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Strategies for Implementing PBL in your Classroom (Both Physical and Virtual)

Hi friends, and welcome to episode 2 of the EdTech Classroom Podcast. I am SO happy that you’ve joined me today. 

If you’re new here, welcome! I’m a teacher, edtech coach, online business owner, and coffee-fueled design thinker. My goal is to help teachers, like you, feel empowered to implement innovative and creative teaching into their classrooms. So let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators.

So to start off, I want to quickly give you all some context just in case you’re listening at a later date… at the time of this recording, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This probably doesn’t need too much explanation, but over the past few months, students have been learning from their homes to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

It’s June 2020. Most schools are done or almost done for the year, and we have no idea what next school year is going to look like. There are whispers of different plans, but the reality is that no one knows what is going to happen until it happens.

I will say that people are finally hearing and recognizing the hard work that teachers do, there are memes about it, people joke about it online, and it’s true. Teachers do incredibly hard work. It’s freaking hard to be a teacher.

And people are also starting to notice the pitfalls of the education system. This to me is a beautiful silver lining to remote learning, and I hope that this will be a call to action. 

We desperately need to reimagine education. Our industrial model of education is so out-dated. 

Our schools need to set students up with 21st century skills, like critical thinking and creative problem-solving. 

When I first started thinking about what reopening schools in the fall might look like, I remember thinking to myself, “well, I guess this is the end of progressive education. Innovation can’t thrive in this new remote situation.”

Maybe that’s the drama queen in me… but most of my big dreams for project-based learning went out the door the second we went remote. I was like “welp… no time to plan for that. Guess I can’t do this project anymore.”

But now that I’ve taken a step back, I’ve realized… 

Now, more than ever before, we can explore innovative learning models and actually experiment with new ideas. We can actually set our students up with 21st century skills by doing better things in our classrooms. 

Here’s an example. 

I’m going to bet that every single teacher listening right now has tried out a new tech platform since going remote. I bet you’ve learned at least one new tech skill. That right there friends is innovation. 

That right there is being a 21st century teacher. 

And 21st century teachers learn new technologies, they go digital, they connect – both on and offline – and they create student-centered lesson plans and give students personalized instruction. They incorporate PBL into their classrooms.

When I think about 21st century skills for students, I think about collaboration, reflection, authenticity, sustained inquiry, solving problems – all of which are core tenets of project-based learning.

Today’s Episode

I am so excited for today’s episode because we are going to be discussing my very favorite topic in education: project-based learning. 

I’m amped up on this topic, not just because I’m on my third cup of coffee for the day, but because I truly believe we’re going to learn so much together today.

We’re going to be focusing specifically on project-based learning through a lens of distributed learning. The reason we’re going to focus on this perspective is that I am all about action. 

On this podcast I’m here to give you big ideas. I’m here to breakdown theory and pedagogy for you in a way that will allow you to take action. I’m here to give you a roadmap of ideas and to coach you through the process.

Maybe you’re a project-based learning expert. Or maybe you don’t even know where to begin, or if you’re just looking to learn, that’s cool too. I believe that no matter what your comfort level is with project-based learning you’ll learn something valuable from this episode…

Especially because, next year, no matter where you live, the reality is that you might be teaching remotely again. You might be teaching in person. You might be doing a mix of both. At the end of the day, you want to be prepared. 

So with that in mind, I believe that you will be able to apply the strategies that we’ll discuss today to your classroom next year.

What even is PBL?

Now, for those of you who are listening who might be thinking… what the heck is this project-based learning thing this girl keeps talking about… yes, it sounds like a buzzword. Yes, it’s doing projects. But you guys it’s sooo much more than that.

For those of you who aren’t too familiar with project-based learning, let me define it for you quickly…

PBL is a structure that allows you to plan meaningful lessons that are grounded in standards, that are student-centered, and that are authentic to your school or larger community.

It’s basically a teaching method that encourages active learning where students engage in real-world, meaningful projects. 

Rather than a series of one-off projects, project-based learning units usually occur over the course of several days or weeks and result in a summative project that reflects student learning.

