Tag Archives: curriculum

Planning Your PBL Curriculum

This has been a year like no other, and this summer teachers need to first take care of themselves and then prepare for next year. This is the fourth of a series of posts about how to plan for SEL and PBL as we hopefully return to face-to-face learning next year. Hopefully you have rested and reflected. I have argued that PBL is the answer to how to address the diverse needs of students after this trying year. It focuses on skills and allows for natural differentiation.

Hopefully you are convinced that PBL is the method, but what does it look like to plan for PBL this year? What should you do now? What should you avoid doing?

PBL Experience

The first thing to consider is you and your students’ experience level with PBL. Are you a seasoned PBL veteran or maybe this past year was your first attempt with PBL? Do you use PBL all of the time or for only parts of your curriculum? Will you be teaching the same class or subject as last year or are you in a different position or school? Are you comfortable and confident in the PBL framework or still finding your sweet spot? It’s important to keep in mind a plan that is going to work for you.

What about your students? Do you teach in a comprehensive PBL school where students experience it in every classroom? Or more likely, is PBL limited to a few classrooms or is a new initiative for you and your colleagues? If you are an experienced PBL teacher, but your students are not, then you will need to adjust your planning to match them.

It is vital to consider the comfort level of students for how you introduce PBL to them.

With an accurate perception of you and your students PBL background, determine how much of the year will be dedicated for full-fledged projects. You should always include aspects of PBL such as questioning, inquiry, critiques, and reflection in all of your planning, but which parts of the year will the lights be on all the way?

Big Picture

Once you have determined the number of projects, plot out a scope and sequence for the year. You may already have a mandated scope and sequence to follow. If that’s the case, ask your administration if you can ‘pilot’ something different with PBL. Assuming that you gain some control over your curriculum, there are numerous approaches for big picture planning. Here’s how I like to do it.

In secondary science, social studies, or electives classes print out your standards, cut them into strips, and sort them by themes. If you have essential or power standards, focus on these first. Divide the strips into 8-10 piles that will each turn into a project. Next plot out a logical order to the themes so that they build on each other and put them into a spreadsheet or table. Create columns as shown below.

One semester scope and sequence. Blue and Green are Essential Standards

Next estimate how long to spend on each project based how long you would normally spend on that group of standards. Of course these will also need to add up to the number of total weeks for your class. Build in some flex time for the inevitable interruptions of snow days, assemblies, holidays, etc.

Dream Big

Now comes the fun part. Design project ideas around each theme of standards. Find inspiration all around you. Look to your community for connections to your standards. What professionals use your content in their jobs? Look to current events, student interests, or research what projects other teachers have done. Imagine that you have an unlimited budget. What would you do? How could you scale that down to no money at all?

Limit your planning to the main idea of the project, the driving question, potential community partnerships, and final products. You might fill in a few things for the planned workshops, but for the most part that column should remain blank. You have not met your students yet, so it is not the time to plan every detail. The goal for now is an overarching plan for the year. Then you can plan the details of your first project only. Save the rest for after you get to know your students because your project ideas should shift over time.


If you are a self-contained elementary teacher, you can follow the same general plan. Projects tend to live in the science and social studies curriculum, so build your project around a set of those standards. ELA and math are skills based content. Once you have a science or social studies project, bring in English standards by adding various literature from non-fiction to novels to poetry. Tie in specific writing standards that match the final product. Reading and writing are always skills to be practiced in every PBL project.

Do the same thing with math. Find ways to practice specific math standards with data collected during the inquiry stage of the project. Have students plot graphs and charts to explain their conclusions. Students can analyze statistics that they collect or from reliable sources.

For secondary ELA teachers, I recommend designing projects around a theme from literature, student interests, or the news. Reading and writing standards are flexible about the ‘what” so allow student voice and choice. It is important to distinguish that the project is not about the book, but the theme of the book. So instead of a project about Lord of the Flies, the project is about how and why humans create government. Consider teaming up with a social studies teacher and launching a project together.

It is similar for secondary math teachers. Find a project theme in science or social studies and use math to explore it. Look at the math behind climate change, poverty, inequality, or physics. Think of PBL math as an authentic story problem that students actually care about solving. The one caveat for math teachers is that I recommend only one project a semester as there are too many discreet content standards in this content area. Consider teaming up with a science teacher and launching a project together.


