Project-Based Learning

How Do I Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning?

How Do I Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning?

contributed by John McCarthy, TeachThought PD Workshop Facilitator

“How do I differentiate through PBL?”

Teachers often ask this question as they see the possibilities of planning and implementing project-based learning units (PBL). Changing practice to PBL from traditional instruction can be liberating for its potential to meet the differentiated needs of all learners.

There are many opportunities to differentiate from the start of a PBL unit to its climactic conclusion. In my book, So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide for Differentiation (February 2017), I explain that the key is to think of Differentiation as a lens that’s used to view lessons and units for planned opportunities of supports that meet all learner needs. For PBL units, as with traditional units, lesson planning is where the learning experiences take shape. Here are some project-based learning teaching strategies that can be differentiated to bring out the power of meeting learner needs, so all can learn.

Strong PBL units include standard elements that make for rich experiences. They include:

Establishing an authentic purpose

Differentiating from the beginning through entry events

Using a ‘need to know’ protocol

Designing strategic and differentiated project checkpoints

Insisting on compelling ‘student voice’

9 Ways To Differentiate In Project-Based Learning


…by establishing an authentic purpose for the project

Students must believe in the entirety of learning experiences as having a purpose beyond playing the game called ‘school.’ Having a purpose or challenge that impacts the world beyond school can be motivating to students. When their work is not solely for the review by the teacher, instead it’s for meeting the needs of a client, community, or organization, students can find motivation in the work that they do.

Some examples include:

Fifth graders in Metro Nashville Public Schools raised awareness about economic, social, and scientific impact of cancer. They advocated for more research to find a cure by raising funds through an event. The money was donated to cancer research on behalf of a local hospital that has a children’s cancer ward.

Seniors in Lapeer Public Schools did outreach for the issue of their choice. They raised funds and/or volunteered time for social issues. During the early days of the water crisis in Flint, MI, one team of students provided free water testing in the surrounding communities for wells. In return, they filled containers with clean water and donated to Flint.

An alternative education high school in East China Schools has done several authentic learning experiences through PBL units. They increased reading opportunities by designing, building, and placing book bins into their community for access to donated books. In another experience, students raised awareness about homelessness and poverty to support the local soup kitchen.

In each of these experiences, the curriculum content was transformed from abstract schoolwork to concrete application. For example, the cancer awareness campaign succeeded due to students understanding of cells and their functions, plus the difference between healthy and cancerous cells. Math skills were taught in context of use for calculations both with regards to the economics of cancer and in the preparation of the free meal provided at the community event.

Give students a context for the curriculum. The result is that the abstract concepts can make more sense. Applying the concepts and skills for a real world context helps learners understand the value of the outcomes beyond assessments. Students find purpose in the big picture of the final outcome. They have a face as their audience who needs their support. This can be a motivation for deeper learning, because ‘someone’ is counting on them. The curriculum becomes the food that fuels the learning.

…from the beginning through ‘entry events’

Every PBL unit needs a strong launch. The entry event provides that engagement and purpose for learning. Like authentic learning experiences, which is the common thread throughout a PBL unit, the entry event challenges students’ thinking through real world connections.

Use students’ interests to introduce a topic. When connecting their interests, students can see how the curriculum is visible in their world, outside the walls of academia. The experiences could be sensory such as a video that shows how sneezing spreads bacteria, roleplay to understand the meaning behind a primary source document, or conduct a RAFT journaling exercise.

Invite an expert or outside party to introduce the challenge, explain how the final product assessment relates to their need, and answer questions that begin to build the curricular ties. Use video conferencing so that the partnership could potentially be global. Such experiences help deepen the context of the academic work inside of a meaningful authentic experience.

…by using a ‘need to know’ protocol

Once a PBL unit launches, it’s important to check for content understanding during the entire experience. The Need to Know protocol achieves this need. It’s like a K-W-L, only the questions generated are revisited throughout the unit until they are all answered. The Need to Know protocol is run several times to generate new questions, which may occur once a week.

When answers are reviewed, students vote on if the question is fully addressed. If the vote is not unanimous, then the teacher must provide additional support for whomever needs it. The students determine when academic needs are met. The result is curriculum learning instead of the illusion of content coverage.

One teacher explained that the Need to Know protocol helped him determine what mini-workshops were needed. He was able to determine some of the groupings based on the questions asked, and who shared the same needs.

This formative assessment took provides immediate feedback. The protocol empowers students to determine when something is learned, or if more differentiation is needed. What makes the Need to Know protocol effective is the revisiting of the questions to check for unanimous understanding, and the opportunities to generate more questions later in the unit.

…by designing strategic and differentiated project checkpoints

Every PBL unit breaks down the concepts and skills into components that are checked for student understanding. These checkpoints may occur once or twice a week, and sometimes more often. Checkpoints are different from the daily formative assessments that are done to track progress of the lessons. A skill or concept may take several lessons to show competency. Checkpoints occur when those moments are planned.

Students who pass the checkpoint continue to the next skill or receive differentiated experiences that explore a deeper complexity of the work. Learners who do not pass the checkpoint require differentiated support to meet their readiness needs. Checkpoints avoid the scenario where a teacher discovers that students are behind in their understanding and the school work after weeks, instead of hours or days. Students turning in key artifacts as a checkpoint, such as an outline or graphic organizer. This ensures that teachers can intervene in a timely fashion.

…by insisting on compelling ‘student voice’

One of the advantages of PBL units is the opportunities for allowing students to design their learning. This can take the form of deciding on the topic focus, making product choices, and/or designing their plan of action. Authentic learning experiences and the Need to Know protocols are additional methods to promote students taking charge of their learning.

Typically, the outcome to a PBL unit does not have one single answer. When the focus has an authentic purpose beyond the school, the potential answers and products multiply. Students are able to try several different approaches towards success. Teachers need to concede the limelight so that students learn to lead learning experiences.

Some teachers find student voice exciting and terrifying at the same time. How can students take control of their learning if they do not have the curriculum background? There are multiple answers to that question, which depends on the existing teacher experience level with giving students more control of their learning.

When starting out new to this experience, it’s okay to start simple and slow. Begin with offering students three choices. Define two of the choices with specific guidelines. The third choice is open to encourage students to propose their ideas. If their proposal meets the academic criteria, let them do it. If not, send them back to planning a new idea. Give a deadline for proposals. After time is up, students with unapproved proposals must choose from the two teacher-designed options.

More experienced users of student voice understand that they can define the skills and concepts, holding firm to them as what must be used and demonstrated. At that point, they encourage and coach students to personalize their own pathways towards meeting the expectations. In this way, students build ownership in the work as they get to design it.

Other Strategies for Differentiation within PBL

Within PBL units, as within high quality traditional units, there are many effective strategies that can be differentiated for student needs. Each of the following are good places to start.

…by provided structured feedback opportunities

Formative feedback on a daily basis is important for the long term effectiveness of PBL units, and for ensuring that support needs are met for those learners who struggle and others who need challenge that is more appropriate to their skill level.

From observational checklists, exit cards, journals, quizzes, to assignments, the more that is known about where learners are academically, an effective plan can be developed. Feedback is also about getting students thoughts about the lessons’ effectiveness. If students do not feel that the lesson makes sense to them, then the learning experiences should be adjusted accordingly.

…by using reflection protocols

Use protocols that enable students to lead in the thinking and processing of ideas. Such protocols may include Socratic Seminar, Fishbowls, Harkness Discussion, Save the Last Word for Me, and feedback loop sessions. The teacher can observe for data as well as use post reflections on the protocol experiences to check on needs of students.

…through workstations and learning centers

Setting up stations or centers is a way to give students choice of tasks or have the work designed to their needs. For example, students must visit four of the five centers, which promotes choice. Or students could be required to do specific work at each center, based on their readiness skill needs.

