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What the Heck Is Project-Based Learning?


What the Heck Is Project-Based Learning?

You know the hardest thing about teaching with project-based learning? Explaining it to someone. It seems to me that whenever I asked someone the definition of PBL, the description was always so complicated that my eyes would begin to glaze over immediately. So to help you in your own musings, I've devised an elevator speech to help you clearly see what's it all about.

PBL: The Elevator Speech

An elevator speech is a brief, one- or two-sentence response you could give someone in the amount of time it takes to go from the first floor to the second floor in an apartment building. I like this visual, and I use it with my students because getting to the point and encapsulating the gist of something is vital in today's speaking- and writing-heavy world.

So the elevator opens up, a guy walks in and out of the blue asks you, "What the heck is project-based learning anyway?" I don't know why he would ask that, but for the purposes of this fantasy, it seems that any Joe-off-the-street is fascinated by your response.

You respond accordingly: "PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end."

"That's it?" the guy asks.

"Well, no," you reply. "There's more to it than that, but this is your floor, and we're out of time." He gives you a brief nod of thanks and departs, leaving you to think of all the richness that this definition does not, in fact, impart.

After all, if we just look at that definition, it doesn't state certain trends in PBL.

A More Elaborate Response

So now that it's just you (the reader) and me again, let's bump up that definition so that it more accurately captures the power of this learning strategy:

PBL is the ongoing act of learning about different subjects simultaneously. This is achieved by guiding students to identify, through research, a real-world problem (local to global) developing its solution using evidence to support the claim, and presenting the solution through a multimedia approach based in a set of 21st-century tools.

Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, interact with its lessons, collaborate with each other, and assess themselves and each other. They don't just take a test or produce a product at the end to show their learning.

You realize that this definition, while closer to accurate than the previous version, would have caused his eyes to glaze over (as yours may have just now), and you decide that the earlier definition is by far the more efficient version, even as it shortchanges the awesomeness of the strategy.

Because PBL is awesome when it is implemented by teachers who buy into its methods. It is exciting to teach using PBL, and your excitement, in turn, causes excitement in your clients, the students.

PBL Creates a Learning Story

Nevertheless, it took me awhile to tease myself away from the daily drudgery of teaching with disconnected lessons. You know what I mean. I'm talking about the daily lessons that might teach a skill, and perhaps that skill fits within a unit based on a topic or a theme, but each lesson works independently and can function without being embraced in a unit that connects them all in a learning story.

But I grew bored, and I was concerned that my students would, too.

Teaching with PBL is the difference between the atmosphere at Disneyland and the atmosphere at a Six Flags resort. No offense to Six Flags, I love a great roller coaster, but their décor needs some serious work. At Disneyland, you are submerged in the story of each ride from the time you enter the line. The walls, the ceiling, the ground on which you tread as you advance to the actual ride, all support the end result.

Teaching with PBL is much the same way. It couches lessons in a tale -- a tale about a problem that must be solved or an activity that must be developed. The learning happens along the way towards the presentation of the solution.

After all, using PBL isn't about writing a state report. It's about using what you know about the state you study and then creating your own state. It isn't about building a replica of the Washington Monument. It's about researching someone to honor, designing your own monument, and persuasively pitching a committee to build it.

Project-based learning typically is grounded in the following elements:

  • Role-playing
  • Real-world scenarios
  • Blended writing genres
  • Multiple reading genres
  • Authentic assessments
  • Authentic audiences
  • Real-world expertise brought into the classroom
  • Units that assess multiple skills
  • Units that require research and comprehension of multiple subjects
  • Student choice
  • Collaboration
  • Multiple methods of communication (writing, oral speaking, visual presentations, publishing, etc.)

(Brief note here: Don't panic. You don't need every single one of these elements to call your unit PBL. These are elements to strive for, not to kill yourself to achieve.)

Allow me to personify for a moment: PBL cares about our mission to educate all. PBL never forgets that one of our main jobs is to prepare students for the predicted future. PBL knows that students are not standardized, they don't learn in a standardized way, and that our clientele can't be assessed in a standardized manner if we are looking to foster innovation. PBL keeps its eye on the ball no matter the trendy standard or curriculum package du jour.

PBL doesn't ask you to replace your content. It asks that you create a vehicle in which to communicate your content. If PBL is a play, then the math or science or history or writing -- or whatever you teach -- make up the scenes that propel each act toward the final curtain call.

The learning story that you and your students create together makes up the overall PBL unit. Be prepared, however. You'll plan and frontload tons, but once you jump in, you'll discover that when you hand over the writing of the learning story to your kids, they will take it far and above any book you've ever read.

The above post is an excerpt from Heather's newest book, DIY Project-Based Learning for ELA and History.




2015-2016 New School Year!

Dear Hebrew Academy Families, 

Welcome to the 2015 – 2016 School Year! Our first week has been full of wonderment and learning already. It warms my heart to see all the students’ joy in learning and in seeing their friends. I thought we might want to just celebrate some of the successes from last year and share some things to look forward to this year.

