Using Student Work to Backward Design PBL


I love the concept of backward design. Think of the desired learning outcome first, determine how to measure if learning occurred, and then form the learning activity. How can you lose?

I’ve been thinking about how such an approach could be linked to project-based learning. Yes, we could establish the learning goal and how to measure that learning, and in turn give the students a broad frame for their projects. But on an even higher level than this (or should I say, more backwards?), we could start by showing students outstanding, finished examples of PBL.

I thought of this after reading about the Center for Student Work, a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and educational nonprofit Expeditionary Learning. The Center is an online library that showcases exemplary work from K-12 students. A sampling of the exemplars include a 6th grade project where the students traveled to different cities to learn about bicycle cultures, and an 8th grade project where the students built robots and model wind turbines to learn about design.

What if, before we have our kids engage in PBL, we show them some of these – or other – exemplars? Ideally, we’d hope for the students to produce projects that have the same (if not higher) level of careful consideration, creativity, and intellectual curiosity as these models. This backwards approach would help primarily with the skills and mindset needed for excellent execution of PBL. The exemplars would show students the possibilities of PBL and what it looks like to effectively work, research, and discover answers as a team.

In other words, the students would learn how to project-base learn.

This is something to think about, especially as we begin to see more showcases of outstanding student work. As long as teachers help students interpret these exemplars as inspiration for project execution and not ideas to imitate, a backwards approach to PBL may help students achieve even more success with this learning method.