Each center might be color coded by black, red, and blue. The black tasks are for the advanced learners, the red is for those at grade level, and the blue are for those needing support to close the achievement gap. Colors should be changed each time, along with running mixed skill groups.

Use Pinterest or Google Drive folders to create virtual stations. Assign a specific Pinterest board to students based on their readiness needs. Use Google Drive folders to provide a range of options for tasks that students choose from to complete.

…through learning teams

Whenever I ask students what they like about project-based learning, the popular answer is, “I get to work with others. There’s always someone I can get help from.” PBL units often places students into teams to complete tasks and support each other in their learning needs. It’s important that students are grouped based on what each person can contribute academically.

One way to form groups is through the use of Learning Profile Cards. This tool collects from students how they rate themselves in various academic skills and learning preferences. Teachers add anecdotal notes as they get to know their students better. Learning Profile Cards provide a rich perspective on each student that can inform the lesson planning and team formation.

Another important need is to teach students the 21st Century Skill of how to collaborate. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning is a valuable resource. Such skills are especially important as teachers provide coaching to students on communication and collaboration skills, so that they act on their learning in different ways.

For example, some learners like to talk through the work as way to build understanding. Others may prefer to quietly process internally what they understand before sharing. People are likely to do both styles depending on the task, yet they may have one preference over another. Teachers can use a tool like the Henrico 21 TIP Chart to reflect on their practice for teaching and coaching collaboration skills.

Keep Students at the Center of Learning

Differentiation in a PBL unit structures provides many opportunities. Creating authentic real world connections and empowering students to direct their learning is a combination for success. The more that students take on the heavy lifting of learning during the learning experiences, the more room teachers have to personalize support for learners in need.

When planning lessons for a PBL unit, include the step of using the Differentiation lens to determine what additional supports and extensions that students could benefit from. Teachers often know what the needed support should be, based on their experience of previously teaching the skill or concept. Use that knowledge to plan intentional differentiation supports that encourages student success.

Looking to grow and differentiate learning with PBL? Check our PBL Workshops Page!

image attribution flickr user Fabrice Florin

Project-Based Learning

The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning

The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning

by TeachThought Staff

Projects in the classroom are as old as the classroom itself.

‘Projects’ can represent a range of tasks that can be done at home or in the classroom, by parents or groups of students, quickly or over time. While project-based learning (PBL) also features projects, in PBL the focus is more on the process of learning and learner-peer-content interaction that the end-product itself.

The learning process is also personalized in a progressive PBL environment by students asking important questions, and making changes to products and ideas based on individual and collective response to those questions. In PBL, the projects only serve as an infrastructure to allow users to play, experiment, use simulations, address authentic issues, and work with relevant peers and community members in pursuit of knowledge.

By design, PBL is learner-centered. Students don’t simply choose between two highly academic projects to complete by a given date, but instead use the teacher’s experience to design and iterate products and projects–products and projects that often address issues or challenges that are important to them.

The chart below by Amy Mayer is helpful to clarify that important difference between projects and project-based learning. Ultimately, the biggest difference is the process itself.

What’s the Difference Between ‘Doing Projects’ and Project Based Learning? Image attribution flickr user josekevo; The Difference Between Projects And Project-Based Learning; © Amy Mayer, @friEdTechnology, The Original WOW! Academy,

Project-Based Learning

25 Questions To Guide Teaching With Project-Based Learning


25 Questions To Guide Teaching With Project-Based Learning

by Terry Heick

I’ve been thinking of the kinds of questions I consider when planning a project–or planning a unit when students plan a project on their own.

There’s a lot to consider here–so much so that 12 isn’t even close to enough, but that’s because I tend to over-complicate things (so my kids tell me). I”ll stick to a ‘primary’ set for the first dozen, and then add a secondary set you can take a gander at below.

I’ve more or less organized them into a kind of spectrum, from the simplest questions to consider, to the most complex. I focused more on creating compelling and student-centered projects, rather than creating a list of questions to use as a checklist for pure academic planning.

For related reading, you might check out the difference between doing projects and project-based learning, as well as our project-based learning cheat sheet that provides some examples to jumpstart your thinking.

A Project-Based Learning Spectrum: 25 Questions To Guide Your PBL Planning


  1. What role is the learner assuming? Designer? Engineer? Brother? Artist? Cultural Critic? Naturalist?
  2. What is their purpose? What are they doing, and what should the project itself ‘do’?
  3. Who is their audience? Who is the audience of the project’s design, impact, or effect?
  4. How can different learning spaces (e.g., classroom, home, digital) work together? To promote meaningful interaction? An authentic audience? Personalized workflow to meet each student’s needs?
  5. What kind of support does each student need individually? Who can provide it? How much structure is enough for that student? (Scoring Guide, Teacher-Provided Tools, Rubric, etc.)
  6. What’s the ‘need to know’? Is there one? Where did it come from? Is it authentic? Teacher-based, school-based, curriculum-based, or student-based? What are the consequences of each?
  7. Which academic standards are the focus of the unit? How will data from formative assessment (that target these standards) help teachers and students respond within the project?
  8. Who will provide learning feedback? When? How? And feedback for what–the quality of the project? Progress towards mastery of academic standards? Will it be ‘graded’ with letters, numbers, as a matter of standards-mastery, or some other way? Which way best supports student understanding?
  9. How should the product be paced to maintain student momentum? What ‘check-in with the teacher’ markers make sense?
  10. How can assessment, iteration, and metacognition improve student understanding?
  11. How can the student bring themselves (affections, experience, voice, choice, talent, curiosity) to the project? Also, what is the teacher’s role in the process? Is it the same for every student?
  12. What sort of quality criteria make sense? How will we know if the project ‘works’? Was effective? Performed? Who designs this quality criteria?
  13. What kind of project would the student never forget? 
  14. What’s most critical to the success of the project? Creativity? Critical thinking? Organization? Grit? All may apply, but how might the project be designed to focus on the factors you or the student value most?
  15. How can students work within their local community to solve authentic problems, or celebrate meaningful opportunities?
  16. Is technology use distracting, useful, or critical to the success of the project?
  17. Does it make sense for the project to also be Inquiry-focused? Problem-based?
  18. How can students build on their unique schema and background knowledge to produce something special?
  19. What role might iteration play in the project?
  20. Is the project research-based? Product-based? Service-based? 
  21. Can mindfulness be embedded into the project to help students see their own thinking, identify barriers and opportunities, and respond in a self-directed way?
  22. What filtered (e.g., a teacher-selected book, an encyclopedia) and unfiltered information sources (e.g., a Google search, a social media stream) might they use cooperatively?
  23. What learning taxonomies or cognitive actions might guide students to think best? We covered some of these in a recent post, many of which are shown in the graphic below.
  24. What scale makes the most sense for the student to work best?
  25. Is the project designed to build on student strengths (rather than trying to ‘correct deficiencies’)?


Looking to grow Project-Based Learning at your school? Contact TeachThought PD >>

A Project-Based Learning Spectrum: 25 Questions To Guide Your PBL Planning; image attribution wikimedia commons (the spectrum to the right)

Project-Based Learning

What PBL Can Do For Your School–And What It Can’t

What PBL Can Do For Your School–And What It Can’t

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought Professional Development

*Visit our PBL Workshops Page for workshop options on Project-Based Learning.

Project-Based Learning is a great way to reach and teach students, but what is often overlooked is what high quality PBL can do for a school and district–and what it can’t.

