PBL and the Common Core Standards
By Anne Jolly
Ten years ago, a groundbreaking event occurred in the K-12 education arena. The Common Core Standards introduced a set of clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade. The robust standards bring real-world relevance to the curriculum and focus on knowledge and skills young people need for successful lives in a global economy.
Before the Common Core, each state set its own academic standards and learning expectations for students. That meant that a child educated in State A might graduate with a much better grasp of mathematics, for example, than a child in State B. In a nation proudly heralding equal opportunity for all, that discrepancy is inherently unfair. States are not required to adopt these standards, but by doing so they can certainly help to level an unbalanced, unequal playing field.
Sounds like a no-brainer – but a tough one. The Common Core requires a mind-boggling shift in teaching and learning. Students dive much deeper into big ideas and topics. Kids can no longer get by with simply memorizing facts or getting the right answer: they have to understand concepts behind the why, the how, and the processes of arriving at that answer.
With the Common Core, teachers face a new and daunting charge: Help kids master academics at a deeper level and apply their learning in real-world contexts. Focus on creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, research and inquiry, and career readiness. Talk about a pedagogical makeover!
The standards clearly define what to teach in terms of academics and skills, but not how to teach it. How will teachers move from a lecture/discussion platform to coaching kids in a problem-solving process? Going deeper into critical content sounds good, but finding the time is hard. Taking students from a competitive mindset into collaborative, productive teamwork – now there’s another colossal challenge.
In a nutshell, teachers are struggling to change the way they teach while they are in the process of teaching. Fortunately, one solution for making this sweeping shift is already in place: Project Based Learning (PBL). The PBL method uses real-world scenarios and challenges to develop deeper learning and immerse students in critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and self-management skills. How? Let’s look at just a few examples of how PBL helps teachers implement the Common Core.
- PBL involves students in productive teamwork. The Common Core calls for students to be able to consider different points of view and to work effectively with others to support a shared purpose or goal. Project-based learning revolves around this collaborative process. As students tackle problems, they collaborate with one another in small teams to develop ideas and design solutions. And they do this in a setting that gives them repeated and ongoing practice in this discipline. These two documents that can help you think through how to set up successful collaborative teams: Designing Group Projects so that Everyone Participates and Student Teaming Tips.
- PBL revolves around finding solutions for real problems. In today’s workforce, creativity is central to solving complex problems, developing new strategies, facilitating innovation, and driving change. To meet this need, the Common Core requires students to uncover problems, make sense of them, and persevere in solving them. PBL was designed to create a culture that values innovative strategies and creative solutions. It provides tools and structure that encourage students to apply fresh perspectives for solving real problems.
- PBL develops intellectual and emotional competencies for a productive life. The Common Core requires students to develop critical thinking skills and apply reasoning to discern facts and information. PBL pumps life into that curriculum by helping kids learn to reason, organize, analyze, and predict through a systematic design process. The PBL design process guides students as they define, plan, and design solutions. (One widely used form of design thinking for the STEM classroom is the Engineering Design Process– an iterative process that kids use to go from identifying a challenge to communicating their solution.)
- PBL targets college and career readiness. Not all current graduates are ready for the challenges of the workforce and/or higher education. The Common Core Standards tackle college and career readiness by addressing the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American schools. All students must have equal access to higher academic mastery and the mindsets they need, such as resiliency and persistence. Again, the PBL sets the stage for kids to flourish and prepare for the rest of their lives. In addition to facilitating more rigorous learning and thinking skills, the secure and accepting PBL environment teaches kids to bounce back after mistakes (viewed as learning opportunities) and redesign solutions to their goals.
- PBL teaches self-management and project management. The Common Core framework strongly promotes student independence in skill-building. The standards specifically state that students must “become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.” The inquiry-based PBL approach works magic in this area. Learning how to negotiate steps and stay on track — the ability to self-manage — is core to PBL, along with social, emotional, and academic success.
- PBL provides opportunities to develop multiple communication skills. The Common Core demands effective development, interpretation and expression of ideas through written, oral and visual communication. This includes constructing viable arguments, analyzing the reasoning of others, and communicating ideas accurately and precisely. PBL addresses all of these areas and lays a robust foundation for students to build innovative, creative, and persuasive and precise communication skills. As they confront project challenges, students must communicate internally to solve problems and then share the results of their investigations and solutions with wider audiences.
The Common Core State Standards and Project-Based Learning are well-suited partners. In short, if you want to implement the Common Core Standards in a scaffolded, meaningful, and productive manner, I’m sure you know my suggestion – PBL all the way!
About the Author:
Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed a nationally recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.