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Defining the teacher's role in project-based learning

By Suzie Boss
November 1, 2018
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In Nashville, Tenn., middle school students have created a digital walking tour of their city to help visitors understand the significance of local sites during the civil rights movement. To develop their final product for a public audience, students interviewed professional historians, analyzed primary source documents with the help of a museum curator and interpreted history in their own words.

It’s easy to see how an academically rigorous project like March Through Nashville helped students become Empowered Learners, Knowledge Constructors, Innovative Designers and Creative Communicators — all key goals in the ISTE Standards for Students. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is the essential role that teacher Kimberly Head-Trotter from McKissack Middle School played in guiding her students to successful learning.

Project-based teaching practices

Teachers often tell me they are attracted to PBL because they want students to have more opportunities to make choices and focus on issues that matter to them. Yet many teachers also worry, “If students are leading their own learning, what am I doing?”

PBL veterans like Head-Trotter help us answer that question with practical strategies that work across grade levels and content areas. Watching the Nashville project unfold, you can see how she planned the experience to address key content standards, scaffolded learning for students of different reading levels, coached students through challenges, encouraged feedback from a variety of sources and managed to keep everything on track in an active classroom. 

High-quality PBL isn’t magic, although it may seem that way to newcomers. The game-changer for many teachers is knowing where to focus your attention to support student success.

Drawing on insights from practitioners, instructional coaches and researchers, the Buck Institute for Education has distilled project-based teaching (PBT) into seven key practices. We describe them in detail in Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences and a companion set of videos. There’s also a project-based teaching rubric to help teachers assess their competency with each of the seven practices.



Crosswalk with ISTE Standards for Educators

How do the project-based teaching practices compare and connect to the ISTE Standards for Educators? The two frameworks have considerable overlap. Rather than choosing one or the other to guide your professional growth, think about “both/and” as the best way to improve your practice and better meet the needs of your learners.

Here are just a few examples:

Designer: The ISTE Standards emphasize the teacher’s role as designer of authentic learning experiences that address content standards.

In the PBT framework, two teaching practices support this goal: design and plan is about the decisions teachers make before students launch into a project, from choosing an authentic focus for inquiry to anticipating what students might make or do to demonstrate their understanding.

Skilled PBL designers allow for flexibility in their plans to make adjustments as a project unfolds. Considerations about technology integration, outside experts and potential audiences also come into play as part of project design. Throughout a project, teachers align to standards by connecting activities and assessment to learning targets. Project-based teachers make sure that students understand what the learning goals are and why they matter.

Facilitator: The ISTE Standards call on teachers to facilitate learning with technology to support student achievement. Several PBT practices bring more detail to the role of teacher as facilitator.

Build the culture is paramount for the success of PBL experiences that are student-centered and inquiry-driven. Part of culture-building is an emphasis on excellence and the use of peer critique (along with revision based on feedback) to get to great results.

It takes time to engage students in creating shared norms and setting personal goals. Culture-building doesn’t happen just at the start of the school year or launch of a project; it’s ongoing, involving both teacher and students.

Manage activities is another PBT practice that supports effective facilitation. To improve their project management skills, teachers can focus on strategies for improving teamwork, time management and integrating tools for inquiry and creativity.

Engage and coach, yet another PBT practice, emphasizes the teaching moves that help students take risks, persist through challenges and celebrate successes.

Collaborator: The ISTE Standards emphasize collaboration with teaching colleagues as well as between teachers and students. Similarly, several of the PBT practices emphasize strategies for collaboration.

When teachers design and plan, for example, they improve projects by inviting feedback from colleagues (and sometimes from students, as well). In fact, many project-based teachers use the same protocols for peer critique with colleagues that they use with their students.

During projects, teachers may find that they need to scaffold student learning, another PBT practice, when it comes to collaboration skills. If students are new to teamwork, teachers may provide them with sentence stems for robust (but still respectful) discussions or introduce protocols to help teams reach consensus.


The many teachers who have shared their stories and strategies about project-based teaching remind me of another powerful connection between the ISTE Standards and the PBT practices. Each person we interviewed about project-based teaching is a learner (another ISTE Standard).

To get better at PBL, they ask questions, take part in personal and professional learning networks, and engage in ongoing reflection about what works best for their students. These teachers are also generous about sharing their effective strategies and insights.

Connect with this growing community and expand your own project-based teaching practices by following the Twitter hashtags #pblchat and #hqpbl.

Suzie Boss is the lead author of Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences and a member of the Buck Institute for Education National Faculty. A new edition of her ISTE bestseller, Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age, 3rd Ed., co-authored with Jane Krauss, will be published in November. 

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