As Project-Based Learning gains traction and momentum as a framework for planning student learning, it’s important to be clear about what PBL is and is not.  The two short and artful videos in this playlist by High Tech High teacher Jeff Robin do a good job of illustrating those differences. It’s important, though, to understand that for PBL to really take hold and have long lasting effects you’ll need to engage in the shift over a period of years, not just a one time workshop and revisiting it a couple times during the school year. Ultimately project-based learning is about two things:

1. learners making/creating/producing something meaningful

2. Using rich inquiry to get there.

What this means for students is powerful, but developing a PBL mindset at your school or district is an opportunity to shift teaching and leadership practices. Further, it can shift school culture from one of ” achievement, to one of authentic teaching and learning.

Engaging in this mindset requires a commitment to inquiry and encourages democratization by empowering learners at all levels to engage in seeking ‘A More Beautiful Question.’

Project-Based Learning Helps Leadership

As leaders, the PBL process allows you to empower your staff by giving them voice and choice in the decision making for your school.

In my work with Round Rock ISD as part of my former role as a Buck Institute National Faculty member, I saw evidence of the Old Town Elementary leadership and staff using a Driving Question and Need to Know process to wrestle with school challenges. Just as teachers shift to facilitators in a PBL classroom, so does leadership in a PBL school. By doing so you help make your school or district a better place to work because your staff feels empowered, truly valuing their thinking and making it visible in meaningful ways helps move them from compliance to commitment.

PBL also helps leadership support and coach teachers in a continuous growth model by shifting the heavy load of being the “evaluator,” to the use of effective peer critique processes that professionalize teachers and help elevate the working norms and language of collaboration. I can tell you from experience that when teachers engage in quality peer critique, getting the opportunity to really talk about their work they come away elated. No longer are “PLC” type meetings met with “how long will this take and what do I have to turn in” comments. Instead the expectations of great teaching and learning are elevated, as is the synergy that comes from high-quality collaboration.

Project-Based Learning Helps Teachers

What are some examples of how PBL can help teachers on a daily basis? PBL can:

  • increase the authenticity of learning because it asks them to put learning in context by asking questions that are important to their students, not just teachers
  • improve their use of formative assessment in a way that results in more responsive teaching
  • deepen learning and connect their content standards (and/or skills) to the work their students are doing as scaffolds and checkpoints in the process
  • improve the quality of student work because instead of “playing school” or doing work for points and grades, they’re pursuing craftsmanship by engaging in constant loops of critique and revision because they have an authentic and meaningful purpose to do so
  • teach content literacy as students read, write, speak and listen as and with content area experts like this student
  • make interdisciplinary connections as they creatively combine content like Art and Politics
  • become better at classroom management as students use contracts to become better collaborators and removes the tension between adults and students around the struggle of compliance.
  • become better communicators and collaborators through intentional processes like Critical Friends Protocol looking at student and teacher work and thinking

Project-Based Learning Helps Students

And what about students? PBL can help students…

  • become lifelong and more self-directed learners as they do intellectually and emotionally engaging work that leaves them asking more questions and wanting to learn more
  • become better at asking questions as they engage in the Inquiry List as a living, breathing document fleshing out and learning the things they Need to Know in order to answer the Driving Question
  • engage in a growth mindset as they refine their work and learn leadership skills
  • become more prepared for life beyond school as they are taking part in adult-like thinking
  • add value to the world and community
  • learn content more deeply as it is necessary for the overall challenge
  • become more confident and better communicators
  • enjoy school!

Project-Based Learning Helps Schools

What about schools? PBL helps schools improve the culture and yes, according to research, test scores.

A quality PBL culture leads to exciting innovation and creativity by using a “Yes, and…” approach where ensembles or teams effectively collaborate to build upon one another’s thinking. This applies to adults and students as we employ divergent and convergent thinking to build and question. While the above lists are in no way comprehensive or exhaustive (what would you add?), they do outline many of the things that making the PBL shift can do to improve your school or district.

What PBL Won’t Do

Project-Based Learning won’t solve all of your problems, however.

Poverty, lack of funding, the effects of high stakes accountability or other obstacles can all both challenge and necessitate diverse approaches to school improvement. But PBL certainly can help you move towards a more positive learning culture given any set of circumstances.

Another challenge? PBL can be detrimental to test scores and teacher morale when engaged in poorly or as a short term fix. As teachers make this often difficult shift to a completely new way of teaching and learning, they sometimes experience an implementation dip–a short dip in achievement while internalizing new ideas, and streamlining new processes. However, without adequate support, the dip may become a downward spiral.

It’s also important to realize that if PBL isn’t given time and attention to take hold, it will result in teacher frustration as they chalk it up to just another initiative come and gone. With that in mind we strongly suggest building in a robust partnership/support plan that includes frequent contact with a PBL coach/specialist. In addition to an initial workshop, regular (at least monthly) check-ins to refine and tune projects, observe and provide feedback, reflect and revise and even some co-planning and co-teaching are all great support possibilities.

As this work unfolds, building internal capacity in leadership, teachers and building/district coaches to carry the PBL mindset forward with other district initiatives is essential. PBL without this type of thoughtful support won’t do much for your school other than perhaps ignite the passions of a few teachers who will end up trying to implement a more progressive approach in a mostly traditional setting, another cause of friction in a school.

Implementing Project-Based Learning is tough but worthwhile and rewarding work. And while it often requires a learning curve for teachers, leaders and students, the payoff can be authentic and sustained school and student success.

TeachThought PBL ModelIf you’d like to learn more about using Project-Based Learning to improve your culture of teaching and learning, contact TeachThought Professional Development.

What PBL Can Do For Your School–And What It Can’t; image attribution flickeringbrad


The TeachThought Podcast Ep. 168 PBL Reflections With 3 Middle School Teachers

The TeachThought Podcast Ep. 168 PBL Reflections With 3 Middle School Teachers

Drew Perkins talks with three teachers from The Berkeley School, Vanessa DeNino, Tanya Madrid-Campbell, and Jeff Sandler, about their experience and reflections from a recent project-based learning unit they implemented with their students.

Links & Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

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Project-Based Learning

5 Examples Of Project-Based Learning Protocols

5 Examples Of Project-Based Learning Protocols

by Michele Mattoon, Director of the National School Reform Faculty

Have you worked with project-based learning protocols?

Schools design Project-Based Learning (PBL) because the process helps engage students in learning and helps them develop necessary real-world skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, and the use of technology. PBL focuses on students working together over a significant amount of time to solve actual problems, answer complex questions, and develop both critical and creative thinking skills.

The structured processes and guidelines of protocols support meaningful, efficient communication, problem-solving, and learning. Protocols give time for active listening and reflection, thereby engaging the brain’s ‘slow’ critical thinking processes (as opposed to the ‘fast’ reactive thinking of the brain). In doing so, they tap into the brain’s capacity for creativity, visualization, and analysis. Protocols ensure that all voices in the group are heard and valued and promote strong communication skills, cross-cultural understandings, and productive collaboration.

Because protocols can be used whenever a group of people needs to work together in an efficient and effective manner, they become go-to tools for project-based learners. Protocols offer structures that guide groups to collaboratively solve real-world problems, ask probing questions, and discover the difference between assumptions and facts.

Those who already know NSRF® protocols and Critical Friends Group® work understand that this is exactly what our organization has been doing for more than 20 years. We develop and then provide educators with an ever-growing library of collaboration and communication tools called ‘protocols.’

Many activities and protocols from NSRF are great to use in PBL classrooms, including:

1. Compass Points Activity allows students to explore their own and their collaborators’ preferences when they are working together. Next, they learn how to leverage these preferences so they may work even more productively as a group.

2. Feedback Nightmares Activity asks participants to share a time when they have received painful and/or useless feedback. Then participants co-create a list of giving and receiving feedback “do’s and don’ts.” This is an important foundational activity before any group is expected to offer useful feedback to their peers.

3. Speed Success Protocol allows participants to analyze their successes so they and their peers might learn from those experiences and incorporate that learning into future projects.

