of content always has a few units that intuit a brilliant project-based experience. Go with that content first. That gives you time to stew on the other units.

Tip # 2: Be patient.

A chemistry teaching team and I simmered for three years on how to PBL-ize the chemistry unit on the Periodic Table of the Elements before inspiration hit us when we were least expecting it. My colleague was showing me this great app called “Akinator.” Check it out on the web for free. The app is a genie that can guess any character you can think of. Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, Rush Limbaugh - ANY character! Trust me I’ve tried some obscure characters and Akinator had NO problem.

What does this have to do with our stumped Chemistry teaching team? Well, Akinator inspired one of the most successful and engaging chemistry projects I’ve seen in a while. This project helped us contextualize the unit on the Periodic Table of the Elements; a unit long held as “un-PBL-able.” The Driving Question was: “How can we design an app that can accurately guess any element on the Periodic Table?” Students had to develop the flow charts of questions that would serve to narrow the possibilities of elements until they, and their app, was able to accurately guess any element. Mid-point assessment? Guessing panels to test out their algorithm. The project created a “Need to Know” the systems of organization in the Periodic Table as well as the characteristics of the various elements. All of that content is factual; but it can be PBL-ized.

Tip #3: Look for inspiration in unexpected places.

Another success story comes from a die-hard fan of the TNT show “The Walking Dead.” Once you see the world through PBL lenses, you start to see projects in everything around you…even in zombie shows. This teacher taught middle school geography. She wanted to teach a unit that included learning outcomes such as: map-reading and map-making skills, migration and trade, historic trade routes, the impact of globalization, population density over time, land forms, natural resources, economic shifts and immigration and migration trends. This content surmounts to a lot of knowledge-based learning outcomes. How can we turn that into a project?

Enter “Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness” a.k.a. “ZAP.” This project launched with a series of fictitious news briefs outlining a rapidly spreading zombie contagion. Students, tasked as members of an emergency response team, were challenged to develop a series of Emergency Radio Broadcasts instructing survivors where to go, how to avoid being infected, how to find natural resources, how to avoid population centers and how to survive. They also had to develop maps demonstrating plausible escape routes from urban, suburban and rural areas. They created an “outbreak origin map” alluding to possible spread routes and susceptibility factors. Lastly, they developed new community blueprints with plans for laws and sustainability. They even worked with professionals in radio broadcasting to develop high-quality products. All of their products helped answer the Driving Question: “How can we prepare, and survive long-term, in the event of a zombie apocalypse?” The context of the project and the tasks created a “need to know” the content, even though the depth of knowledge elicited by the standards was relatively low.

So remember, the next time you are head-to-head with stubborn content, turn first to content that more easily inspires a project idea. Then, be patient. It can take years to develop a repertoire of awesome projects for all of your content. Lastly, seek inspiration for projects in unexpected places. Over time, authentic, engaging, clever and inspiring projects will become the modus operandi in your classroom.

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See additional examples of educator created Project Based Learning Units on our PBL Sample Project Resource Page.

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