Exploring Project-Based Learning Through the Lens of National Board Standards
After I achieved National Board certification in 2017, I found that I had “Standards Glasses” newly, and permanently, welded to my face. Every lesson, project, and unit prompted in me these tough questions:
- (How) does this suit my particular students?
- Is this appropriate at this point in the year?
- Is this worthy of precious class time?
- Will this be suitably challenging for my students?
- How will this contribute to my students’ overall learning?
I guess you could say I’d internalized the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching.
Asking these questions prompted me to do some serious pruning of my teaching. Like a spring cleaner who’s just read Marie Kondo, I was ruthless. Everything came back to my discipline’s “power standards,” or what we language teachers call the 5 Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Out went the famous French person project (fun, but students didn’t need a rehash of sharing biographical facts). And the runway fashion show (too little language production when measured against the time it took students to choose their outfits and present them – frankly, something of a Grecian Urn). And a poster about my favorite sport (which relied on such basic vocabulary that it wasn’t appropriately challenging for students’ level).
As these older projects fell away, I initially thought that I’d just learn to make do with fewer projects than BC (Before Certifying). Yet I was a bit wistful: for project work days, where I could move around the room and offer personalized feedback to students as they worked; and for the gloriously creative finished projects, which often allowed students to shine in new ways. But then I signed up for summer professional development on Project-Based Learning from PBLWorks (formerly the Buck Institute of Education), offered in my district last summer.
So-called Gold Standard PBL can be understood as a road map for practicing National Board’s Five Core Propositions on a regular basis. Proposition 1, Teachers are committed to students and their learning, comes to life when teachers design and plan standards-aligned projects that promote student independence and growth as well as open-ended inquiry. My PBL training included copious peer feedback via various protocols where colleagues reviewed my ideas, asked me questions, and suggested new directions to expand my work. This exemplified Proposition 5, Teachers are members of learning communities. Proposition 2, Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students, emerges as teachers design important driving questions to guide projects, determine learning targets and formative assessments, and select instructional strategies. As the project rolls out, teachers take on Proposition 3, Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning, as they orchestrate activities, scaffold learning, assess learning, engage and coach. And since teachers must always be growing and evolving, Proposition 4 comes in via ongoing reflection: Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
This year I’ve created and taught two different PBL projects in my middle school French classroom. In the fall, students studied the tiny house movement, surveyed French peers about their home preferences and environmental priorities, and then designed custom tiny houses for them. We hosted guest experts including a parent who is an architect and a colleague who had vacationed in a tiny house. Students received feedback on their work not only from me but also from their French peers. Learn more about this unit here or read this post. As I worked to develop the unit, I found myself vetting all possible ideas though my Standards Glasses. This made it easy to be choosy and yielded a stronger final result.
While my PBL projects have taken time (more than I expected, I’ll admit), because they were tightly aligned with my standards, challenging, and personalized to my current students, they merited that time and allowed my learners to spend it well. There is power in knowing the craft of effective teaching well enough that you can apply it to a new skill, such as writing PBL projects: you know where you can improvise while maintaining a solid foundation. Thanks to solid groundwork laid by becoming NBCT, I’m ready to play in the PBL sandbox and beyond.