4. The Chalk Talk Protocol, one of our most used protocols in classrooms and meetings, provides structure for a ‘silent conversation’ in order to:
-Brainstorm ideas
-Check on learning
-Develop projects
-Solve problems

5. The original version of the Modified Tuning Protocol used in TeachThought PD Foundations of PBL Workshops was actually created by a teacher so that students in his class could give each other feedback before they presented their final projects. Now the Tuning Protocol is widely used to “fine tune” any piece of student or adult professional work that needs improving.

Text, data, and brainstorming protocols, as well as many materials related to dilemmas, all have uses within PBL environments. Because our work is so focused on collaboration and the resulting student achievement, I might be hard-pressed to think of a protocol that would *not* be suitable in this context.

Looking to deepen your PBL teaching with protocols? Experience for yourself how to engage learners with protocols, especially in the context of PBL. Join us for TeachThought Grow 19 where the July 16th pre-conference day will focus on Rich Inquiry through protocols, followed by the 3-day Foundations of PBL workshop July 17-19.

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

Together, PBL practices and NSRF tools can help students become continuous life-long learners who successfully navigate through their future lives.

5 Examples Of Project-Based Learning Protocols

Project-Based Learning

How To ‘Pull’ Deeper Learning Through PBL


How To “Pull” Deeper Learning Through PBL

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

One criticism of constructivist, some might say progressive, education (and in particular PBL) is that it lacks ‘real content’ learning by students.

This might be true of poor constructivist teachers in the same way that it’s likely true of poor traditional, more didactic teachers. In TeachThought Podcast discussions and other blog pieces, I have argued that quality PBL design and implementation is quite effective in helping students learn content more deeply.

Of course, the key is the quality of the design and implementation. We hope our Straw Project Exemplar (Google Doc: In-Depth Project Planner) shows how the design of a project can effectively pull deeper learning from students in a way that builds the kind of useable and transferable tacit knowledge that surpasses the more superficial focal knowledge that is unfortunately more common in our classrooms.

Our TeachThought PBL Model includes what we call Aligned Thinking and Learning and Levers of Quality that help grow that learning. In the Straw Project, the content is clearly identified, pulled from C3 Framework for Social Studies standards, and categorized into higher order thinking vs. basic understanding and knowledge pieces. What do we want them to know about and understand and what do we want them to be able to do, in this case using that knowledge and understanding?

Every quality PBL planning process starts with the thinking and learning, in this case social studies content, that the teacher wants the students to learn.

Next, the Straw Project designer identified what that content learning might look like in the form of “Need to Know and Learn” questions. This is helpful because we’re after the dynamic of teaching that pulls learning from the learners instead of pushes it at them from the teacher.

As the project kicks off, and throughout the duration, the facilitator works to pull these questions from his or her students as necessary to think and learn about in order to answer the Driving Question (How might we help our state representative and community make better decisions about plastic straw bans?).

In the section below from the In-Depth Project Planner, you’ll also note these questions are broken into sections of the project with corresponding Milestones and notes on how these content pieces and questions might be taught.

As the project continues to the demonstration of understanding you would see evidence of the other PBL Model Levers of Quality like Meaningful Assessment and places for student Autonomy. To be clear, not all PBL need be this complex in content, process, or product but it’s the action of intentional design for deeper learning that should be the constant.

If your PBL isn’t helping students better know and understand content and usable knowledge it’s either because of a lack of design or poor facilitation (or both), not because constructivist teaching as an approach is lacking.

Project-Based Learning

Want To Deepen Your Teaching? Attend TeachThought Grow 19, July 16-19

Are you ready to deepen your teaching?

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

Are you excited to use Project-Based Learning to empower students? Join us at TeachThought PBL Grow 19 and develop your understanding, connect with teachers, and enjoy what Louisville, Kentucky has to offer in your downtime!

Choose the July 16th optional pre-conference day “Addressing Elephants” and you’ll engage in high level use of protocols with National School Reform Faculty Director Michele Mattoon. You’ll learn how to safely engage in difficult conversations about topics that profoundly affect our students.

Always entertaining master facilitator Eric White, featured in Edutopia’s Schools That Work series, will show you how to approach PBL through a design thinking lens in ways that will help you foster creativity and problem solving in your classroom or school. You’ll benefit from his work as co-author of “Design Thinking and the Shift From Refrigerator Projects” for UnBoxed: A Journal of Adult Learning in Schools.

Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD, will stretch your thinking with multiple takes on inquiry and questioning. He’ll help you grow student thinking and learning with the 5 Levers of Quality outlined in the TeachThought PBL Model.

What about Keynotes?

E Wen Wong will captivate you with how  project-based learning helped her to become a passionate environmental advocator, innovator, and founder of plastic pollution organization, P.S. Our Beaches. Watch her TEDx Talk: How Project Based Learning is the key to sustainability.

Grow 18 alumni Kennita Ballard will share her experiences as a teacher using PBL to help her students become great despite significant challenges. She’ll also detail some of her work as a mentor for School Startup, an educator accelerator modeled after startup philosophy, but for teachers who have innovative ideas for deeper learning and classroom practice.

TeachThought Podcast Guest and Morehead State University associate professor of education, Dr. Tim Simpson will help us think about and better understand what we mean by deeper thinking and learning and the role of knowledge in constructivist education.

Register now to be inspired, encouraged and challenged to transform your teaching!

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

Project-Based Learning

How Grow 19 Can Change Your Classroom or School Next Year

How Grow 19 Can Change Your Classroom or School Next Year

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

TeachThought Grow 19 Event Page

Many years ago I taught in a middle school across the hall from a math teacher named Jim who perennially joked as the students walked out his door on the last day of classes, “next year will be better.”

Jim has been a very good teacher for many years and we always enjoyed that laugh but as every experienced educator knows, with that sigh of relief the end of a school year also brings the genuine reflections on what went well and what didn’t.

While summer is definitely a time to recharge and relax (everybody knows teachers get summers off, right?), it is also an opportunity to engage in growth without the pressures of the students and schedules that leave us feeling like someone has stolen several hours from our days.

related: 8 Reasons To Attend TeachThought PBL Grow 19

But a summer conference? Seriously? You say, “I’ve been to too many conferences that were either terribly boring, filled with a bunch of sessions/content I can find on the internet, or just felt like I was in the midst of a swarm of networking busybodies. Besides, that sounds dangerously like work and I need a break!”

We agree and that’s why we’re aiming for something different. An experience that brings the best of out of smart and passionate educators in a relaxed and fun setting while truly helping you grow your craft to make your next year(s) better. An event that agrees with our Mission:

How can we help educators better prepare learners for the modern world?

We know that Project-Based Learning can transform classrooms and schools but we also feel strongly about the need for continued growth so we’ve added an additional pre-conference day through a partnership with The National School Reform Faculty as a new feature to TeachThought Grow 19.

The first (pre-conference) day of Grow 19 (July 16th) will focus on diving into Rich Inquiry through Protocols with “Addressing Elephants”. This can be an addition to the main three days or as a stand-alone learning opportunity where you’ll learn structures to help students engage in difficult, but important conversations. This pre-conference day will be co-facilitated by Director of The NSRF, Michelle Mattoon, and TeachThought PD Director, Drew Perkins.

The main three days (July 17-19) of Grow 19 will again be focused on our popular Foundations of PBL Workshop that has helped teachers and leaders around the world shift their teaching and learning. These three days will be co-facilitated by Drew Perkins and Eric White who will bring his experience as a PBL teacher and founder of multiple academies that focused on design thinking, blended learning, and project-based learning. Our facilitators are masters of actually facilitating so you can be sure you’re not in for some canned presentation.

Registration options and pricing:

  • July 16 Pre-Conference – $200
  • July 17-18 “Foundations of PBL” – $450
  • July 16-19 Full Grow 19 Conference  – $650

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

You will walk away from this conference with an understanding of:

  • how to design and plan a project
  • how to scaffold and assess thinking and learning
  • how to implement and manage a project

You’ll feel empowered to help your students build skills for the modern world through authentic deeper learning.