PBL allows students to:

  • Develop their own driving questions
  • Conduct their own research
  • Make connections with experts in their subject matter
  • Create final projects to share with the class
  • And, create public projects to share with the greater community.

Teachers are viewed as coaches that provide a structure or framework to guide students through the learning process. But the learning, at the end of the day, is always student-centered and prioritizes student voice and choice.

And, I don’t know about you – but what I love the most about the idea of PBL is that students learn how to love learning. To me, this is the most beautiful takeaway from incorporating PBL into my classroom.

Example of a PBL Lesson

Now that you’ve learned about what project-based learning is… let’s take a look at an example of a PBL lesson…

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with fifth grade teachers at my school on a project-based learning lesson with our students. The project, called Illuminated Figures, is largely based on the movie Hidden Figures, and focuses on shedding light on the diverse stories of important figures whose stories were lost throughout history.

First, students learned about the danger of a single story, watching Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, and the importance of highlighting diverse voices, especially voices of historically marginalized people and people of color. This is where they discovered that there is a challenging problem and a need in the world to increase representation of diverse people in history textbooks.

Then, our students went through a deep-dive of sustained inquiry, where they learned about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, taking a look at their own classroom bookshelves and learning about the importance of retelling history through multiple diverse lenses. 

They went to the library. They conducted research. And then they were tasked with finding their own figure to illuminate – an influential figure in STEAM – whose stories need to be told. 

In selecting figures who students had a personal connection to – whether it be race or interest in a particular subject matter – students were able to form an authentic relationship to the project, demonstrating the fact that teachers chose to highlight student voice and choice and create a student-centered lesson.

Throughout this process, students also practiced reflection, reflecting not only on the danger of a single story, but also their own learning. Students constantly provided themselves with feedback, while also receiving critique and revisions from teachers.

What makes this project so great is that it also had a direct tie to standards in a variety of different classes…

In art class, students learned how to draw realistic portraits of their figures, using a method called Durer’s grid that aligned with our fifth grade art curriculum. 

In science class, students then learned how to create circuits to literally illuminate their figures with light bulbs. 

In math class, students learned how to conduct surveys in the community, asking participants questions like “Have you ever heard of Rachel Carson?” or “Do you know what Lonnie Johnson is famous for?” Then, they learned how to create graphs based on survey responses, and turn these graphs into fractions, aligning with their math curriculum.

In humanities, they learned about historical and persuasive writing, formulating their own opinion pieces, backed by facts and data from their math surveys, as to why their figures should be illuminated.

And finally, in technology class, my class, they put these artifacts all together on a class webpage, created using Google Sites, where they could illuminate the stories of over 50 different people of color whose voices needed to be amplified. 

Each student created their own tab about their illuminated figure, including their portrait, their persuasive writing, their math surveys, and more. 

This website was then shared with other schools in our community, and the world at large online. Students created a grade-wide public product that they felt like they truly authored.

So you might now be wondering… “okay great, project-based learning sounds great. I’m so excited by this, and I want to get started tomorrow.”

The first most important step is to understand what the core tenets of project-based learning are, and then you can create a project plan.

PBL Core Tenets

In my physical classroom, I like to structure my project-based learning lessons around the PBL Works model. This model is typically considered the gold standard for PBL and consists of 7 core ingredients.

Okay so if you have access to a pen and some paper, now is the time I’d recommend jotting down some notes. Sorry if you didn’t think you were signing up for a class right now… if you’re walking your dog, driving, or you’d just prefer to listen, you can check out a transcription of this podcast on my blog later. I’ll put a link in the podcast description.

So let’s go over these 7 core tenets, or essential ingredients of PBL as I like to call them. 

This structure is great for a number of reasons. It helps you, the teacher, figure out what standards you’re going to cover, what competencies students will be learning, and how you will benchmark the project.

This will then allow you to develop a project structure that helps the students be able to organize their thoughts, know and predict what phase comes next, and understand what goals they are working towards.

