How Do I Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning?

How Do I Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning?

How Do I Differentiate Through Project-Based Learning?

contributed by John McCarthy

“How do I differentiate through PBL?”

Teachers often ask this question as they see the possibilities of planning and implementing project-based learning units (PBL). Changing practice to PBL from traditional instruction can be liberating for its potential to meet the differentiated needs of all learners.

There are many opportunities to differentiate from the start of a PBL unit to its climactic conclusion. In my book, So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide for Differentiation (February 2017), I explain that the key is to think of Differentiation as a lens that’s used to view lessons and units for planned opportunities of supports that meet all learner needs. For PBL units, as with traditional units, lesson planning is where the learning experiences take shape. Here are some project-based learning teaching strategies that can be differentiated to bring out the power of meeting learner needs, so all can learn.

Strong PBL units include standard elements that make for rich experiences. They include:

Establishing an authentic purpose

Differentiating from the beginning through entry events

Using a ‘need to know’ protocol

Designing strategic and differentiated project checkpoints

Insisting on compelling ‘student voice’

9 Ways To Differentiate In Project-Based Learning


…by establishing an authentic purpose for the project

Students must believe in the entirety of learning experiences as having a purpose beyond playing the game called ‘school.’ Having a purpose or challenge that impacts the world beyond school can be motivating to students. When their work is not solely for the review by the teacher, instead it’s for meeting the needs of a client, community, or organization, students can find motivation in the work that they do.

Some examples include:

Fifth graders in Metro Nashville Public Schools raised awareness about economic, social, and scientific impact of cancer. They advocated for more research to find a cure by raising funds through an event. The money was donated to cancer research on behalf of a local hospital that has a children’s cancer ward.

Seniors in Lapeer Public Schools did outreach for the issue of their choice. They raised funds and/or volunteered time for social issues. During the early days of the water crisis in Flint, MI, one team of students provided free water testing in the surrounding communities for wells. In return, they filled containers with clean water and donated to Flint.

An alternative education high school in East China Schools has done several authentic learning experiences through PBL units. They increased reading opportunities by designing, building, and placing book bins into their community for access to donated books. In another experience, students raised awareness about homelessness and poverty to support the local soup kitchen.

In each of these experiences, the curriculum content was transformed from abstract schoolwork to concrete application. For example, the cancer awareness campaign succeeded due to students understanding of cells and their functions, plus the difference between healthy and cancerous cells. Math skills were taught in context of use for calculations both with regards to the economics of cancer and in the preparation of the free meal provided at the community event.

Give students a context for the curriculum. The result is that the abstract concepts can make more sense. Applying the concepts and skills for a real world context helps learners understand the value of the outcomes beyond assessments. Students find purpose in the big picture of the final outcome. They have a face as their audience who needs their support. This can be a motivation for deeper learning, because ‘someone’ is counting on them. The curriculum becomes the food that fuels the learning.

…from the beginning through ‘entry events’

Every PBL unit needs a strong launch. The entry event provides that engagement and purpose for learning. Like authentic learning experiences, which is the common thread throughout a PBL unit, the entry event challenges students’ thinking through real world connections.

Use students’ interests to introduce a topic. When connecting their interests, students can see how the curriculum is visible in their world, outside the walls of academia. The experiences could be sensory such as a video that shows how sneezing spreads bacteria, roleplay to understand the meaning behind a primary source document, or conduct a RAFT journaling exercise.

Invite an expert or outside party to introduce the challenge, explain how the final product assessment relates to their need, and answer questions that begin to build the curricular ties. Use video conferencing so that the partnership could potentially be global. Such experiences help deepen the context of the academic work inside of a meaningful authentic experience.

…by using a ‘need to know’ protocol

Once a PBL unit launches, it’s important to check for content understanding during the entire experience. The Need to Know protocol achieves this need. It’s like a K-W-L, only the questions generated are revisited throughout the unit until they are all answered. The Need to Know protocol is run several times to generate new questions, which may occur once a week.

When answers are reviewed, students vote on if the question is fully addressed. If the vote is not unanimous, then the teacher must provide additional support for whomever needs it. The students determine when academic needs are met. The result is curriculum learning instead of the illusion of content coverage.

One teacher explained that the Need to Know protocol helped him determine what mini-workshops were needed. He was able to determine some of the groupings based on the questions asked, and who shared the same needs.

This formative assessment took provides immediate feedback. The protocol empowers students to determine when something is learned, or if more differentiation is needed. What makes the Need to Know protocol effective is the revisiting of the questions to check for unanimous understanding, and the opportunities to generate more questions later in the unit.

…by designing strategic and differentiated project checkpoints

Every PBL unit breaks down the concepts and skills into components that are checked for student understanding. These checkpoints may occur once or twice a week, and sometimes more often. Checkpoints are different from the daily formative assessments that are done to track progress of the lessons. A skill or concept may take several lessons to show competency. Checkpoints occur when those moments are planned.