We’ve actually struggled even calling this event a conference. Grow 19 is more than a workshop but the word conference elicits some pretty blah reactions here at TeachThought. We want this to be the start of something big for you, and quite frankly continued growth for us.

We want this to be the ground floor of future innovative events around the world that combine professional learning with pieces around it that help you to think about and experience teaching and learning in innovative and creative ways.

We also want you to engage with your peers and this place in ways that will allow for the networking of typical conferences but in settings that reflect the culture of our hometown, not a list of education vendors.

This is not meant to be a large event, it’s limited to 70 seats.

In fact it may be smaller, that part depends upon you and we realize that the TeachThought ethos is not for everyone.

Regardless of size you can be assured that Grow 19 will help develop you as a teacher or leader in ways that will change your classroom and/or school for the better. Not only help you recharge but get in on the ground floor of what we hope is the start of something big.

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

Project-Based Learning

8 Reasons To Attend TeachThought PBL Grow 19

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

Eventbrite - TeachThought Grow 19

We started this event two years ago to meet the increasing demand from individuals and groups around the world for an innovative, engaging, and powerful convergence of professional learning. We’re thrilled to build upon previous years with some new wrinkles and additions including a pre-conference day partnership with our friends from The National School Reform Faculty to extend your professional learning and growth!

We tend to think about education differently and our work with you during these three plus days will reflect that. Starting from the morning of day one attendees will be treated to a keynote from a student from New Zealand who will showcase what PBL has done for her trajectory.

Related: See what #Grow17 & Grow 18 looked like!

Set in a remarkable space with unique keynotes your innovative and creative juices will be flowing as we take a deep dive into Project-Based Learning!

Here are just a few reasons why you should join us!

1. Push your thinking and refine your PBL teaching craft as we provide engaging opportunities for deeper learning while you build a project to implement in your classroom.

2. Learn how to shift to pulling, rather than pushing, learning authentically through project-based learning.

3. Take a deeper dive into Rich Inquiry through protocols (new this year!) with our optional pre-conference day, July 16th co-facilitated by Director of the amazing NSRF, Michelle Mattoon. *you may register for this as part of the entire Grow 19 conference as a stand-alone single day

4. Discover how a Grow 18 alumni teacher’s teaching journey with PBL helped her refine her teaching craft and develop entrepreneurial leadership skills.

5. Meet and connect with interesting and like-minded professionals from around the world.

6. Experience some of the best Louisville, KY has to offer including Churchill Downs, the Muhammad Ali CenterBourbon, and Louisville Slugger.

7. Be one of the first to grow your professional learning at a different kind of “conference” and help change the face of professional development.

8. Wendell Berry’s (an inspiration for much of TeachThought’s work) farm and the Berry Center are only ~30 minutes outside of Louisville. The bookstore is small and the farm isn’t open to visitors, but you can wave vigorously as you drive by.

And much, much more! 

Details and registration at:

Project-Based Learning

4 Things All Project-Based Learning Teachers Should Do

4 Things All Project-Based Learning Teachers Should Do

contributed by Lauren Ayer, M.Ed.

Gone are the days when students were expected to sit passively at desks while teachers lectured endlessly, expecting children to soak up the information being thrown at them.

In today’s educational environment, students are expected to collaborate, think critically, and work together to develop innovative projects and answers to complex questions. To support this mission, many schools have begun to take part in a practice known as Project-Based Learning (PBL).

PBL allows teachers to expose students to a wide variety of 21st Century skills, and allows students to interact with curriculum in a way that is engaging, authentic, and fun!

Making a shift from traditional forms of learning to PBL can be challenging. PBL can require a lot of prep work on the part of the teacher. But the gains in student engagement and achievement are immeasurable. Here are four steps to help you create a Project Based-Learning classroom.

See also Reading Comprehension Strategy Resources

4 Things All Project-Based Learning Teachers Must Do

1. Begin At The End

This is where the teacher-prep comes in. When planning a project, begin with the end in mind.

  • What content do you want students to understand by the end of the project?
  • What 21st century skills will they be expected to gain?
  • How will new information be presented to learners?
  • What will be the end product of your project to showcase what students have learned?

Planning project based learning takes time. Coming up with new ways to present information and showcase student learning can be a challenge. Luckily, there are a lot of resources available to get elementary, middle, and high school teachers thinking about what their students can accomplish.

2. Help Students Develop Questions

So you’re ready to start your project. Keep in mind, with project-based learning, students are driving a lot of their own learning. Teachers are there to facilitate learning and guide students toward answers to their questions—not to answer the question themselves.

Begin, then, by generating questions.

  • Find out what students think they know about a topic. Brainstorm and record all of these ideas (Even if what students think they know is inaccurate. Resist the urge to correct. Let students discover their mistakes for themselves through the project process).
  • What do students want to know? Record all of their questions on a chart or other visual.
  • Finally–and most crucially–help students use your questions as models to develop their own questions.

Once students have questions they want answered, start with the largest content ideas first.

  • Go on field trips. Think beyond traditional museums and exhibits. If your class is studying the skeletal system, visit a nearby hospital or orthopedic office. If you’re studying economics, visit a local business.
  • Invite guest experts to come share what they know. Call on students’ parents, friends, or local community members to share their knowledge.
  • Provide engaging opportunities for students to engage with the topic. This may come in the form of a webquest, reading, online games, interactive activities, or experiments.

At this stage, you want all students to be exposed to the bulk of the content. They are searching for answers to their own questions and discovering what this project is all about.

3. Help Students Understand To Think Like An Expert

This is where student choice comes into play. Students get to hone in on one aspect of the project topic in which they are most interested. They find out everything they can about that topic in order to share it with others. For example, if your class is studying landforms, a student may choose one landform to learn more about. He/she may choose to focus on the Nile River—what is its significance? What impact does it have on the community around it? What recreational and economic opportunities exist as a result of its existence? How did it form, or how long has it been a major resource for Egypt?

The questions can get as specific as you allow. This is when students discover that not all of their questions will have answers. They will have to explore a variety of resources and synthesize information. 21st century skills of critical thinking and problem solving, flexibility and adaptability, and productivity and accountability will be on full display during this stage.

4. Help Students Present, Publish, and Perform

This is the end that you, as a teacher, started with when you were planning.

During this final stage, students will be required to organize all of the information they have gathered in order to share it with others. This holds students accountable for all of the learning they have done to this point. They will have the opportunity to use the 21st century skills of creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration. Students may be creating a life-size model, making a brochure persuading people to visit a particular landform, creating their own business, reenacting an experience they were part of during the field experience, or any multitude of presentations. They will study and critique each other’s work to ensure that they are presenting their best product.

Invite others to come see what students have learned. Invite students in other grades who are studying similar topics. Invite parents, administrators, community members, and the guest experts that helped you in the beginning. Or go out into the community to present your project to those who would be interested in the results of your projects! Students will practice communication and presentation skills. You will be amazed by how well students perform when they are engaged in a topic and held accountable for their learning.


With lecture-style learning becoming obsolete, Project-Based Learning is a fun way for teachers to facilitate learning and engage students. It can be implemented at any level of learning, and builds on both content standards and 21st century skills. It allows for topics to be integrated across content areas, and promotes collaboration among students and teachers. PBL encourages students and teachers to be creative, and innovative, and think about long term retention and application of knowledge. As a teacher, you will be responsible for a lot of planning and preparing, but it will be totally worth it for you and your students!

