Project Based Learning and the Next Generation Science Standards


This post originally appeared on NSTA, a blog that supports science educators in implementing science best practices in a variety of ares. View Original >


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The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for a conceptual shift in teaching and learning. Yes, content is changing in the upcoming NGSS. In addition to traditional subject matter, science and engineering are now integrated into the standards, where students will learn about the principles of engineering and engage in the engineering design processes. In addition, many concepts are cutting across content. For example, the concept “systems and system models” is used in the exploration of nuclear energies as well as ecosystems. Also, scientific and engineering practices are aligned multiple times with the disciplinary content. The NGSS calls for a deeper understanding and application of content. The focus is on core ideas and practices of science, not just the facts associated with them.

While many teachers are already teaching for application of knowledge as well as engineering and core concepts, these key features will cause a deliberate shift in instruction requiring all teachers to reflect on their practice. Project Based Learning (PBL) is a learning model that not only aligns to these key features, but also strongly supports NGSS-based teaching and learning.

First of all, let’s clarify the difference between projects and PBL. Instead of a curricular add-on at the end, the project is the context for the learning. Students are given an authentic task and a student-friendly driving question to investigate over the course of the project. Within this project, the teacher scaffolds the learning for students and arms students with skills through traditional labs, lectures, and other instructional activities. Instead of teaching all content and skills before the project, the teacher teaches through the project, which is engaging and relevant to students. Using a “need to know” list generated by students, and revisited through the project, the teacher gives lessons and instructional activities to meet the needs of students. Students learn 21st century skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. The project has an audience outside the four walls of the classroom, and students create a variety of products for this authentic audience. These are just some of the essential elements of a PBL project.

Just as the draft NGSS calls for deeper understanding and application of knowledge, PBL demands the same. When teachers design PBL projects, they pick power standards to focus on, standards that usually take significant time to teach and focus on depth, not breadth. The NGSS are being designed to be those type of standards and thus easily used when designing a PBL project. In fact, a teacher designing a PBL project might target one of the crosscutting concepts, as that concept permeates the entire year of content. PBL calls for in-depth inquiry into the content. Students investigate a rigorous driving question, and do so by unpacking it into many subject questions. In addition, they must apply this knowledge as they construct products that answer the driving questions and complete the project. The product reflects a deep understanding of content, as students have reflected and revised throughout the learning process. It’s not just one encounter with the content per se, but multiple encounters.

As we notice the new engineering focus of NGSS, we might consider design challenges, a key component of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. However, design challenges are not necessarily PBL by default. One can take a design challenge, add some PBL essential elements to it, and make it into a PBL project. A common design challenge is to build an effective bridge, either physically with toothpicks, or digitally using a tool like SketchUp. However, there are some components that need to be added to it to make it truly a PBL project. Right now, the bridge is a great activity. In fact, it can be a great activity within the PBL to scaffold material. To make it PBL, students could make recommendations for retrofitting a local bridge and present this information to city officials and engineers. Yes, the product might be a bridge design, and yes, students may engage in a toothpick contest along the way. The difference is the work goes outside the four walls of the classroom, and actually is an authentic situation, where students are engaged in real-world work. As the design process and other components of engineering are leveraged in the NGSS, PBL projects can be designed to teach and assess these standards.

The NGSS will need to be met with pedagogical models that can leverage the required depth of understanding, and PBL can meet that challenge. PBL provides the strength of inquiry, rigor, and relevance that can capitalize on the key components of the NGSS.

21st Century Skills and the Common Core


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


21st century skills are quickly becoming taught and assessed in schools across the nation. Whether through explicit instruction or models like project-based learning, educators are quickly realizing that lower level content comprehension is not enough. The Whole Child Initiative calls for tenets that rely on these skills. We create a safe environment through collaboration. Critical thinking creates rigor and challenge. Communication can create engagement with the community. 21st century skills, when paired with content can create powerful and meaningful learning. The Common Core State Standards explicitly call for these skills, so through uncovering the 3 C’s in the Common Core, we can see how educators must teach and assess them.