The other powerful result from summer planning is the opportunity to plan an integrated project with other teachers. Elementary teachers who teach the same grade level can collaboratively plan out some projects. Or maybe design some multi-grade level projects for your students.

For secondary teachers, compare your standards with other disciplines for cross over standards. For example biology and world history both look at topics such as human-environment interactions, travel of invasive species, social Darwinism, and race. English teachers can plan to read certain literature to match social studies themes. Geometry standards could be integrated into arts classes. Math can be found in almost any science class, along with economics and government.

Look at your scope and sequences and plan in a way that you and your colleagues are addressing the cross-over standards at the same time during the year. You may have to shift some things around but it is worth it to plan a cohesive, integrated project. This kind of planning needs to happen before the year starts. Otherwise everyone will already be committed to the path that they have chosen.

Interested in how you can create a positive culture by developing SEL skills integrated in your classroom? Check out my virtual workshop this Friday! I am also booking workshops with schools across the country on PBL and SEL.

PBL Adapter vs. Inventor: Who’s better?

During workshops sometimes participants ask about whether they need to create a project from scratch to be “real” PBL?  I explain two different approaches to becoming a PBL teacher. The first approach is the Adapter. This teacher finds a great project idea somewhere, tweaks and adapts it, and makes it their own to use with her students. The second approach is the Inventor. This teacher starts from scratch and comes up with their own PBL idea creating a powerfully unique project for her students.

The bias of many people is that the Inventor is actually at a higher level of PBL, than the mere Adapter. Therefore PBL coaches should push all teachers to become PBL Inventors.

My Personal Experience

I would say that I am by nature an Inventor. I love curriculum and enjoy the process of creating something new, out of the box that is mine. When I taught history I created my own projects that reflected my passions around the content and were relevant to students. I definitely was a PBL snob that would say that the Inventor is superior to an Adapter. I would even go so far as to say that I had some unhealthy pride in this area.

But then I started teaching a PBL math class. I didn’t invent any projects, but stole ideas from all over the web. I did not have the same depth of knowledge in the subject.

I had a whole new, and I would add humbling, perspective on why some people are PBL Adapters.

In history, I was a PBL Inventor, but in math I was a PBL Adapter. For the first time I realized that both paths were equal in bringing high quality PBL to my students.

False Hierarchy

In our American culture, we worship the Inventor. We have popular TV shows like Shark Tank (and it’s a popular PBL concept too) based around being an entrepreneur. The truth is that nothing happens in a vacuum. The first iPhone did not fall out of Steve Jobs ear (hat tip to Feroze). Before the iPhone we had pagers and then flip phones and even Blackberries with internet. Going back further we had car phones and cordless phones in our homes. We could go back to Alexander Graham Bell and even the telegraph, if we wanted to.

The point is, that in reality everything is a progressive customization of something that already exists. The projects that I “invented from scratch” included:

  • an entry event idea that I stole from a teacher blog
  • standards required of me by my state
  • protocols that I learned from a conference that I went to
  • online tools that I found from educators on Twitter
  • a challenging problem that a community partner gave me
  • a culminating art piece that I took from an event in my community

So not only is there is no hierarchy of the quality between being an Inventor or Adapter, they really aren’t different approaches at all. Rather PBL is a spectrum of how much you customize ideas and from how many different places the ideas come from.


The key to growing as a PBL teacher is not whether you are an Inventor or Adapter, but the degree to which you “own” the PBL planning process. What matters is that the project that you put in front of students is yours. It is not something appropriated without modifications, but you have tweaked it based on your skillset and your students abilities and needs.

If you own a project, then it reflects both your comfort level with PBL and also thoughtful intention to make content accessible and engaging for your students. So don’t even worry about where you are on the spectrum of customizing.

Instead ask yourself, have I owned the planning process to the extent that this is the best project that I can implement for the greatest impact on my students?

Designing curriculum is a skillset of its own, separate from teaching. It is not taught in teacher education schools or even most graduate classes unless you specialize in curriculum. Some amazing teachers are not strong Inventors of their own lessons and there is no shame in that as they may be amazing facilitators of student experiences in the classroom!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.