4 Things All Project-Based Learning Teachers Must Do

Project-Based Learning

6 Tips For PBL Planning Across Content Areas

6 Tips For Powerfully Integrated Projects 
by Mike Kaechele, TeachThought PD PBL Facilitator

One of the weaknesses of our modern education system is that content has become so siloed that students rarely see the connections between subjects or connections with their world. Integrated projects can break down these walls when students investigate authentic problems that cross subject lines.  

I have team-taught social studies with English and math with science. I have also designed numerous projects that integrated multiple content areas. Integrated projects can be challenging to plan and manage, even for experienced PBL teachers. Here are 6 tips that I have learned to make integrated projects powerful learning experiences for all students.

6 Tips For Powerfully Integrated Projects 

1. Get everyone on board

I tend to get really excited when brainstorming integrated projects. A few years ago, some colleagues and I came up with a Shark Tank-style project solving issues that are remnants of the modern Industrialization. We were mostly humanity teachers but thought that it would make a great school-wide project.

In our eagerness sharing with the rest of the staff, we overwhelmed them and teachers felt forced into something that they weren’t comfortable with. People deserve the opportunity to process what they are being asked to be a part of.

What I learned is that it is as important to get group buy-in, as it is to plan something great. For future ideas, I created a Google Doc pitch of the concept. Then I shared it with commenting rights to everyone involved a week before we were scheduled to discuss it. This gave everyone an opportunity for their voice to be heard both in support and with concerns. It also gave time for people to process the proposal without feeling overwhelmed by my zeal.

The result was a huge success as people who were hesitant before, now were committed to join.

2. Attack big problems

The possible topics for an integrated project may seem endless, but you should choose a major problem with multiple entry points. If the project is too narrow it will be difficult for various content areas to engage and the purpose for students may be missing.

Choose an issue that has potential for open-ended solutions. Homelessness, protecting the environment, recycling, and poverty are good examples of large issues. Give students the opportunity to dream big in how they can fix it. This project should be something epic that they will remember with pride 10 years down the road.

3. Focus on your community

The challenge that students explore may be worldwide such as clean water, modern-day slavery, or climate change. But have students focus on local aspects of the global issue. This makes the project personal and allows for connections with the local community. It also increases the opportunity for students to actually do something about it.

Solving worldwide hunger is probably beyond what an individual school can accomplish. But learning about worldwide hunger and helping to alleviate it in their neighborhood is feasible. It is more powerful for students to perform real service in their local community than to dream up a grand scheme for the world that never gets implemented.

4. Find common standards

What comes first the big project idea or the standards? Either way can work. Have all teachers share their scope and sequence of topics and standards. Some standards are too narrow and discipline-specific for integrated projects. Look for ones that are open-ended and focus on an application of skills.

English language arts and math involve skills that can often be applied to any problem, so look for parallel content in social studies and science such as human interaction with the environment, effects of modernity, or designing a prototype. (Here are some ideas to help students design their own projects.)

5. Think Ahead

The biggest challenge of integrated projects are the logistics. How will the project be launched? How will student groups be formed between different classes? Will “normal” classes take place or will a specialized schedule be used? Will students work on the project every day, in every class? How will it be assessed? What will presentation day look like?

Teachers need to discuss and plan every detail weeks or even months ahead of time. It is vital to have clear and open conversations to make sure everyone stays on the same page with the same expectations. This will take a concerted effort by everyone to make it work.

6. Connect with local organizations

To be a truly powerful experience, students need to connect with the community. Integrated projects are a great opportunity for service learning. Use community members and organizations to launch your project, as subject experts during the work, and as the public audience upon conclusion. (See also Place-Based Education.)

I have had students get internships and jobs because of the high quality of work that they have presented to the community. When students do authentic work for the public, it is something that can spur them into exciting careers and memories that they can look back on for the rest of their lives.

Integrated projects definitely require extra preparation and commitment, but the payoff is worth it as the authenticity increases exponentially. Design an experience that your students will remember for a lifetime!

Podcast Project-Based Learning

The TeachThought Podcast Ep. 145 Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom

The TeachThought Podcast Episode 145 Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom

Drew Perkins talks with Telannia Norfar and Chris Fancher about their upcoming book “Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom”.

Links & Resources Mentioned In This Episode:

Listen and subscribe on:

Also available on Google Music for subscribers!

Thank You For Listening!

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Project-Based Learning

This Student Says Project-Based Learning Is The Key To Sustainability

This Student Says Project-Based Learning Is The Key To Sustainability

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

It should be no secret that we’re big fans of project-based learning. Helping schools and teachers grow their practice through PBL is the bulk of the work that we do. We see it as a framework that wonderfully allows for the craftsmanship of teaching practice that our other areas of focus encompass.

While the growth of teachers is always remarkable to see the student voice and empowerment are the true fruits of the labor. That’s why when we received a message from this enterprising young lady in New Zealand of her recent TEDx Talk we were flattered and impressed and all too eager to share!

Not only does E Wen Wong give an impressive talk about the power of PBL but we love her work as the founder of plastic pollution organization P.S. Our Beaches. While her work is not connected to the Straw Project Exemplar linked on our PBL Workshop Tools and Resources page it certainly shows the wide-ranging concern for the impact of plastics on our oceans.

I encourage you to take a few minutes of your time to hear from this impactful young lady and consider how you might shift your school and teaching in ways that strive for this type of empowerment. I have invited her to be a guest on the TeachThought Podcast so hopefully we’ll hear more from her in the very near future!

E Wen Wong is a 16 yr old environmental advocate and problem solver.

Connect with her and learn more at:


The Importance Of Knowledge In Progressive Education

The Importance Of Knowledge In Progressive Education

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought Professional Development

I recently recorded a podcast that explored differing approaches to the role and importance of knowledge in teaching and learning.

In the podcast, the claim by Katharine Birbalsingh was that progressive education has foregone the teaching of knowledge to the great detriment of students. While I don’t deny that this may happen in some learning environments, it’s certainly not how I would describe quality progressive (or non-progressive for that matter) education. Instead what we hope to see and help grow in classrooms in which we work is an acquisition and use of necessary knowledge and understanding through a process of rich inquiry.

The idea that students need to acquire and even master knowledge before they should attempt to do things like apply, analyze, or synthesize, or even create strikes me as a not only traditional but limiting approach. While it can yield some benefits, it misses an opportunity to build other vital skills simultaneously and furthers the “playing school” narrative of compliance vs. commitment where we so often lose students interest and engagement.

If we’re viewing traditional vs. progressive teaching on a spectrum you might see the most traditional style on one end where the teacher is presenting the information or knowledge with the expectation that students will take it in, understand it, and be able to show they remember it on a test.

Moving along towards more progressive we might see teachers “front-loading” content (aka knowledge) before asking them to do some critical thinking with it. These are often called “projects” and at least there’s an attempt to engage students in critical thinking but not before they show they’ve come to some level of mastery of the things the teacher wants them to remember and understand.

If we were to follow the spectrum towards the “most progressive” we’d see much more radical approaches like unschooling or free school where a standard curriculum of knowledge can become elusive. Perhaps this is what Katharine Birbalsingh has in mind when she defines progressive education but this certainly isn’t the majority.

At TeachThought PD, our sweet spot for progressive teaching and learning sees teachers using rich inquiry to pull that knowledge and thinking from students by asking them to create from the onset. We believe there is real value and necessity for certain knowledge and want learners to learn it deeply by using it in multiple ways and for multiple reasons.

I’ve discussed this previously in Using Project-Based Learning To Flip Bloom’s Taxonomy For Deeper Learning but this process doesn’t minimize the role of knowledge. Instead, it places knowledge in an active role as learners identify and use what they need to know and learn in multiple ways to answer the Driving Question for a project. The goal here is to deepen the knowledge and understanding, not disregard it, all the while developing the skill of inquiry that we believe is vital for the modern world.

This type of teaching is difficult, but all teaching is difficult. Great progressive education requires teachers who are masterful at the design and architecture of a unit while also craftsmanlike in their employment of inquiry to know just how much and when to scaffold and support learning.

