Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How does Project Based Learning (PBL) work with the Common Core?

THE VIEW FROM 30,000 FEET | David Ross

Last month I earned platinum status on American Airlines’ frequent flyer program. I looked back over my 2010 travel itineraries and realized I worked in 22 states. Patterns emerged. In every state the conversations took the same turn, variations on one theme: How does Project Based Learning (PBL) work with the Common Core?

This question is more than academic. National Faculty member Dayna Laur and I wrote a session proposal for the 2011 ISTE conference that was accepted this week. Our topic: How to use PBL in a technology rich classroom to develop deep understanding of the Common Core. In preparation, I began to explore the Common Core, starting first with the English/Language Arts standards.

Even the casual reader of these documents will notice the disclaimer on Page 4 of the Standards: “By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers, curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be reached…” The door is open.

The Common Core for E/LA does not appear to stake a claim for any one teaching style. A closer reading, though, presents a different understanding. The recommendation for the use of projects appears 18 times in the document. The word “project” is often surrounded by modifiers, including my favorite, “sustained research.” It sounds a lot like PBL.

Guiding students to a deeper understanding of meaningful content is but one goal of the Common Core Standards. That same deep understanding is but one goal of PBL. Advocates of rigorous PBL, including the Buck Institute, promote the development of 21st century readiness. This readiness includes such skills as communication, collaboration and critical thinking/problem solving.

How does this goal align with the Common Core? Quite well, as a matter of fact. A search of the E/LA Standards generates 15 hits for the phrase “solve a problem.” The phrase “collaboration with peers” appears 14 times. Communication is everywhere – after all, these are the E/LA standards.

Dayna and I will have little trouble next June making the argument Project Based Learning is an effective, one could argue essential, methodology for developing deep understanding of the Common Core. In English/Language Arts, that is. The Math Standards are a different beast.

The Math Common Core begins well (page 5) for PBL: “These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.” That’s about as good as it gets.

The word “project” does not appear in the text of the math standards. The words “collaboration” and “collaborate” do not appear in the text of the math standards. The word “communication” appears once, in the introduction. Problem solving is everywhere – after all, these are the math standards.

Why do the two sets of standards have such a different focus? Why is English/language arts (and the allied disciplines of science and social science) so much more PBL friendly than math?

As I think about traveling the national circuit in 2011, I imagine the same conversations occurring again and again. Patterns will emerge. I have a ready answer for those who ask about the alignment between PBL best practices and the Common Core for E/LA. It’s a perfect fit.

I still don’t know what I’ll say when I get those same questions from the math people.

David Ross
Director of Professional Services


  1. I was looking for an answer. I think that PBL works very naturally in E/LA and Science. As a Social Studies (specifically history) teacher, I think PBL becomes a bit more challenging. I am interested in any effective methods that allow for the massive amount of content (10000 years) that I must manage along with creating authentic projects. I work really hard to differentiate and provide student choice, but I don't think that I have really attained a proficient level of PBL in my classroom.

    Let me know if you get any answers!

  2. My first thought is, "10,000 years??!!" - is that really what your state expects? Do your students take a high-stakes test that might include items from that span - and from all over the world? Since "covering" is not the same as "teaching" I can't believe students retain much for the test if you're just "exposing" them to a list of dates, names, events, etc. But if you have no hope of influencing what you need to teach... Is it possible to teach using a thematic approach rather than chronological? That makes much more sense in terms of student understanding. Then you could do projects that explore a theme and connect various times & places in history. Otherwise, we advise looking for the "power standards" - those that are most important based on what items appear most frequently on tests and based on what YOU think is most important to learn. Use those standards to design projects that go into a topic in depth, and save other standards for other teaching methods.
    For ideas for projects, you can look in online project libraries linked from, and soon BIE will have a Project Search feature on its website. Typical projects in history include "you are there solving a problem" scenarios (e.g., "make a presentation as advisors to President Wilson on whether the U.S. should enter WWI")... or the design a museum exhibit or memorial about an event or development type... or write & make a speech to note the significance of an event/development... or the classic research & presentation project, on a topic of interest chosen by students/ teams.
    The more you can link history projects to students' lives today, and/or local community history, the better.
    And any project you design should have the 7 Essential Elements described in BIE's website and publications.

  3. It was striking to me that all the 21C language was no longer in the document. In earlier drafts, they were sprinkled, or what I like to say "weaseled" in.

    I started to piggy-back David's searches and I was happy to see that "Real World" came up 14 times. Application in itself is a great start for mathematics, let alone PBL. That's a start.

    Then I saw it. Pages 72& 73. Modeling! "Modeling links classrooms mathematics and statistics to everyday life, work, and decision-making." They give math teachers a basic mathematical modeling cycle to follow which is aligned to PBL. They even have a final note..."Modeling is best interpreted not as a collection of isolated topics but rather in relation to other standards." Model shows up 100 times in the Common Core. Wow!

    Thank you Common Core folks for "weaseling" in pages 72 & 73 ;-) aL

  4. YES! Modeling is how the CCSSM connects to PBL. It is central to the Math Common Core and really supports most of how I understand PBL. I believe that math (as it should be learned/taught) is a great match for PBL. Math Matters in the world, we just need to let learners experience that.