Ingredient #1 of PBL starts off with a challenging problem or question. This is also sometimes called a “need to know.” Here students can really dive into a problem or question they want to explore. They can also begin to form the essential question that will drive their project and research.

  • For our Illuminated Figures project, the challenging problem, or need to know, was finding a way to highlight voices of historically marginalized people of color.
  • For your students’ projects, you might choose to explore something related to the environment – like climate change or declining bird populations or saving the bees – or maybe you’ll choose to focus on a problem related to health and nutrition – like the obesity crisis or food deserts. 
  • Think about what problems relate to your curriculum.

Ingredient #2 consists of what is typically called sustained inquiry, or a period of students posing questions, finding possible resources, and applying their learning to the driving question. 

  • For our project, sustained inquiry consisted of visiting the library, asking questions, reading books, critically examining existing resources.
  • For your students’ projects, sustained inquiry could look like watching videos, formulating questions about why bird or bee populations are declining, why it might be important to take action. Or, why the obesity crisis is a problem, what a food desert is, how this relates to equity, and so on.
  • What methods might your students use to practice sustained inquiry?

Ingredient #3 focuses on authenticity. Students need to be tackling problems that actually have real value to a student’s life. These need to be authentic, real-world problems. 

  • For our project, students felt a deep connection to their chosen figures. Maybe a ramen-lover in our class chose to highlight Momufuku Ando because he wanted to learn more about how this inventor was able to change the food industry. Or, maybe a Black student felt inspired by Mae Jemison because she feels empowered by hearing stories about other Black females.
  • For your students’ projects, maybe they will be authentic because they are actually tackling a real-world problem for the first time. Maybe a student is passionate about animals or helping others.
  • What ideas do you have about ensuring that these projects are authentic?

Ingredient #4 is rooted in student voice and choice. Now this is another buzzword, I’m okay with it because honestly it’s catchy and it sounds good. But, I’m going to cover this one in depth later because student voice and choice is just so critical to PBL, especially in a distributed learning model.

  • For our project, students were able to choose their own figures and use their own voices to retell these stories from their own perspectives. 
  • For your project, you can also provide choice – maybe your students can pick their own topics, or maybe they can choose their own mediums to create the final products. A student might create a stop motion video about food deserts to inform the public, while another might build a birdhouse to put up at your school.

Ingredient #5: reflection. Time and time again, I fall back on reflection as a core tenet of not just PBL, but of my teaching as a whole. Students learn so much from reflecting on their learning.

  • Give your students time to reflect on their learning and to provide themselves feedback. We gave students reflection prompts to guide their thinking, but maybe you’ll choose to give students a reflection journal. Or maybe your students will create their own rubrics for themselves.

Ingredient #6: critique and project revision. While self-reflection is important, it’s also important to receive feedback from peers and teachers. Students can then make changes to their final projects before the final public product.

  • Our students received feedback on their writing, for example, through one-on-one check-ins with the humanities teachers and also regular comments through Google Docs.
  • Maybe your students will present their birdhouse prototypes to the class, and the class will give them popcorn-style feedback on how to improve. Critique and project revision looks different based on what is most age appropriate.

Ingredient #7: creating a public product for the school or greater community. This also ties into the idea of authenticity, and the idea that students can actually create a solution to a real-world problem and then share their learning with the greater community. If that’s not 21st century learning, then I don’t know what is. 

  • For us, the public product was a website.
  • Your students might give a presentation to the whole school, or maybe they will present over Zoom to an expert on the obesity crisis. Or, maybe they will create a book using Book Creator that you can print and put in the school library. 

So these 7 ingredients, I think, are a really great way to shape your thinking. I came up with these examples just by brainstorming. You might not do it perfectly at first, but it doesn’t have to be too complicated. This framework can really help guide your process so that you can start implementing PBL into your classroom tomorrow.

Of course, when you create your own project-based learning lesson, you’re welcome to follow a different structure. At the end of the day, do what’s best for you and your classroom. These ingredients have worked really well for my physical classroom, and like I said, they’re really considered the gold standard.

How does this fit into the distributed learning context? 