Providing all the knowledge and content as learning targets or “I Can” statements is kind of like watching a movie with the ending revealed on the wall next to the screen. Instead, let’s pull that knowledge and thinking from learners in a way that empowers them to transfer that process to other tasks and projects in their lives…school and non-school.

Sometimes I like to joke when working with schools that we’re not talking about “free range chicken” when we’re helping them grow their constructivist teaching chops. That’s to say that we aren’t in favor of classrooms where kids are just intellectually wandering about with no teacher directing the learning.

In fact, great constructivist learning emphasizes knowledge (and understanding) and we would push back on anything different.

Project-Based Learning

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st Century

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st-Century

by Terry Heick

We recently offered a definition of project-based learning and looked at keys to designing Project-Based Learning.

We also have looked at the difference between ‘doing projects’ and project-based learning, various project-based learning resources, project-based learning apps, and offered ways for using an iPad in Project-Based Learning.

And have shared some practical ideas for better teaching through project-based learning as well.

What might be missing from these posts, however, are simply the characteristics of project-based learning in the 21st-century. What does it look like? What might be evidence that it’s happening consistently? What needs to be built into every project–or the design of the required curriculum–so that students can shift from a mere ‘project’ to a thoroughly modern learning experience that runs parallel with the connected world they live in?

We tend to think of project-based learning as focused on research, planning problem-solving, authenticity, and inquiry. Further, collaboration, resourcefulness, and networking matter too–dozens of characteristics ‘fit’ into project-based learning. Its popularity comes from, among other characteristics, its general flexibility as a curriculum framework. You can do, teach, assess, and connect almost anything within the context of a well-designed project.

But what if we had to settle on a handful (or two) of itemized characteristics for modern, connected, possibly place-based, and often digital project-based learning? Well, then the following might be useful.

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st-Century

1. Connectedness

Or connectivity. Interdependence–however you want to phrase it. The idea is, what does this project connect to? A community? A hope? An app? An existing project already in place? A social challenge? Some kind of conflict? Something downright unsolvable?

Through connectedness, students can then identify a proper to scale to work within. (In fact, ‘Scale’ could well be an item of its own.)

2. Meaning

‘Meaning’ is always first personal, and then academic (if it becomes academic). This kind of meaning requires authentic audiences, purposes, and collaboration occur in real, intimate communities that share history, space, and meaning with learners.

3. Diversity

Diversity of purpose, scale, audience, digital media, potential resources, existing models, related projects, and so on require first an analysis of these kinds of diversities on the part of the project manager–that is, the student.

This can also be a matter of differentiation–less diversity and inherent complexity for students struggling with certain strands of project-based learning as a kind of set of training wheels until they get their balance. And when they do? Add it right back in.

4. Research

This one’s not sexy or compelling–this is a big part of the “work” of any project.

Researching the history of an issue or problem. Understanding the subtleties of given demographic data. Analyzing the credibility of information. Seeing how technology can serve or distract you (or rather, them) from the meat of the issue. This kind of knowledge helps you turn a problem into an opportunity.

5. A Necessity For Creativity & Innovation

Among other themes, the 21st-century is about niches, innovation, and scale–seeing an opportunity, and designing something that works on a given–and clear–scale.

Too often, however, creativity is encouraged without being required. Points are given and a column is added to the rubric and teachers ask for it explicitly but designing a project–or helping students design their own project–that fails without creativity is another thing altogether.

Lateral thinking, outside the box thinking, and taking the best from existing models are all part of 21st-century learning.

6. Pivot Points

Perhaps the most modern of characteristics is the ability to be agile–to pivot as circumstances, data, and needs change. The world changes quickly, and the ability to adapt is an extraordinary sign of strength. Pivoting to a new digital media, audience, programming language, timeframe, purpose, or other parameter is crucial for 21st-century survival.

Designing a kit that helps test water quality for third-world communities, but find instead a way to use Google Maps to help certain communities share water cleaning technology instead? Pivot.

Building an app to help people find restaurants, but find out people use it more to set up lunch dates with friends? Pivot.

Trying to build an art museum, and find an incredible source of collectible books instead? Pivot.

When students can ‘pivot’ within the development of a project, it shows they’re able to see both the micro details and the macro context–which is a pretty remarkable assessment in and of itself.

7. Socialization

The socialization of thinking by connecting, collaborating, publishing, and socially curating (see more on that below). Ideally, this would be done in multiple media forms and in multiple languages if possible. The English and Angle-centric image of education–and of edtech especially–is rapidly coming to a close.

Not all aspects of all projects need to be socialized, but for the sake of transparency and shared journeys in education, choosing something to share, socialize, and perhaps even collaborate on in the future can be powerful.

8. Elegant Curation

Crude curation is saving an email, favoriting a tweet, or pinning randomly to a board no one reads that students will never reference again in the future for anything.

Elegant curation is about saving a ‘thing’ while honoring the thing itself. Showcasing it without losing its meaning or fullness. Somehow capturing both that which is being saved and its context as well–and doing so in a way that makes it accessible to yourself and others as technology continues to change.

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st Century

Project-Based Learning

Are You Pushing Or Pulling Students In Your Classroom?

Are You Pushing Or Pulling Students In Your Classroom?

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

At the risk of characterizing teaching and learning in a factory context let’s face it, classrooms are a kind of marketplace system with an exchange of ideas and thinking incentivized by a variety of factors.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to think about the design and architecture of learning in a push vs. pull kind of way. When I say helpful, I mean this in the way that can help us empower students to think and learn about things more deeply while developing a set of processing skills that are transferable to other contexts and situations.

Deconstructing the push vs. pull graphic shown above, how many classroom teachers feel like a ‘pushy’ salesperson desperate to convince students that what they’re selling is worth buying. Some of those techniques include dangling grades and using points as an incentive in learning, trying to convince students they’ll need this in the future, or admonishing them for not paying attention because this is going to be on the test.

None of these tend to resonate with students and most often feel less than genuine for teachers. Positioning learning in terms of compliance is always going to be an uphill battle where even the best and most passionate teachers will struggle.

Sure there will be some students who will comply but how many won’t? And what do we do about them? Some more authoritarian educators (and non-educators) might take this opportunity to blast current culture and say kids should do what they’re told and sometimes that means doing something they don’t like.

I agree with this sentiment in some ways, I certainly require my own daughters to comply on certain things, but if that’s our go-to it’s not only going to be tough-sledding for all parties involved, it’s also a potential missed opportunity to build capacity in the learner in a way that might actually better prepare them for the modern world.

Rethinking the dynamics of teaching and learning to pull thinking from students can empower students as they learn how to identify what they need to learn and better understand in order to answer a challenge or question. In project-based learning, this dynamic takes place when a teacher initiates a project with a quality Driving Question and facilitates in a way that helps students identify what they need to understand and remember and as their Need to Know and Learn list.

Some of my favorite moments as a leader of professional development and coaching are seeing that “a-ha” light bulb turn on for teachers as they realize the leverage that this process allows for as students learn how to uncover content. No longer does the teacher need to be solely responsible for ‘covering’ content, a practice that often feels like climbing the down escalator.

To be clear, this pull dynamic can surface outside of project-based learning, it’s the inquiry process that we’re focusing on here.

But why is this so important? The simplest answer is that it helps us change the culture and climate of our classrooms and schools away from one where adults and their learners are often inherently in conflict (adult: I want you to learn and do this — student: I don’t want to and you can’t make me). More importantly perhaps, is the building of a habit of mind where we’re helping these future adults to make better decisions, some of which can impact their entire lives.

