If It’s Not Medium Agnostic, It’s Not Project-Based Learning


In the last post we explored explicit steps for the designing of student-created rubrics, and we touched upon the significance of rubrics/project-based learning (PBL) experiences being medium agnostic. In this particular context, this term can be defined as…

Learning that is driven by enduring understandings (not tasks), and therefore students can demonstrate their knowledge however they choose.

Now, let’s look at how we can promote medium agnostic learning experiences in our classrooms…

The Medium Agnostic Rubric

All types of rubrics (not just those created by students) are medium agnostic when the categories and descriptors are focused on learning, no tasks.

For example, an excerpt from a poor rubric might read, “The poster includes at least 6 facts about the state and is interesting to read.” In this instance, we have at least two problems, as (1) students must create posters to demonstrate their knowledge, thus throwing a great deal of choice/creativity out the window, and (2) a hidden emphasis on compliance (not learning) exists, as students know exactly what to do (include 6 facts) to receive the highest mark.

Meanwhile, from a rubric on an opinion/argument unit, a superior descriptor under the reasons/evidence category might read, “Multiple reasons support claim. Evidence is clearly stated and supports reasons with statistical numbers/data or stories. Audience is convinced!” What is of significance here is this descriptor (which was created by teachers during our professional development session) can be met however students choose: essay, TED Talk, radio show, etc.

The Planning

A question many teachers will have…“Once I have the ‘right’ rubric (whether it was created by my students, me, or someone else), how do I structure the PBL experience in a way that ensures all students learn what they need to learn?”

First, with student-created rubrics, check their work to make sure, at the very least, (1) all pertinent categories are present, (2) all categories align to standards, (3) descriptors are medium agnostic, and (4) earning the highest level for each descriptor correlates with a deeper understanding of content…In many instances, especially at the elementary level, student-created rubrics are designed as a class. In these cases, the teacher can steer the rubric (and students’ ideas) in the appropriate direction while it is being constructed.

Once every student has the proper rubric in hand, the next step is to distribute a PBL planning form in which students lay out specific components of their projects.

Here is some of what could be included in this form, in order:

  • The project’s title
  • The project’s essential/driving question (which should promote inquiry and not be Googleable)
  • A project summary
  • The plans for the project to meet the highest level of each rubric category (This plan could be divided into multiple sections, by category.)
  • Knowledge/Understandings/Skills/Resources needed for the documented plan to become a reality (possibly divided into multiple sections, by category)
  • The project’s timeline, along with possible checkpoints during which students confer with the teacher as part of the formative assessment process
  • For group projects, the plan for who will be responsible for what
  • How the project’s process will be documented, from beginning to end
  • How the work will be made public

I would create the form in a Google doc and distribute it via Google Classroom by creating a new assignment, attaching the documen, and then selecting the option, Make a copy for each student. Or, I would circumvent Google Classroom altogether and use this simple trick from Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler).

What’s Next?

A question many teachers will have now…“Once the students complete their PBL planning forms, what do I do next?”

The answer…in short, class time should be a mix of (1) students working on their projects, while (2) the teacher provides hands-on, inquiry-based lessons that focus on the same standards/content/understandings as the projects (and therefore supports students with their work).

The Buck Institute offers a project design template that can help with this instruction. And, as you will notice, some of the template’s components are included in this post’s previous section under recommendations for the student planning form…To promote inquiry/creativity/student choice, get in the habit of letting your students own their PBL experiences as much as possible!

In the End

We now have:

  1. This post
  2. The previous post, “Project-Based Learning Professional Development (part 2) Student-Created Rubrics”
  3. “Project-Based Learning Professional Development (part 1)”

These three posts (read from oldest to newest) and their accompanying resources should combine to provide a solid foundation for implementing PBL with students and/or facilitating PBL professional development with educators.

At the same time, I realize this progressive/student-centered mentality may be a bit much (especially for educators who are new to PBL). So, for a more streamlined post/approach, I can recommend “Project-Based Learning: The Easiest Way to Get Started.”

What experiences have you had with project-based learning? In what ways have you worked with students to “own” the process?

Connect with Ross on his blog and on Twitter.

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