Students who pass the checkpoint continue to the next skill or receive differentiated experiences that explore a deeper complexity of the work. Learners who do not pass the checkpoint require differentiated support to meet their readiness needs. Checkpoints avoid the scenario where a teacher discovers that students are behind in their understanding and the school work after weeks, instead of hours or days. Students turning in key artifacts as a checkpoint, such as an outline or graphic organizer. This ensures that teachers can intervene in a timely fashion.

…by insisting on compelling ‘student voice’

One of the advantages of PBL units is the opportunities for allowing students to design their learning. This can take the form of deciding on the topic focus, making product choices, and/or designing their plan of action. Authentic learning experiences and the Need to Know protocols are additional methods to promote students taking charge of their learning.

Typically, the outcome to a PBL unit does not have one single answer. When the focus has an authentic purpose beyond the school, the potential answers and products multiply. Students are able to try several different approaches towards success. Teachers need to concede the limelight so that students learn to lead learning experiences.

Some teachers find student voice exciting and terrifying at the same time. How can students take control of their learning if they do not have the curriculum background? There are multiple answers to that question, which depends on the existing teacher experience level with giving students more control of their learning.

When starting out new to this experience, it’s okay to start simple and slow. Begin with offering students three choices. Define two of the choices with specific guidelines. The third choice is open to encourage students to propose their ideas. If their proposal meets the academic criteria, let them do it. If not, send them back to planning a new idea. Give a deadline for proposals. After time is up, students with unapproved proposals must choose from the two teacher-designed options.

More experienced users of student voice understand that they can define the skills and concepts, holding firm to them as what must be used and demonstrated. At that point, they encourage and coach students to personalize their own pathways towards meeting the expectations. In this way, students build ownership in the work as they get to design it.

Other Strategies for Differentiation within PBL

Within PBL units, as within high quality traditional units, there are many effective strategies that can be differentiated for student needs. Each of the following are good places to start.

…by provided structured feedback opportunities

Formative feedback on a daily basis is important for the long term effectiveness of PBL units, and for ensuring that support needs are met for those learners who struggle and others who need challenge that is more appropriate to their skill level.

From observational checklists, exit cards, journals, quizzes, to assignments, the more that is known about where learners are academically, an effective plan can be developed. Feedback is also about getting students thoughts about the lessons’ effectiveness. If students do not feel that the lesson makes sense to them, then the learning experiences should be adjusted accordingly.

…by using reflection protocols

Use protocols that enable students to lead in the thinking and processing of ideas. Such protocols may include Socratic Seminar, Fishbowls, Harkness Discussion, Save the Last Word for Me, and feedback loop sessions. The teacher can observe for data as well as use post reflections on the protocol experiences to check on needs of students.

…through workstations and learning centers

Setting up stations or centers is a way to give students choice of tasks or have the work designed to their needs. For example, students must visit four of the five centers, which promotes choice. Or students could be required to do specific work at each center, based on their readiness skill needs.

Each center might be color coded by black, red, and blue. The black tasks are for the advanced learners, the red is for those at grade level, and the blue are for those needing support to close the achievement gap. Colors should be changed each time, along with running mixed skill groups.

Use Pinterest or Google Drive folders to create virtual stations. Assign a specific Pinterest board to students based on their readiness needs. Use Google Drive folders to provide a range of options for tasks that students choose from to complete.

…through learning teams

Whenever I ask students what they like about project-based learning, the popular answer is, “I get to work with others. There’s always someone I can get help from.” PBL units often places students into teams to complete tasks and support each other in their learning needs. It’s important that students are grouped based on what each person can contribute academically.

One way to form groups is through the use of Learning Profile Cards. This tool collects from students how they rate themselves in various academic skills and learning preferences. Teachers add anecdotal notes as they get to know their students better. Learning Profile Cards provide a rich perspective on each student that can inform the lesson planning and team formation.

Another important need is to teach students the 21st Century Skill of how to collaborate. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning is a valuable resource. Such skills are especially important as teachers provide coaching to students on communication and collaboration skills, so that they act on their learning in different ways.

For example, some learners like to talk through the work as way to build understanding. Others may prefer to quietly process internally what they understand before sharing. People are likely to do both styles depending on the task, yet they may have one preference over another. Teachers can use a tool like the Henrico 21 TIP Chart to reflect on their practice for teaching and coaching collaboration skills.

Keep Students at the Center of Learning

Differentiation in a PBL unit structures provides many opportunities. Creating authentic real world connections and empowering students to direct their learning is a combination for success. The more that students take on the heavy lifting of learning during the learning experiences, the more room teachers have to personalize support for learners in need.

When planning lessons for a PBL unit, include the step of using the Differentiation lens to determine what additional supports and extensions that students could benefit from. Teachers often know what the needed support should be, based on their experience of previously teaching the skill or concept. Use that knowledge to plan intentional differentiation supports that encourages student success.

image attribution flickr user Fabrice Florin