In every grade level of the English language arts common standards, you will find the common standard that calls for “collaborative discussions.” I do mean every! This means that at each grade level, we must not only be teaching and assessing the skill of collaboration, but we must think about how it looks different from grade level to grade level. We know that group work and collaborative work can be effective, but now collaboration is more than just an instructional tool. It is a skill that needs to be taught and assessed.

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Roland Case has done some great work on unpacking the concept of critical thinking into quality indicators. One of these quality indicators is perseverance, being able to complete a challenge and work through the obstacles. In the mathematics common standards, there are specific mathematical practices that are mentioned. One of these is “make sense of a problem and persevere in solving them.” This is an explicit call in the Common Core to teach and assess one facet of critical thinking. In addition, as you unpack the Common Core, you will still thinking skills and related language for critical thinking. From being able to “evaluate,” “reflect” or “analyze,” the focus is on higher-order thinking skills that require that critical thinking be taught to all students and assessed.


Across each grade level in the English language arts common standards, communication—both written and oral—is evident. The Common Core calls for students to communicate effectively, and through a variety of mediums. Digital tools are mentioned, as well as oral and written skills. English teachers have always been responsible for this skill, but now all subjects are being called to teach and assess communication skills.

Unpacking the Common Core State Standards allows us to see the need to teach and assess 21st century skills to our students. When we look at the Whole Child Tenets, we can see alignment between them and 21st Century Skills. Perhaps the Common core will leverage the need to teach to the whole child.

Let’s Truly Assess 21st Century Skills!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


21st century skills. Buzz word or reality? As I visit schools, I know many of them are teaching these skills. From critical thinking and problem solving, to technology literacy and collaboration, teachers are targeting these skills in the instructional process, and leveraging them in the curriculum. Many teachers are being called to teach these skills, and don’t know how to. I’ve done many workshops with teachers to arm them with these skills. However, there is one issue that seems to be a roadblock for true implementation: assessment.

I do know teachers are using rubrics and products to assess these skills. Some schools like High Tech High in San Diego have them in the grade book, but this is a rarity. This is a pocket of excellence. It shouldn’t be. When I was teaching at a project-based learning STEM school, we too wanted to teach and assess the skills of collaboration, critical thinking and communication. Now communication is naturally built into English language arts curriculum and the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts across all subjects. We had no problem assessing this, and leveraging it in the grade book. But what about a skill like collaboration? The Common Core does have a standard where students “participate in collaborative discussions,” and this is across all grade levels. However, collaboration is more than just discussions; it’s about creating together, coming to consensus and other quality indicators. Similarly with the 21st century skill of critical thinking, we can unpack our standards to find connections, but it feels like we are trying too hard. This is my struggle as an educator, and a struggle for many of the teachers I work with. We want to teach and assess 21st century skills, but we feel somewhat limited in our ability to do just that. We ran up against resistance with the district on truly assessing them in the grade book. We understood that if we truly valued 21st century skills, our assessment systems needed to model that. However, the system did not share that value the same way we did.

This is the biggest issue for teaching and assessing 21st century skills in our schools. We need our assessment systems to value them, and that means having them in the grade book. In my conversations with educators this is the biggest roadblock. For those educators that have the power to assess 21st century skills in the grade book, they create a culture where content is not king. Instead critical thinking is leveraged across the entire curriculum. Students have more buy in to collaborate, and they have quality indicators and targets to aim for in technology literacy. Through this true assessment of 21st century skills, we can re-frame what we value for our students, and really make them college and career-ready.

Reframing and Refining the Worksheet


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Worksheets matter! I know we hear a lot of talking points that tell us to get rid of them, but I think it’s much more complicated than that. That call for “no more worksheets” comes from a place where that is all there is. By that I mean classrooms where students do nothing but worksheets. Often these worksheets are de-contextualized from relevant work, and this is where there’s an opportunity to reframe and refine the traditional worksheet. There is a time and place for drill and practice or individual practice — even in a PBL project. The key is to make it appropriate and relevant.

A recent visit to a PBL school jumpstarted my brain on this issue. I had the pleasure of visiting the ACE Leadership Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Here students work collaboratively on PBL projects that focus on Architecture, Construction and Engineering. The projects are relevant, and students are partnering with local companies and organizations to make them happen. During the visit, I had the chance to watch students at work.