There are a couple of critical areas that have really changed for me in this remote learning model. There are areas that I’ve noticed I really have needed to shift and modify based on student needs. 

Some might call these challenges of remote learning, but I also like to think of them as opportunities for growth. These challenges fall into three main categories

  1. Materials
  2. Making PBL optional
  3. Flexibility

And now that I think about it, these challenges really all tie back to accessibility and home context.

  1. Materials

In doing PBL remotely, I’ve had to really modify what materials my students can use. In my classroom at school, I am lucky to have a small makerspace, filled with recyclable materials that my students can tinker with. 

In this remote learning model, however, I’ve really had to shift my thinking, and through my conversations with other teachers, I know they’ve had a similar dilemma. 

Figuring out what materials students can use at home is honestly challenging.

We have to operate under the assumption that students do not have access to any physical materials. We don’t know what students’ home lives look like. We don’t know what they have access to. 

And even if you have a lot of insight into a student’s home life, it is really difficult to truly know what their day to day looks like. 

It is so important that we are always keeping equity at the forefront of distance learning, and one way to do this is by making sure that we aren’t requiring students to use materials that they might not otherwise own.

The idea that I’m about to propose is something that John Spencer has talked about and has written about in his book Vintage Innovation, and I’ve taken his insight to heart when thinking about what PBL can look like from a distributed learning perspective. 

The idea is that I’d recommend incorporating a mix of the “new and flashy” high tech elements with extremely low tech, “tried and true” materials. For example, I encourage my students to make their prototypes using cardboard and paper towel tubes and egg cartons and so on. 

But then I also encourage them to create their final public projects using storytelling and content creation apps, like Stop Motion Studio, Book Creator, or Google Sites. Or, I’ll ask them to take beautiful photographs of their cardboard prototypes.

This combination of high tech and low tech can give kids a more fair experience that is still really valuable and engaging.

  1. Making PBL optional

This one is a biggie, and while it might not make a lot of sense at first, once you hear my thought process, I think you’ll agree…

If we’re teaching in some sort of remote learning environment next year, let’s make project-based learning optional. 

Right now, our jobs are really hard. We’re tired, we’re worn out, we’re working harder than ever before. And our students are too.

They’re tired. They’re worn out. They’re working harder than ever before, whether that be emotionally, academically, socially – they might be grieving. 

For this reason, we need to provide students with choice and differentiated instruction. Project-based learning is incredible, but it doesn’t work well for every student. Not all students can thrive in a self-guided project remotely. 

It just doesn’t fit their academic and social emotional needs. And that is okay.

This is why I believe that we should really be providing students with options. If you’re creating a PBL unit for students, also create a more traditional option, like a presentation or a series of worksheets, for kids who just can’t do PBL right now. 

Meet students where they’re at. We don’t know what they’re lives are like at home, but we know that their academic needs are varied. So, let’s support them by providing options. 

Now I’m not saying you need to come up with a personalized lesson plan for every single student. That’s not realistic. I’m just proposing the idea that you give students either the choice to do PBL or the choice to do a more traditional assignment.

And then for the last challenge…

  1. Flexibility

Even if we are teaching 100% in person next year, it’s still going to be so different. The world is changing by the second. And as hard as it is, we’ve got to find a way to stay flexible.

I say this not just for you all, but also for myself. I’m trying to practice flexibility. I love control – not in a micromanaging way – but I just really appreciate having predictability, routine, and clear expectations in place. 

The world right now just doesn’t allow that. So to myself, I’ll say, be flexible. But also be kind to yourself. Give yourself grace.

You might not plan this perfectly at first, and that is okay.

Student Voice and Choice

The last two topics I want to cover really are so closely related. And, if you haven’t picked up by now, I’m an incredibly interdisciplinary thinker. 

So much of what I teach and believe is deeply interconnected. 

So now, let’s talk about student voice and choice, and then discuss how this relates to real-world application. 

Student voice and choice is another buzzword that really just means creating a classroom environment that is more student-centered. 

In a remote environment, where you’re also doing PBL, how can you incorporate student voice and choice, while still meeting state standards and core competencies?

