It’s easy to remember the highlight reels of the project-based approach I used when I taught eighth grade. I think about the moment we finished our second mural and my students were so excited they started spontaneously cheering or the moment students asked thoughtful questions to our guests during the immigration documentary or the way students continued to surprise me with their blogging projects year after year or the creativity in their STEM-related engineering projects.

But for all the highlights, there are also a string of failures. I’ve made a ton of mistakes in my PBL journey. Big mistakes. Epic mistakes. I designed project-based units that were cringe-worthy; where I had to stop after a few lessons and say, “This was a bad idea. I tried something and it failed. We’re going to change this up a bit.”

One such project was the Great Linear Equation Debacle of 2011. As an eighth grade self-contained teacher, I wanted to prove that our math block could be fully project-based. After a successful statistics project, I decided we would do a “Linear Equations in Real Life” project. I challenged students to find real examples of linear equations and interview experts who used this skill in their daily life.

It tanked.

Students couldn’t find enough real examples, much less, experts they could interview. The project felt forced and the end goal was something they didn’t find relevant. To make matters worse, students struggled to determine linear functions while looking at a graph or to solve a linear equation using an algorithm. At first, I blamed my students. I viewed their disengagement as laziness rather than confusion. However, after four days of a failing project, I realized it was a design problem. On a fundamental level, those standards didn’t fit in with a project-based approach.

In my drive for authenticity, I had created pseudo-context. In my rejection of cookie cutter learning, I had turned the PBL process into something cookie cutter. At that point, we regrouped and focused on a problem-based approach with more scaffolding and some time for guided practice.

It was a hard lesson in how to align the content standards you have to teach with the project-based learning that leads to student voice and choice.

How to Align Standards to Projects

People often debate about whether we should be process-driven or product-driven in project-based learning. But I think there’s a third option. We can be learning-driven. In other words, we should start with the question, “What do we want students to learn?” and let that drive the process and the product.

At times, this looks very product-focused. Ask a student in the midst of a NaNoWriMo project (where they create a novel in a month) and they are focusing on that end result of a finished novel. True, the process is important but they might just deviate from it a bit. By contrast, a student in a design thinking project might begin with empathy toward a group and only later, after working through the process, hit a place of ideation and prototyping. But regardless, you as a teacher, will be focused on what they are learning through this journey.

PBL is not a license to ditch the standards or take a break from real learning. It’s not the same thing as a pizza party or Field Day. As educators, we need to make sure our projects lead students to a place where they can master the standards. But how do we actually accomplish this?

How do you do PBL when you have a ton of standards to teach?

Whenever I mention Geek Out Projects or Genius Hour, people ask, “How do you get away with teaching whatever topics you want? Don’t you have a ton of standards you need to teach?” People assume we have added an additional project to an already packed plate. But that’s not how it works. We aren’t adding anything. We’re re-arranging the plate in a way that honors student voice and choice.
The key is to tap into content-neutral standards. For example, in our Geek Out Blogs, my middle school students had to make sure that their blogs included persuasive and explanatory texts. Here are the two main standards we used.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Students also engaged in research:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.7: Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

They moved through the entire writing process:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1-3 above.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language standards 1-3 up to and including grade 8 here.)

They also published their work to the world, both in writing shorter and longer posts:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

This project included nearly every single Common Core Writing Standard in the first few weeks of school. Notice, also, how none of those standards mention specific topics. These were all topic-neutral standards, which meant students could choose skateboarding or fashion or history or video games and they’re still learning the same standards. As long as they were practicing discreet skills in reading and writing, they could choose their own topics. This was an interest-driven approach to PBL.

Our Tiny House Projects, by contrast, required students to master specific conceptual standards with the freedom to use multiple modalities. We combined volume, surface area, and proportional reasoning with standards around budgeting and finance. This was a problem-driven approach with a tight focus on specific concepts.

A little nuance here. Even in a project-based learning unit, you might still need to teach some specific skills through direct instruction. I still had to demonstrate how to find the volume and surface area. We also practiced using proportional reasoning to solve spatial problems all around our school. However, I integrated direct instruction and skill practice into the project rather than taking a “teach first, project second” approach.

Students began this project with a specific challenge:

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So, instead of working on an open-ended project, students engaged in a challenge-based project, where they had to design a product within tight parameters.

Connecting the Standards to the PBL Framework

Notice in the previous two examples how the types of standards required two vastly different approaches to project-based learning. That’s not a bad thing. There isn’t one single, perfect PBL approach. Sometimes, the best option is an open-ended topical project. Other times, it’s more inquiry-based. Still other times, you might choose an empathy-driven design thinking framework.

