PBL Disneyland: The BIE's PBL World in Napa Valley

Mrs. Rachel Harari
Chairman of the English Department, Magen David Yeshivah High School
Brooklyn, NY

The Buck Institute of Education’s PBL World felt like a teacher’s Disneyland. The event, which I attended this year, takes place in Napa Valley, California, where hundreds of educators and administrators from all over the world gather to learn more about BIE’s Gold Standard of Project-Based Learning.

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I participated in the 101-level workshop, a 7-hour-a-day, three-day, intense workshop that promised to “provide participants with the skills and knowledge needed to design, assess, and manage a rigorous, relevant, and standards-based project.” Each participant received a 101 Workbook filled with the rubrics, graphic organizers, and other information needed to effectively create a gold-standard PBL unit. Aside from getting to know different educators and administrators from various backgrounds and educational settings, and from being in the beautiful Napa Valley, there are a few reasons why PBL World is a necessary first step (or second or third) for educators who would like to bring Project-Based Learning to their classrooms.

It was nice to have a concrete methodology when it comes to teaching Project-Based Learning. My previous exposure to Project Based Learning included a brief visit to High Tech High, a workshop with prestigious faculty from the same renowned school, and some conversations with educators who were involved in Project-Based Learning. I was also given the opportunity to attend a screening of the film Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary that examines the history of education in the United States, showing the shortcomings of the conventional education system.

All of these were inspiring, and led me to understand the benefits of Project-Based Learning -- students would be engaged, more in control of their learning, and most importantly, equipped with the tools they need to survive in today’s post-textbook world. I was sold; Project-Based Learning made sense, and felt like something I was already doing. Yet, when I tried to develop and implement projects into my classroom, the results were never consistent. Some of my projects felt successful. I had students enthusiastically staying after school or working through lunch, and I would smile as I fantasized the invisible camera filming my students working diligently for the imaginary Most Likely to Succeed Part 2: Rachel Harari’s Classroom. But then other times felt more like scenes from Titanic, with my unit plan sinking as months on the calendar flew by and the rigor seemed absent. While I felt that I had a good overall knowledge of Project-Based Learning, I wasn’t sure why some units could turn out so great and others could seem so empty.

The very first day of PBL World already gave me answers to my questions as I learned what PBL is and is not.

Yes, students are given an opportunity to be creative and choose what excites them most, but that does not mean that students are given total freedom. In fact, limits are strongly encouraged in the beginning as a way for teachers to maintain control throughout a unit. While I had always assumed that dreaming big would get big results, it is also what causes the unit to slip away. It is okay to ask students to choose from a few options you are very comfortable with, and to say NO! to the student who asks for a class trip to Home Depot (this really happened) so he can weld metal (a new experience?) in his exact replica (not quite!) of the island in Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.”  There can be a feeling of pressure attached to the new PBL teacher, and it is important to realize that a successful unit can be simple.

This brings me to the topic of “dessert.” A common misconception is that Project-Based Learning means a project at the end of the unit, something the BIE calls dessert. So, for example, a student might learn about a president and then dress up as that president for a brief presentation to the class. That is not Project-Based Learning. In order for something to be considered PBL, there are specific guidelines that a unit has to follow, provided by the BIE. Using this guideline prevents activities from being labeled as PBL without any type of rigor and also helps teachers maintain control of the unit to create a high-quality process.

The BIE’s Gold Standard PBL has three parts. First comes the student learning goals: the key academic content and skill development must be at the center of a well-designed project. The content and success skill standards (also known as “21st Century Skills”) are the focus of the PBL unit as our goal is ultimately to prepare our students for successful school and life experiences.

Next are the essential project design elements, a necessary way for students to maximize their learning and engagement. Teachers design a challenging problem or question for their students to explore and answer. These questions could range from the very concrete to the abstract, and generate sustained inquiry for students. Students should not be able to quickly look up an answer in a book or online; the inquiry process takes time and should last more than a few days. In addition, projects should contain an authenticity component that makes the project “real-world,” incorporate student voice and choice, and provide time for reflection, critique, and revision. Lastly, products should be made public (beyond presentations to classmates and the teacher) to raise the bar. Creating a public product also shows students that what they learned is tangible, able to be discussed in myriad ways, and not left in the classroom.

And then there are project-based teaching practices. Another misconception about PBL is that the traditional components of teaching, like tests or quizzes (or even the teaching!), are discouraged. However, the truth is that many of the traditional practices remain in a PBL unit, but are reframed in the context of a project. Rather than lecturing to students and using a unit exam as the only means of assessment, teachers should use traditional forms of assessment as a way to manage activities, scaffold student learning, or to assess student learning throughout a unit. That could mean teachers would assign a chapter of reading that students are required to use for their projects, and assign a quiz for that chapter to assess student knowledge and understanding. Teachers are encouraged to engage in learning alongside their students, to design a project that promotes independence and growth while keeping tasks organized with set checkpoints and deadlines.

The BIE’s Gold Standard of PBL is exactly what I needed to help me create meaningful, rigorous, and enjoyable units. I recommend that anyone who is interested in incorporating more PBL into their classrooms attend other workshops offered by the BIE, or have them come in to provide teacher training. I am grateful to Magen David Yeshivah for providing me with the opportunity to learn more about Project-Based Learning, and I am eager to begin this year with the project I developed over the course of the workshop!

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Check out this video of a PBL day Rachel planned with the Magen David Yeshivah High School English Department