Being A Trailblazer: Part II

As we press on through the 21st century, it is apparent that students graduating from college are having difficulty landing jobs at an alarming rate. Graduates believe they will stride into a new position with a potential for growth and lucrative salary.  Little do they know that major road blocks are not far away. The road blocks they face does not come from hard skills, but rather soft skills that are lacking, including communication skills, collaborating on a team, and solving problems by identifying needs, and coming up with solutions. We are so focused on the technical skills that we forget those essential skills, such as the 4C’s of 21st century (Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity).

Erin Pianin from CNBC wrote that:

For instance, a survey by the Workforce Solutions Group at St. Louis Community                College found that more than 60 percent of employers said applicants lack                          “communication and interpersonal skills” — an increase of about 10 percentage                points in just two years. Many managers also said that today’s applicants can’t think          critically and creatively, solve problems or write well. (2014)

In my last post on being a trailblazer, I left you with some suspense as far as what will save you time and increase engagement with students. I would like to add that what I am about to share will do those things mentioned, but also will help close the gap in skills college graduates are facing in today’s job market.

The magic pill- project-based learning (PBL). PBL is not exactly new. People from Aristotle to John Dewey have extolled it’s values . There is, however a steady increase in its use as an instructional strategy to boost engagement and develop those skills that future jobs will depend on. Teachers all over the US are seeing the potential gains that PBL is being credited for. EdSource writes about project-based learning on the rise in CA (Ellison & Freedberg 2015):

In addition to Santa Ana, school superintendents in Elk Grove, Garden Grove, Fresno, San Jose and Visalia, as well as the chief academic officer of Aspire Public Schools, a charter network with 35 schools throughout California, all said that their schools have either recently increased the time students spent on project-based learning as a direct result of the Common Core standards or redesigned existing projects to better align with the new standards. The voluntary Common Core standards, which cover math and English Language Arts, emphasize critical thinking and hands-on activities to help students master the subject matter.


We must be careful as we jump on board the PBL express expecting it to solve all of our problems. PBL is effective only if it is implemented right and supports are in place for teachers and administrators. PBL is a revolutionary way of teaching and learning and must be supported every step of the way from district-wide implementation to classroom support and staff collaboration. Without supports in place, PBL will not be effective, cause frustrations at all levels, and include a lack of progress from students.

If you want to know the differences between what PBL is and is not, check out this video. When PBL is supported at all levels, it is a game changer for students and teachers alike. As a school teacher, you might be thinking, “Ok. So PBL is great for kids. How in the world do I start over and design new lessons?” The answer is simple. You do not have to recreate the wheel! Teachers have amazing lessons/projects that their kids have done in the past. While you are acclimating to this new-to-you method, all you need to do in the beginning is take your lesson or project and infuse one element of true project-based learning. “Element of project-based learning?” That’s right! There are 8 project design elements according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). These elements include:

  1. Key knowledge, understanding, and success skills
  2. Challenging problem or question
  3. Sustained inquiry
  4. Authenticity
  5. Student voice and choice
  6. Reflection
  7. Critique and revision
  8. Public product

Let’s take the classic 4th grade project in California that EVERYONE has done. We all know what I am talking about. The 4th grade mission project. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with studying the history of our California missions. However, what if we put a twist on the project and gave students more voice and choice (element number 5)? Could students have more ownership in how they show and display their learning? What if students were given time to collaborate with on another and could critique and revise each other’s work using new technology, such as Flipgrid?  Some example choices could include:

  • Students design brochures of a mission
  • A video tour of a local mission
  • Students design the 22nd mission
  • Writing and performing a persuasive speech about a mission.

Simply giving students a list of possible choices like the examples mentioned will bring you closer to true PBL. This is exactly what I mean when I say that PBL implementation does not have to be scary or overwhelming. Little changes to what you already do can make a big difference in your classroom!  Once you’ve got the hang of it and feel more comfortable with PBL, you can go on to designing a few full-blown PBL units in a year.  The beauty of this is that you can reflect and refine on your units to make them better each year.


Another example: What would math class look like through the lens of PBL? I remember my local district doing something like this just a few summers ago. My district had summer school for students that were identified as needing extra support in the areas of ELA (english language arts)  and math. I had the opportunity to collaboratively plan out curriculum that included the teaching of Math and ELA through the lens of science! In other words, investigations and labs were part of the learning that happened in math. Reading science texts with rich vocabulary was used to teach ELA. I love the idea of blended learning like this. What is great about PBL is that there is no set or specific curriculum you have to follow. The fact is is that you can use your current curriculum and “spice it up” with PBL as your guide on the side.

Another math coach I work with, Jarrett Meyers, once compared the curriculum to a flat bottle of soda. Sure it has all of the ingredients. What is lacking is the fizz. This is where the teacher brings in their creativity and personal spin to make the flat curriculum come to life for students. PBL can be your fizz!

If you haven’t guessed already, I am a huge proponent of PBL and very passionate about sharing it with others.  I have often wondered why we separate classes like we do. In the elementary grades, ELA is only from, for example, 8:30-9:50, math is only in the morning from 10:30 – 11:50, and science and social studies (IF we get to them) is only in the afternoons from 1:30 – 2:25 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In high school, maybe only period one is set aside for math and Period 2 is for ELA.  Stop and ask yourself, is this how the real world works?  If I walk up to a car salesmen and ask about the price of the car, will he tell me, “I can’t answer that right now. I can only answer cause and effect comprehension questions regarding the safety of airbags for the next 45 min. Come back at 12:30 for the price of the car, when I can talk about numbers.”  This seems silly, but in my opinion, so does separating all of our subjects. (Setting soap box aside)

Ok. Back on track.  If you would like to know more about starting PBL in your classroom, school, or district please locate the following resources to help you in your search.

  1. BIE website has a plethora of how to’s and the whys.
  2. Ross Cooper has a blog all about PBL.
    1. He also has a book called HackingPBL
  3. AJ Juliani’s new book- THE PBL PLAYBOOK
  4. I strongly suggest taking the PBL 101 course by BIE found here
  5. You an also reach out to me as I explore and implement PBL at my local school site. (Communicate! Collaborate!)

This week I will be hosting the first meeting of a 6-week professional development session on PBL with a handful of teachers that are interested in knowing more.  My goal is to share what I have learned and implemented in my own classroom and inform them about the benefits of PBL and the need for support in order to make it a success.  I am excited to share with them (and anyone!) what I learned from the PBL 101 workshop (hosted by BIE) I attended this past February. I’ve also learned many amazing strategies/ideas to implement PBL from Andre Daughty, John Larmer, and my professional learning network colleagues on Twitter.   

I look forward to sharing my journey with you.  Please reach out should you have questions or comments.  I’d love to hear from you…and secretly convert you to a PBL enthusiast.  #kiddingnotkidding

Until next time,



Published by scotthollandwilson

I am an educator in California for the past 10 years. Currently I am working on my Masters in Administration. I believe in giving students real life application to assignments. Follow me on twitter @mrwilson218

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