Content in a PBL Classroom

Content in a PBL Classroom

I really struggled with the title of this article.  It seems silly to me to say this, because aren’t all teachers’ jobs to teach content?  Really, what I what to do here is shed a light on how easy it is to get caught up in teaching kids how to use Twitter, make a Blog post, and do iMovie–all in the name of having a project that seems to “transcends” teaching norms.  Realistically, at the end of the day, students need to know the content.  And will continue to need to know the content for years to come—until high-stakes testing is taken away.  

Over the last 3 years of my own journey with PBL, I have learned a lot about how content needs to be deliberately incorporated in a PBL elementary classroom, especially an upper elementary classroom.  By the time students are in the 5th grade in Kentucky, they are expected to master two additional subjects than in the year before–social studies and on-demand writing.  Plus, 5th grade students’ minds are still developing and they are still learning social skills and study skills to help them succeed.  Throw in a whole new way to learn, and you may end up losing the focus on content, in favor of the more fun side of PBL–the projects.  

During my first year year of project based learning, I was so excited to be adding an extra “ingredient” of learning.  Since I am a social studies teacher, my first topic of the year was geography.  Our project was simple, (we were all going to make 3-D physical maps of the U.S.) and I just knew that it would reinforce the learning and my students would be masters by the time the 9 weeks were up (geography is a hard concept for 10 and 11 year olds to understand in the best of circumstances).  But….that didn’t happen.  What had gone wrong?  

As I looked back and reflected on the nine weeks events, I asked myself several questions.  Was my project done in time with the content I taught?  Did the students just think we were “making a project” and not learning?  Did I emphasize the content enough?  Since this was my first PBL project, did I do it wrong?

What I found out as a result of the reflection was that I had not focused on deliberately emphasizing the content of this particular project enough.  And you are probably thinking that what I am calling a project is not entirely what PBL is about at all.  And, upon further research on my team’s part, you would be correct.  We were actually doing an “activity”, which is not at all what PBL should be about.

But I had a job to do!  I had to get this content in the students heads!  Being that this first project was about geography, I had given the students extended time with maps and map markers, they had touched and written on globes, they had physically put clay “mountains” on a map of the US they created….what else could I have done?!

The answer is simple…

(1) I could have given my students a catalyst to get them interested in learning about their country…

(2) and have deliberately focused more on the content by using those opening and closing time of classes more efficiently.  

If I had done both of those things to get the students excited about exploring maps of their own surroundings, my first project would have turned out differently.

I could have shown them one of the maps drawn of America in Christopher Columbus’ time.  In a time when we need all the patriotism we can get, I could have brought in a member of the Coast Guard to talk about his job and challenge the students to learn about the land and water the Armed Forces protects.  Anything to get my students emotions flowing and get their minds inquiring.  Then, my content would have had a better chance of sticking.  

So…where exactly (and specifically) do you make sure the content is deliberately addressed?

Ah, content.  My lovely companion.  I don’t want you to think that project based learning is going to magically make your students knowledgeable and vibrant tiny humans.  It won’t.  It will help, but the teacher here has to play the key role of “the bridge.”  Students in PBL classrooms are going to learn, but they won’t necessarily connect what they have learned to the standards you need them to know.  So, as the bridge between their new facts and the content, you the teacher are in the vital position of helping them connect.  

@ the beginning of class

One strategy for this is to have a routinely scheduled class time where you can assess and reassess fact knowledge.  For example, having time at the beginning of class for openers (or bell-ringers) where fact recall is checked is a wonderful thing.  It not only gets the class started in a calm manner, but you can observe which students may need a little more of your time to help them connect the dots of the learning.  This should only take about 3-5 minutes of class time.

@the end of class

At the end of the class is another time when you can assess content knowledge and correct misconceptions, or just add some anticipation for the next day (which is obviously emotional manipulation, but I am not above using emotional conspiracy to get the facts to stick!).  At least 2-3 times a week I do an exit assignment of some kind.  Sometimes, I will do a simple post it note that says, “Name 3 things…”  Other times we will have a longer quiz that we check in class.  I can also take a grade on at least one exit slip a week, which adds to my arsenal of proof that a student has or has not mastered the concept.  

During Mini-Lessons

A different strategy I also use is the concept of mini-lessons.  At this point, I may offend some people when I say that students in our time just can’t concentrate.  I am not saying that all students can’t concentrate, but in this 21st century full of digital outlets, this translates into teachers having a harder time getting students to be engaged.  So, a mini-lesson is a great strategy to get learners to pay attention for a short period of time and to spark inquiry in a big way.

For example, when studying explorers I do a mini lesson on Christopher Columbus.  I give about a 5 minute speech on who he was and what his contribution to the world was.  With a few well aimed think-aloud questions, “I wonder what he thought of the Natives he encountered?  I wonder what the Natives thought of him and his crew?”, I can get students thinking.  Then I will put out the BIG idea…”Do you think Christopher Columbus was a HERO or a VILLAIN?”  Works like a charm every time!  Students minds are drawn to the good/bad idea and they will eagerly soak up any new knowledge they can get a hold of.  


The moral of the story of beginning project based learning is, don’t lose sight of the content while you are doing the projects.  It is very easy to do!

Let me know about your successes…and failures…in the PBL classroom.  If you are struggling with some particular aspect of this instructional approach to learning, chances are someone else is too!  Let’s work together to figure it out!


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