Melding Goals and Scales with Project-Based Learning

Every lesson is a new task that moves the student toward a larger goal, but the lesson still has a goal in itself

By Scott Sterling

Perhaps in response to college and career readiness standards and their desire to have students working in more real-world ways, teachers across the country have begun adopting what is called project-based learning.

Project-based learning (PBL) is the concept of an entire lesson, unit, or even curriculum designed with the goal of the students accomplishing a real-world task. Background learning occurs as the students work toward the goal. It’s the combination of the objective of school (to teach students new things) and the world of work (to have people create things and perform tasks).

PBL needs goals and scales to make sure everything runs on time. The problem, though, is figuring out how to create goals and scales when you have an entire year’s worth of standards to address. A lesson could take weeks to mature.

There are still manageable chunks

In the world of work, a manager might give an employee a project and a deadline, then not talk to him or her until the work is complete. Teachers don’t have that luxury—not to mention that there are all sorts of scheduling and planning issues that would complicate this approach.

When you see PBL in action, it actually looks similar to the traditional way of real-world work. There is a daily agenda aligned to whichever standards are being worked out (remember, a student needs structure). There might be one grand project, but it’s made up of smaller chunks so background knowledge can be distributed appropriately.

For example, in a physics class, the grand project might be to design a balsa-wood bridge that can hold a certain amount of weight. But the goal on one particular day is for students to study weight distribution of certain architectural concepts so they can choose a concept for their design. Every lesson is a new task that moves the student toward a larger goal, but the lesson still has a goal in itself.

The teacher still has pacing concerns because if a student falls too far behind, the class’s next chunk of background learning might be delayed. This is why goals and scales are important when it comes to PBL—they keep everything on schedule.

So how do you incorporate PBL in your classroom?

Basically, you would do it the same as if you were under a traditional system. The only difference is that under the old pedagogy, your lessons might not add up to a coherent whole. You might move from one topic to another rather quickly. In PBL, the lessons move toward building something—sometimes literally. But they still have a goal for each one, which should at least be aligned to, if not repeat, a standard.

Scales actually serve another purpose: they tell the students when they can move forward in the project. Between background knowledge chunks, students are often left free to move as quickly as they want through the tasks. If they are able to adequately perform a subtask according to the scale in which you have assigned, they know they can move on. It’s a form of self-assessment mixed with self-pacing.

Scales also assist in grading.

Adding up where a student has fallen on their scales at certain points in the grading period can provide at least a rough outline for an overall grade. In a way, that reflects the world of work. If you miss a deadline, it’s not the end of the world. Nevertheless, you’ll see its effect on your performance review.

Overall, no pedagogy that you can come up with—whether it’s PBL, flipped learning, or something else—works without specific learning goals. If there are specific learning goals, they should be aligned to standards. Where there are goals, there should be scales that show everyone involved the progress they are making.

Have you tried the project-based concept? How does it work with traditional pedagogical ideals? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

Want to go in depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.