How To Teach Content in a PBL Unit Without Front-Loading

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In module 3, you mapped out the cornerstones of your unit. Now that you have the “big picture” ideas squared away, you can begin planning the order of the lessons in your unit. In this lesson, you’ll work on the continuity and flow of your unit as you map your activities into phases.

When I am planning a unit, I like to start by breaking down my standards into smaller learning goals or learning targets. Then, I organize the learning targets in a progression. The order should be based on how you know students acquire skills and concepts. In a PBL, just as in other units, it is important to root our teaching in our pedagogical content knowledge and what we know about how students build knowledge and understanding of the concepts & progress in building skills.

After organizing the learning targets pulled from standards, I like to identify learning activities that help students attain the learning goals. By selecting activities that hone in on what students need to experience to meet standards and learning goals, you can be sure that your unit is tightly built to standards and that no time is wasted on what students don’t need to be doing. Your unit will be sleek, focused, and rigorous, but not without relevance and engagement.

The great news is that when you are selecting activities and learning experiences, these can be activities you have used before, or they can be tailored to your PBL. Often, I will pull an existing activity or reading, and customize it to the PBL. For example, if there is a lab or reading that I have used in the past, I will contextualize it for the PBL by writing an introduction that contextualizes the lab or reading for our PBL. Also, FRAMING the activity becomes the important factor. For example, if students typically read a short article or essay on energy and forces for your class in a typical unit, you could still assign this essay in your PBL, but after creating that “need to know” and by including a rationale for reading it. For example, you could connect the reading to the real-world problem your students are solving, then say: “We’re reading this because this article helps you understand the relationship between energy and forces before you start brainstorming ideas for your project.”
So let’s review:

  1. First, you will deconstruct the standards and learning goals
  2. Then, you will organize the learning targets in a progression that unfolds appropriately
  3. Next, identify learning activities that help students attain the learning goals
  4. Then, you will customize and/or frame learning activities to fit your PBL

Once you’ve done all of this, you can begin mapping out the learning activities to fit particular phases. A phase is a section of the unit that has lessons that all fit together in some way. I sometimes even write driving or essential questions for each phase so the collection of lessons makes sense together. I also include the standards and big picture learning goals in the phases. As I plan, I come up with the lesson name and what general activities students will do in those lessons. I consider what they need to know and experience early on in the unit to be successful later. In general, the earlier lessons include more knowledge and skill-building, more working on conceptual ideas, and more examples of the final product. Later in the unit, I give students more time to work in teams and more time to apply big ideas.

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t need to frontload content in the unit. Frontloading is something well-meaning teachers do to teach a lot of content before students work on a project, but it’s often taught in isolation without a need-to-know or context. However, students DO need foundational skills and concepts before they can do more sophisticated tasks in a project. So what do we do? One way to prevent frontloading is by giving students a “need-to-know” before teaching the content. Also, break up content acquisition with meaning-making and project work time. In PBL, students are working on their project all the way through, but when you teach any lesson, you need to consider the “so what”? How does what we just learned relate to the project?

For those of you that need to follow a particular order of teaching content, follow the sequence that you have to teach—that’s fine! Let’s say you need to teach certain lessons—we will call them A, B, C, and D. Your work in planning your PBL unit is to provide a “story”—a reason for why ABCD exist. Then, LAUNCH the project, teach lesson A, but frame it around the project, and help students make sense of it in terms of the project. Then, teach lesson B and connect it to the project, teach lesson C and apply it to the project, lesson D and apply it to the project…and so on until the final presentation. Some teachers ask me, “How many lessons and phases should I have?”

My rule of thumb is to have 4 phases with 3-6 lessons each. It’s ok to have 5 phases or even 3, but for secondary, a 4 phase by 5 lesson structure (20 lessons) works well. For younger learners, you can have fewer lessons and fewer phases, say a 3 phase by 4 lesson structure for a small project. It also depends on if you are hitting interdisciplinary standards or if you are co-teaching the unit with another teacher.

One way I like to keep track of how the activities connect to the project is by using what’s called a summary table to plan. I use these tables with students as a sort of anchor chart, but I also find them useful for planning.

For each activity, I fill in what the students are doing, what they should have learned from that activity, and how it relates to the final product. This ensures that each activity is meaningful and connected to the project in some way.

As you plan and map out your phases, you may find you need to cut activities that don’t relate.

You may find that the essential question and the product as well as the standards need a tighter connection. This is the time to streamline it and drop or add lessons as needed. This is a great time for Peer Review with your colleagues or other PBLN members. It’s better to revise now than when you are halfway through writing!

Lastly, consider how and when you will have students experience or see examples of the kind of final product you are having them create. Find or create examples, have students evaluate and interact with these examples, and break down the product creation experience. Be sure to build these experiences in as you map out your lessons.

The 2 major questions you should ask yourself about each lesson while planning are, “What will students do TODAY to make progress on their product?” and “How are students getting closer to meeting the standards and learning goals?” 

In your action task for this lesson, you will map out your own PBL unit lessons and activities, keeping the “30,000 foot” view in mind. Happy planning!

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