Student success and school (or school district) success is typically measured by test scores. Teachers and administrators are accountable for student performance. Home values can even rise or fall with the perceived quality of a school district. So, it’s no surprise that test scores are on the minds of educators.
21st Century Skills like collaboration, communication, and innovation go beyond traditional education and can require method changes. Students are increasingly expected to make connections between classroom lessons and real-life problems. Problem-based learning (PBL) provides opportunities to touch on those very skills that might not be exercised while taking notes during a lecture or studying for a test.
While PBL may be a natural fit with standards, ensuring alignment requires careful planning, effective design, and a strategy for continual assessment. The good news is that using standards-aligned PBL provides context for deeper learning while ensuring students meet nation- or state-wide education goals.
Ensure projects are comprehensive/rigorous learning exercises
Projects are often employed as culminating assignments that give students a chance to show how well they’ve learned. In PBL, the projects are where students learn, which means that components of standards-aligned PBL must be carefully organized. Projects should engage students in a combination of skills, not focus on a single goal. At the same time, educators should consider how many different elements can be incorporated into projects effectively.
Consider standards from a PBL perspective
Reading through the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) it’s often easy to see where there is a natural connection for PBL. The words collaboration, project, and communication appear frequently throughout the CCSS for English Language Arts (ELA). There are multiple references to “shared research and writing projects” and conducting “research projects”. On the other hand, the connections between CCSS for Math and PBL aren’t quite as clear. The word collaboration isn’t included and project appears 3 times…in the endnotes. But thinking about the PBL goal of connecting classroom learning with real world problems opens up a different perspective and the PBL concept indeed fits in with published CCSS Math Standards. Passages like, “[m]odeling links classroom mathematics and statistics to everyday life, work, and decision-making” and, “[i]n middle grades, a student might apply proportional reasoning to plan a school event or analyze a problem in the community” seem easy to view from a PBL standpoint. Granted, it’s not as natural a fit as with the ELA Standards, but there are still hints of possibility for PBL. Ultimately, success lies with effective project planning. The Math Standards are peppered with the phrase “real-life”. Sure, this can be interpreted as a reference to word problems, but what better way for students to try their hand at solving real-life problems than with PBL?
Design projects with a set of standards in mind
The criteria for projects should be based on targeted standards. Teachers/facilitators can perform check-ins throughout the project’s duration to determine student progress. Creating a system for students to evaluate themselves adds another layer of assessment and empowers students to think critically about their goals. Of course, there are times in the planning stage when it’s clear that a certain project doesn’t fit a set of standards. That’s OK, it’s important to know when to move on. Getting some guidance is always worthwhile—Workbench content is standards-aligned to support mastery and improve student performance.