45: PBL Dilemmas & Resolutions





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The dilemmas facing educators trying out the backwards design approach to unit planning are shared by educators trying out Project Based Learning (PBL).  The following lists some possible resolutions that can be used to confront naysayers (both outside and inside our own brains.)


Misconception: We have to teach to the test
Possible Resolutions:
  • Design authentic projects that are aligned to test standards
  • Use test blueprints to streamline curriculum so there is time to go for depth in key standards


Misconception: We have too much content to cover
Possible Resolutions:
  • Use projects to have students solve complex problems that make the connections between ideas and skills explicit and vital
  • Remember that teaching is not the same thing as learning
  • Use standards to streamline (not extend) the curriculum so there is time for depth
  • Use textbooks as references, not as the syllabus


Misconception: This work is hard and I don’t have the time.


Standardized tests are limited measures of understanding.  Training for the tests is like training for a doctor’s physical instead of aiming for better health.  Research has shown that authentic assessments and pedagogy better prepare students for high stakes assessments than drill and kill methods.


The textbook is not the curriculum.  The TIMS test has shown that curricula that aim for depth over breadth teach more math concepts and skills.


It’s OK to start small.  Cook one gourmet per year or per semester and do it in collaboration with other teacher stakeholders.  Build with the help of other educators and refine using feedback from students.


Preparation Steps
  • Analyze and prioritize standards
  • Identify which standards clusters lend themselves well to authentic tasks and pedagogy
  • Design a project aground standards using backwards design template and standards.  If possible, collaborate with other teachers on this design.
  • If possible, review design with a student panel before launching project.
Early Implementation Steps
  • Launch and facilitate entire project.
  • Take notes on what’s working and not working during the project.  Use these tips to refine project.  Generalize this feedback in order to apply them to future projects.
  • If full blown projects are too intimidating, try designing and implementing inquiry based lessons.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • Collaborate with other educators to build and refine a database of projects.
  • Design a PBL course that uncovers most standards using projects

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