I have three main ideas here:

  1. Creating strategic choice menus for students
  2. Giving students the choice to work independently or in groups
  3. Allowing students to create self-guided projects

Maybe you’ve seen choice menus floating around the Internet these days – on teacher Instagram accounts, TpT pages, or blogs. Choice menus are highly popular right now, and that’s for a reason. 

They are a great way for students to have ownership and choice in their learning, but still provide a framework for students to follow so they don’t feel lost.

These tic-tac-toe style choice boards in particular can really help students visualize what options they have. 

In PBL, you could give students a choice menu, for example, with 9 different ways to present their final projects.

Or, in a math unit, you could provide students with a math problem, and give them a menu of tech options to teach a strategy to solve the problem.

In giving choice menus that focus on the final product, you’re able to ensure that students are meeting these core competencies and state standards, while also giving students the option to create a product that makes the most sense for their remote learning experience.

Next, for giving students the choice to collaborate, you might now be asking yourself… “didn’t you just tell me that collaboration is a key element to PBL?” 

Well, yes. It is. Collaboration is key when it comes to PBL. 

But guess what? Student needs are more important. And some students right now might just need to work independently. Or some students might just need to work in a small group.

We can support student needs by honoring their ability to choose whether they’d like to work independently or in a small group.

Now I know there are some things to consider in terms of grade level and age-appropriateness, so I’ll ultimately, as always, leave that decision up to you.

You know your classroom and your students the best. But, consider providing them with this choice, if you believe it matches their abilities.

This brings me to self-guided projects. Have you always wanted to try out Genius Hour with your students? Have you always wanted to let your students explore their own passion projects? 

Now might be the time to experiment and give it a shot. 

If it makes sense for your classroom needs, consider using some of this time to let your students actually explore the things that they are interested in, the things that they are really passionate about.

Next week, my episode is actually going to be a deep-dive into conducting the perfect Genius Hour lesson plan (in both a digital and physical environment), so if you want to learn more, come back next week on Tech Tuesday to learn more.

Real-World Application

So, now that we look back at all of this, you might start to notice a trend emerging. And I think that this trend is really, really critical to why we should incorporate PBL into our classrooms next year.

Our students, especially our youngest learners, might be dealing with some pretty big feelings, and our job as educators is really to make sure that our students feel loved, supported, and safe. 

One way that children can positively cope with this uncertainty is by taking agency over the situation, even in small ways.

Now more than ever, students need and crave a sense of authorship and ownership over their learning. When the world around them feels so uncertain, project-based learning can empower students to take action and to develop meaningful solutions to real-world problems. 

When I realized that my students could learn to love learning because of project-based learning, there really was no turning back. I remember being a student, and my junior year of high school I was lucky enough to experience my first in-depth project-based learning lesson. 

In that moment, I fell in love with school. I fell in love with learning. With the feeling of realizing I truly authored something. That I had ownership of my own education. 

When students fall in love with learning for the sake of learning – that’s why I’m a teacher. It’s that spark. That pure joy when you see a child who normally struggles in school actually thrives. When a student for the first time finally feels smart. Like they are enough.

That’s why I teach. That’s why I teach PBL. 

Project-based learning can give students meaning. It can give them purpose. It can give them agency over the world around them. It can even give them hope.

Isn’t that what we all need right now? Hope.

Thank You!

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast episode on project-based learning. I hope you’re leaving with some concrete takeaways and inspiration for implementing PBL into your classroom next year. 

If you want to chat, talk about all things PBL, ask some tech questions, please please please email me. I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at or follow me on Instagram @edtechclass.

Thank you SO much for tuning in. I am so happy you’re here, and I can’t wait to have you back here next week on Tech Tuesday. 

2 thoughts on “Strategies for Implementing PBL in your Classroom (Both Physical and Virtual) Leave a comment

  1. So interesting. My undergrad university in the Netherlands applied PBL, too, although we called it Problem-Based Learning. Either way, it was an intense and very valuable method to get a ton of knowledge out of.


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