Consider the 2008 housing crisis. How many people would have been able to avoid the disastrous effects of this market crash had they gone through the process of identifying and learning things they should know and understand before buying a house they couldn’t actually afford?  If it’s a project-based world and buying a house is a project with a Driving Question of sorts like, “How can I/we create a plan to buy a house that meets my needs and budget?

One would need to know and understand things like how a mortgage works, what happens if you can’t pay your mortgage, how and why housing prices fluctuate, how to avoid foreclosure, how banks profit from mortgages, etc. Heck, they might even learn these types of things from students doing authentic work like this (Good Explanation of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis) video that strikes me as likely created by students.

One criticism of constructivist teaching like this is that students need to have content and ‘stuff’ to think about. Or put another way, they ‘can’t think about nothing.’ That’s absolutely correct but the false choice that most proponents argue is that we either ask students to learn and gain knowledge or we ask them to engage in inquiry in kind of ‘free-range chicken’ type of setting. The former is a more traditional approach and yields a low-ceiling of results, the latter is a train-wreck. Instead, let’s ask students to engage in both. Let’s pose interesting and meaningful (to them, not just us) questions and challenges that help us facilitate their thinking and learning to the content pieces and questions that are important to us.

When we engage in teaching and learning using a “pull” dynamic we’re effectively helping students process the types of complex problems and ideas in ways they are likely to need to be able to do. This doesn’t mean content learning or knowledge isn’t important, far from it. But just knowing things won’t be good enough for the future. Being able to analyze, synthesize, evaluate…think critically and ask beautiful questions with and about that knowledge is what we need to focus on.

‘Push’ teaching at students is a low-yield way to build those abilities let alone produce great test results. Prepare your students for the modern world by asking beautiful questions of them that helps pull profound thinking and deeper learning.

Project-Based Learning

50 Smart Ideas For Project-Based Learning

A Better List Of Ideas For Project-Based Learning

by TeachThought Staff

This post has been updated with new ideas and clearer formatting

At TeachThought, we’re huge fans of project-based learning.

While there is no magic bullet of practice, program, or framework that automatically produces progressive and effective learning, what makes project-based learning exceptional is its flexibility. As it is, first and foremost, simply a curriculum planning tool, so much other “good stuff” that can support learning (game-based learning, learning simulations, place-based education, self-directed learning, etc.) can all be “embedded” in project-based learning.

With PBL, there is no “either/or” proposition: anything from open-ended, play-based learning to data-driven, research-based instructional environments can all use PBL effectively.

While there are all kinds of great resources necessary to teach and learn through PBL, from apps to planning templates and more, the genesis of a great project is the idea itself–the purpose and/or audience of the project itself.

Below, we’ve shared dozens of ideas for projects, and we’re going to constantly update the list with new ideas, suggestions from our community, resources, etc. In that way, this page can become the ultimate guide for project-based learning in your classroom. The focus will be on the ideas for the projects themselves, but we’ll also include apps, tools, and other “stuff” you’ll need to effectively realize this approach in your classroom.

Need help with Project-Based Learning in your school? Take a look at our PBL Workshops or Schedule a free consultation with a TeachThought PD PBL expert today!

6 Posts To Get Started With Project-Based Learning

  1. The Difference Between Projects & Project-Based Learning
  2. 5 Types Of Project-Based Learning
  3. 11 Tools For Better Project-Based Learning
  4. 4 Keys To Designing A Project-Based Learning Classroom
  5. 23 Ways To Use The iPad In The 21st Century PBL Classroom
  6. 12 Timeless Project-Based Learning Resources

The Constantly-Updated List Of Ideas For Project-Based Learning

Note: This list will constantly be updated with new ideas, tools, and resources. As such, some fields will be empty, updated, or removed as we build and improve the list over time. Note that the list is intentionally not separated into “content areas,” as many of the projects could be approached from a number of angles (the math of design, the language of planning, and so on).

1. Create an interactive family tree with voice-overs from living family members.

2. Design an app with a specific purpose for a specific audience.

3. Inventory the world’s most compelling ideas in an elegant and browsable interface.

4. Problem-solve ‘screentime’ for yourself and family (identify problem, overcome those challenges, monitor progress, evaluate effect of changes, etc.)

5. Solve the problem of negative and/or ‘fake news.’

6. Using the best thinking of major world civilizations, design the perfect civilization. Identify critical characteristics, resources, and habits, etc.

7. Mash any 3 social media apps and explain the purpose and features of the new app.

8. Help local businesses increase environmental sustainability (e.g., reduce waste).

9. Identify, analyze, and visualize recurring themes in human history; then contextualize those themes in modern society.

10. Make a compelling case for a viewpoint other than your own on any issue.

11. Create ‘visibility’ for something beautiful, useful, or otherwise deserving of attention (e.g., music, parks, people, acts of kindness, effort, movies, nature, etc.)

12. Leverage the wisdom of people living in nursing homes.

13. Artfully express, analyze the causes-effects of, or otherwise evaluate population growth.

14. Debate the relationship between technology and humanity from a historical (Mary Shelley?) or modern (Steve Jobs?) perspective.

15. Reimagine major coastal cities in light of 6 degrees of warming.

16. Measure the sociological impact of social media on local communities (using a self-selected parameter).

17. Design an alert system to publicize the spread of viruses/disease.

18. Plant and manage a garden to feed local homeless/hungry.

19. Solve a personal problem.

20. Analyze the impact of architecture–or lack thereof–on a community.

21. Dissect the ‘anatomy’ of viral web content, memes, or social media arguments.

22. Help a local business that does “good work” market itself to younger audiences. Create a proposal, present to business, refine proposal based on feedback.

23. Artfully illustrate the global history of human/civil rights.

24. Visually demonstrate the galaxy’s behavior from changing a single parameter (e.g., the gravity level of a single planet).

25. Design the next Google (the next method of content and data discovery).

26. Start and run a profitable business that is ‘aware’ of its impact on the world.

27. Plan a Mars colony using current data of the Martian landscape and atmosphere.

28. Create a photo documentary, then turn that into a film documentary, then turn that into a short eBook.

29. Define, Analyze, and Visualize an Abstract Concept (Wisdom, Freedom, Conflict, etc.).

30. Develop a feasible response to potential asteroid–> earth collisions.

31. Analyze the cause and effect of low voter turnout on both democracy, and the health of the local community.

32. Re-imagine the American Constitution–or similar governing documents–as if they were designed today.

33. Perform a cause-effect analysis on consumerism (or any self-selected topic)

34. Create and publish a weekly or monthly podcast on a self-selected topic based on market data.

35. Film a documentary on an under-served social issue few people see.

36. Imagine and articulate a community where neighbor-to-neighbor and neighborhood-to-neighborhood interaction was necessary to survive.

37. Design a better book (physical/printed) that’s affordable and accessible to a wider range of readers.

38. Identify an emerging musical genre, then write/perform a song that fits in that genre.

39. Design a school, including new content areas, grading, collaboration, and community involvement.

40. Create and manage a YouTube channel for a self-determined and authentic purpose.

41. Solve a problem your parents have (scale is important here–choosing what to try to solve that’s worthy of an entire project and your best thinking and design).

42. Analyze, visualize, and socialize the long-term impact of coal on the environment.

43. Revise the United Nations in some way, shape, or form to better respond to international crises.

44. Answer the following: What would (insert historical figure) say about (insert relevant social issue)?

45. Re-conceive YouTube as an aggregation tool and player for traditional literary forms (e.g., poetry, fiction).

46. Redesign your city to reduce the need for extended commutes.

47. Research all modern tools sued to provide clean water access, then design a better tool.

48. Study local land regions and resources to identify a geological-based response to the Zombie Apocalypse.

49: Design a 21st-century library by first analyzing macro-purpose of a library, then reimagining one in a modern context.

50. Design a modern bookstore by integrating both physical and digital media, and categorizing them all by something other than traditional genres.

Image attribution flickr user nickspicture