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Planning PBL: Putting the Pieces Together

When is the last time you put together a zillion piece jigsaw puzzle? Was it a beautiful landscape or something silly like a cat wearing a ridiculous hat? I love putting puzzles together and the challenge of making everything fit. There is a genuine sense of accomplishment as the poster-sized image of the New York skyline magically comes together. This is probably why I tend to have my masterpiece occupy the coffee or kitchen table way too long. I am just so doggone proud! My love of puzzles may explain why I get such energy from putting together PBL units.


A strong Project Based Learning unit requires us to carefully place things together so that students will be engaged and successful in the task at hand. I am often asked where I get my ideas and how I put together my units. So, I am going to quickly walk you through my thinking as I plan a new unit. Let’s put the pieces together!


Piece #1: Set the Standards & Goals

I always start with the standards and goals I want the students to achieve during the unit. I look at the curriculum and see what is required. I think about the “heaviest” standards, meaning the standards that are must haves for whatever I am teaching. I typically choose 4-6 standards, usually a few from a couple of content areas. For example, I may be planning a social studies unit but will incorporate some communication arts. I will choose 2-3 standards from each of these areas to be our target learning goals. It is really important that the standards and goals selected be valuable enough to receive several weeks of work to learn them. There will be smaller standards probably addressed in the unit, but I carefully select 4-6 “big rock” standards for each unit.


Piece #2: Think Like a Real Person

At this point in planning, I take off my “teacher hat” and start thinking like a real person. This is not to say that as educators we aren’t real people, but we do tend to view the world through our teacher bubble. I need to expand my horizons! You see, the teacher in me selects standards and thinks about lessons and assessments. I need to think differently to come up with the real world challenge and essential question. I ask myself the following questions to get in this “real people” mindset: “Who in the real world uses these ideas or skills?” “How do I see these ideas or skills being used in the world around me?” “How can my students experience these standards/skills in the most authentic way possible?” I will make lists of roles, events, problems, situations, etc. in which I see the standards I have selected in action in the world. As I ponder, this is when the project starts coming alive.



Piece #3: Take Inventory of Resources

At this point in the planning, I have probably not quite landed on the exact project or direction yet. To help me make the decision, I begin to think through what resources I have on hand to assist us with each of the possible challenges in our project. This involves materials, books, online resources, and supplies. However, a more important list emerges in terms of people resources. I need to think about who in the community, state, or nation can assist us. I will need guest speakers, audience members for our final products/presentations, experts that can answer questions and guide students as they begin to investigate and research. As I look at my lists of resources, the choices seem to become clear and I can select the direction/challenge of the project.


Piece #4: Map Out Mini-Lessons & Modeling

We are rolling now! I know my standards, the focus of the project, and my resources. Next, I map out the mini-lessons, modeling, and experiences I know I will need to include to get students started and scaffold throughout the unit. We are going to learn the standards as we go, but I have to be proactive and think through the process students will generally take to get to the culminating event. I need to be ready to provide instruction and guidance along the way. I will map out lessons needed at the beginning to get them started and I will use my conferences with students to help me gauge when and where to add needed help. Project Based Learning is not a totally hands off approach for teachers. We are right in the huddle with the students. Like a good coach, we provide tips and information as they need it.


Piece #5: Schedule Time for Assessment

The last piece in the planning puzzle is assessment. What? I haven’t even started yet. Who cares about assessment now? Well, I do! As eager as I am to jump in and get going with this amazing unit, I need to pause and think through how I will assess along the way. If you are wondering what I am assessing, go back to Piece #1. I started with the selection of standards and goals. Now you can see why building the project on standards is important. I know where we are going and when we get there! To plan for assessment we need to know the following:

  • What are we assessing? (Standards & Goals)
  • How are we assessing?
  • When will we assess during the unit?
  • Have we included a variety of formative and summative assessments to display a clear picture of what the individual student has accomplished?


It is a pretty wonderful picture, once we put all the pieces together. When the planning is completed I can begin to roll it out with the students. The best part is that I am not stressed about the process. I fully understand that things will not always go as I have down on paper, but I can trouble shoot and go with the students’ ideas because I have this foundational planning in place.


So, grab your puzzle pieces and start putting together the corners! The students will help you fill in the middle pieces. You are going to love your new masterpiece!

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