Check out the following table to see the connection between the types of standards you teach and the corresponding PBL approach.

Model Flexibility of Standards The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience

Note that sometimes you will use a hybrid approach. For example, I have combined elements of inquiry-based learning when I had students do interest-driven PBL. Many of our design thinking projects also had elements of problem-based PBL. And every single PBL approach had elements of product-driven PBL. So, there is always going to be some overlap between the models. However, the key idea here is the word driven. What is the key driver in the project your students are working on?

#1: Inquiry-Driven

Inquiry-driven PBL begins with a state of curiosity and wonder. It might be as simple as the sentence stem “I wonder why _________” or “I wonder how _________.” Students then have the opportunity to research, ideate, and create. However, it might also begin with an observation of a natural phenomenon. I recently wrote about biomimicry, and the way engineers often study nature for inspiration in their designs. It’s why geckos are the future of spacecraft and why birds solved the problem of noisy trains.

With the inquiry-driven PBL approach, you can have open-ended topics or you can have a specific concept-related topic and ask students to pursue their own questions within those parameters.

If you’re interested in an inquiry-driven PBL project, you might want to check out the Wonder Day or Wonder Week Project. These two projects walk students through the inquiry process, allowing them to answer their own questions and share their insights with an audience.

Check out the following sketch video you can share with your students. You can also download the Wonder Day Project Here.

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#2: Interest-Driven

Another approach is the interest-driven PBL process. I alluded to the Geek Out blogs earlier. But another option is Genius Hour. Modeled after Google’s 20% Time, students get to choose their own passion projects and work through a process of discovery and creativity independently.

Check out the following video to see more about the Genius Hour process:

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Here’s a Genius Hour video you can use with your students.

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Note that Genius Hour still connects to specific content standards. However, these are skill-based, topic-neutral standards.

#3: Product-Driven

PBL experts often say, “Students should focus on the process and not the product.” But there’s also a time and a place for projects that challenge students to focus on developing a quality product. In these projects, the product has tighter parameters but the process is more flexible.

One of my favorite examples is the NaNoWriMo project. Here, students know specifically that they will create a novel. They might not know the audience and they aren’t necessarily focused on a question or a challenge. True, they will engage in inquiry and empathy at some point. But they are driven by the challenge of creating a novel in the month of November.

Similarly, when we created our Scratch Video Game projects, students started with the simple challenge of designing a functioning video game in three weeks. Although they focused on crafting for an audience and they went through an ideation process, it was product-driven. They wanted to create an awesome video game that people would actually play.

In product-driven PBL, students typically have tight guidelines on the format but looser guidelines on the topics. In this sense, it resembles elements of interest-based PBL, with a key difference being the emphasis on creating the product rather than on the discovery of new information. So, instead of students making something to demonstrate what they learned, the focus is on the making itself.

#4: Problem-Driven

Problem-driven PBL begins with a specific problem or challenge that students must solve. An example is our maker challenges that present a specific scenario that leads students into research, problem-solving, ideation, and a final product that solves the initial challenge.

Here’s an example of a Maker Challenge:

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With problem-driven PBL, teachers typically begin with specific concept standards and then provide more flexible options of what students design and create. However, not every problem-driven PBL project has to include a tangible product. Sometimes students design a system or plan an event. Sometimes their creative work is merely a “pitch” to a group of judges from the community.

#5: Empathy-Driven (Design Thinking)

Empathy-driven PBL can have elements of the previous four PBL approaches. In fact, with the LAUNCH Cycle (a K12 design thinking framework that A.J. Juliani and I developed), we don’t always begin with empathy. Sometimes it starts out with a problem, a geeky interest, or a sense of wonder at a natural phenomenon. But even so, students begin to build empathy as they Ask Tons of Questions and as they clarify the audience during the Understanding and Navigating Ideas phases.

Check out the following video on the LAUNCH Cycle:

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Note that the LAUNCH Cycle will often begin with a challenge, a phenomenon or a product idea but this will ultimately focus on empathy. That’s the critical component that leads to genuine design thinking.

Why Teachers Are the Key to Making This Work

It is possible to teach with a PBL framework while also reaching all the standards. But this requires us to think creatively about how we teach. It can help to ask questions like: Where is the authenticity in this standard? Where outside of school might a student actually practice this standard? Is this a connecting skill standard? A process standard? A concept? Where is the freedom built into this standard? How does this standard fit with other standards? Where is the student voice and choice? For example, do they get to choose their own formats (multimedia, for example)? Do they get to choose their own topics? How do these standards work with each PBL model?

Ultimately, when this happens, students are able to master the standards at a deep level while also engaging in meaningful work and powerful projects.

Looking for More?

If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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