Worksheets That Model a Career Tool
Students consistently worked on a piece of paper shown below. This paper looked similar to a tool that architects or construction workers use. Now, while this might be used for drafting a building plan (and in fact it was), it was also used for doing practice math problems, for annotating texts and for other instructional practices. When I talked with students, some mentioned they liked working on the same sheet. “It feels more real,” one said. “It helps to remind me why I do the work.”

As we design worksheets, let’s consider making them look like the real-world work that students are doing — or could be doing. Although it might be considered an aesthetic change, it did help bring relevance to work that is often decontextualized. The worksheet itself helps to build the culture of relevance and real-world connection.

Other Tips for Worksheets

Include the Driving Question Where Students Can See It
Like changing the look of the worksheet, this piece may seem too simple to make a real change. However, we know that if the driving question is present during a PBL project, it can be a great engagement tool. Effective PBL teachers have students reflect and unpack the driving question throughout the PBL project. As that question captures the purpose of the work, why not have it present on a worksheet? Presence of purpose can create relevance and engagement.

Rubric and Reflection
Remember that a rubric can actually be just another quality indicator. For worksheets that focus on small, more discreet skills, consider including those corresponding rubrics on the worksheet. This lets students see how to meet and exceed a standard. Even if a rubric is not appropriate to the worksheet, have students reflect and set goals for improving, or simply celebrate their learning. This will help them know exactly what they’ve learned and see the next steps.

Scaffolding the Levels of Questions
Often, the questions we ask students about a piece of content or text are not ordered in a way that can help scaffold their thinking. Start with more identification and comprehension questions, and move through inference, evaluative and predictive questions. Students will be able to handle the “cognitive load” because the questions scaffold the thinking needed to answer the bigger questions. Use Costa’s Levels of Questions to help.

While these are technical and aesthetic changes to the worksheet, it is more critical that teachers continually connect the daily work to the authentic task or project through discussion, metacognition and reflection. These changes to the way we design and use worksheets are just some of the ways that great teachers are using a variety of teaching tools to engage our students.

Three Ways Game-Based Learning can be a Helpful Tool


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.”
Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Game-based learning is fast becoming a trend in education. Teachers across the globe are experimenting with not only using games, but also game mechanics in the classroom. Games engage us. Our students are playing games whether we approve or not. Whether spending hours at home in the evening playing Call of Duty or more casually playing Angry Birds, students are spending time relentless trying to achieve. We can use games in the classroom to not only leverage engagement but also to align games to instructional principles.

Games as Assessment: As students play games they are being assessed on their progress, provided feedback, and allowed to try again without fear of failure. Our education system does not always align to that principle. Often we punish children with “points” as they practice with the content. Games do not do this. Players are given the freedom to fail and given specific feedback through formative assessment on how to improve. In fact, when players win the level or game (the summative assessment), they are rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment as the assessment is meaningful. Games are excellent models for assessment best practices.

Games as Engagement: Games are carefully and intentionally designed environments that create flow—the balance between challenge and progress. Great games are challenging but not too difficult and thus not boring. On the contrary, they have specific mechanics to create this game flow. It’s not necessary about winning—in games like Tetris you are destined to lose—but rather a game gives us multiple victories on rigorous challenges. The rigor engages us, and a game scaffolds that rigor intentionally and in an exemplary manner.

Authentic Learning Experiences: James Paul Gee, game-based learning advocate and guru refers to this as “situated learning.” We know that students must construct and apply knowledge for deeper learning. In great games, students are both learning content and applying in complex problems to solve. Take Portal for example. In this game, the player must create portals between two flat planes. The player not only experiences principles of physics, but must use this knowledge to solve related puzzles. In addition, the player takes on an authentic role. Although based in a fantasy world, the player becomes one with the playable character of the game and invests in the growth and story of that character. When playing in this authentic story and learning environment,the player sees the relevance in learning the content for the purposes of playing.

Games can be another tool for engaging in rigorous and authentic learning. There are many games available to classrooms, from educational games at iCivics, to educational versions of games, like Minecraft. There are even noneducational games that are being paired with instruction to make the game educational, such as Sid Meier’s Civilization or World of Warcraft. Explore what other teachers have done and start engaging students in meaningful play.