TeachThought PD PBL Exemplar – The Straw Project 

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

In our Foundations of PBL Workshops we help educators grow their project-based learning understanding by designing a project for implementation in their classroom. In those workshops it’s fairly common for teachers to ask for a completed version to see what quality project planning should look like.

Initially we were hesitant to do this because it’s important to recognize that the wrinkles of great PBL can look different on occasion and we don’t want teachers to replicate but not learn the ‘how’. That said, we’ve found the use of an exemplar project to be a great tool to analyze the architecture and potential permutations of such a starting point.

What teachers typically find most helpful is not the specifics of the project so much as getting a peek into the potential structure and flow. For me it feels kind of like struggling with a complex math concept/problem, seeing a similar problem worked out so you can see through the process, and having those ‘a-ha’ moments that allow you to now do that math. In fact, in our workshops we refer to this as a “parallel layer” because it’s meant to be used as a sort of mental sounding board as teachers are working on their own projects.

The Straw Project you’ll see in our In-Depth Project Planner document is rooted in the C3 Framework for Social Studies standards but when working with teachers we’ve used the base problem of single-use plastic straws (and potential solutions to that problem) as an access point to get at different content areas. Also of note is the importance of taking any project examples as starting points for refinement. Every classroom has unique needs and just co-opting another’s project would be like wearing someone else’s well worn shoes.

Important takeaways:

  • How the design should allow the teacher to pull thinking and learning (often called knowledge or content) from learners through rich inquiry, not push it at them.
  • The importance of clarifying product, purpose, and audience (authenticity) as leverage points for craftsmanship.
  • How a project’s layers and milestones should help with meaningful assessment but aren’t often strictly linear. 
  • The importance of planning and designing the details in advance to allow the teacher to demonstrate the artistry of their craft.

We hope this kind of example helps teachers shift their practice in ways meaningful to student growth. More resources for PBL planning are available at our PBL Workshop Tools and Resources page including our project design rubric, planning documents, and an ever-growing set of external links to videos and web sites to help you on your PBL journey.

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