Dedication to Educating Every Student
  • Introduction of the Center of Excellence – Founded by Dr. Hilary Buff during the 2014 – 2015 school year. Established a place and system to offer students extra services (right on campus) they need to reach their full potential – Acceleration, Tutoring, Counseling, Academic Assessment, Parent Education, Occupational/Speech Therapy and more! This year, the elementary division will be adding a pull out program to make sure to challenge our students who want some more and to support students who need help in reading or math. In the middle and high school division, we will be adding a learning center option for tutoring on site. 
Encouraging Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual and Ethical Growth
  • In 2014 – 2015 – We offered optional challenges during Town Hall meetings that stretched students’ courage, minds, empathy and pride. Town Hall meetings occur twice a month. During the meetings, the entire student body comes together to discuss successes, challenges and opportunities. Dr. Carlson offered various monthly challenges this year. What was extraordinary about these contests was that they were not “required,” nor were they “taught.” Students could memorize poems and recite them, come up with “punny” jokes and deliver them, create philanthropic opportunities and implement them or describe people and things for which they are grateful. Over 50% of the student body (ages 5 to 18 years old) took advantage of one or more of these tests of their own fruition. They stepped up and had the courage to explore, create, study and present their findings in front of the entire school… with no pushing from parents, teachers or others. These are my heroes! This year, we have added a component whereby each of the elementary grades will be presenting their learning at a Town Hall meeting. The schedule will be posted soon – you won’t want to miss these Town Hall Meetings. 
Instilling a Sense of Self-worth and Commitment to Learning Judaism
  • Just imagine a place where children have an opportunity to play and work in an environment where it’s cool for boys to wear yarmulkes and girls to dress modestly. What if parents didn’t have to fight the uphill battle of helping their children stay young and avoid inappropriate media. How do children feel when instead of being a minority socially, emotionally and religiously, they are among others like them? At The Hebrew Academy last year, we offered a variety of classes and opportunities for our students and families to gain a deeper understanding and commitment to their Jewish heritage and community. Students learned logical thinking, Hebrew reading and Jewish traditions through well-developed and honed Judaic curriculum that is seamlessly woven into their stellar General Studies education. Additionally, families had an opportunity to enjoy a glamourous camping Shabbat weekend that was like no other. Of course, this will continue on through the years. 
Providing a Challenging and Dynamic General Studies Program
  • Our teachers are second-to-none among educators in Orange County and beyond. All teachers are credentialed in their subject areas, and 83% of our teachers and administrators hold Masters’ degrees or higher. Quite a few of our teachers earned recognition from national or local educational organizations. To name a few: Dr. Carlson was named as a member of the American Business Women’s Association, Ms. Schneider was invited by Edutopia (Gates’ Foundation) to offer a perpetual Blog, Ms. Lydon was nominated to present at the National History Society’s Annual Conference being held at UCLA, Morah Rabin was honored for her ability to get such beautiful writing from her students, and all General and Judaic teachers were honored by the Buck Institute for their ability to expertly integrate Project-based Learning into the curriculum to seamlessly. This year, we are challenging ourselves to participate in a variety of academic contests and tournaments, such as chess, math, robotics and science. We know we are ready to jump in and take the academic world by storm. 
Developing Competent, Enthusiastic and Resourceful Scholars
  • Our 12th grade graduates were outstanding representatives of The Hebrew Academy education and community. 
    • 40% of them are WOWs (students who have attended The Hebrew Academy for 13 years or more)
    • 10% of them earned a composite score of 36 on the ACT (perfect score)
    • 100% of the graduates are moving on to highly selective post K-12 educational institutions
      • 60% of them applied to and were accepted to University of California, California State or 
    • 100% of these young ladies are competent, enthusiastic, resourceful scholars whom we are proud to call our alumnae first-tier, four year private universities (including Ivy Leagues)
Preparing students to thrive in an increasingly complex and technologically demanding world
  • Through instructional practices that integrate hands-on opportunities to work as teams, use technology ubiquitously, communicate in written, artistic and oral forms and be curious about the world, The Hebrew Academy offers an educational environment that prepares our students to make a positive difference in their world. Last year, particularly, we introduced Project-based Learning, technical coding, creative writing, physics at the middle school level and algebraic problem-solving in kindergarten and beyond. This year, we will be continuing on with PBL, and we will be taking video conference tours and classes all over the world, learning coding and 3-D printing, and taking on internships (high school). 

All I can say is that we can’t wait to enjoy this year; it is one that will be full of care, commitment, consistency and communication. Please invite your friends and family to participate in our holiday events and make sure that you stay involved. The Parent Association has put together a “Whatsapp” for parents. Contact Lauren Amler at (include your cell phone number) if you would like to join the group. 


Dr. Carlson


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