Mockingbird_PBL-1.jpegby Pam Mitchell

Beginning the Journey

Mockingbird Elementary embarked on a Project Based Learning (PBL) journey seven years ago after observing PBL in action at  New Tech High @ Coppell, another school in our district. We had already been focusing on Rigor, Relevance, and Relationship (Dr. Bill Daggett) as a district, and we had also been conducting effective service learning projects for several years. Mockingbird educators were planning challenging, authentic learning experiences as well as outstanding service learning projects, so PBL was a natural progression for our innovative educators.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Project Based Learning (PBL) is “…a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning important knowledge and 21st century skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and learning tasks.” – PBL in the Elementary Grades, by Sara Hallermann and John Larmer.

PBL enhanced the already outstanding service learning lesson design we had in place by ensuring that educators started the planning process with learning standards. We also learned that we needed to assess often throughout the project and that we had to be purposeful about creating scaffolding for mini workshops.

While we have had obstacles on our PBL journey, the results have been worth every bump in the road. The best decision we made in the beginning was to use the PBL framework to design service learning projects. Our projects were well-planned to begin with, but adding the PBL framework ramped them up so much that it helped our educators see the value of PBL.

Student Engagement through PBL

Now, every grade level (K-5) has at least one PBL in progress at all times. Grades K-2 may have up to a week between PBLs to give them time to regroup and focus on skills that will make them more successful, such as public speaking. We found that PBL works particularly well in science and social studies, but we have had them in every content area.

PBLs last two to four weeks, depending on the content, skills, and depth of learning that must take place. We are more apt to have Problem Based Learning in math which would typically last two to five days.

As you study the components of PBL, you will see that it is the perfect vehicle to

differentiate instruction as well as keep learners challenged and engaged in learning.

  • Entry Event/Launch – create interest; begin inquiry process; can be simple or elaborate depending on the educator and/or the project
  • Knows and Needs to Knows – learners share what they know and need to know at the beginning of the project; Need to Knows determine future instruction
  • Driving Question – the purpose is stated to guide the PBL planning for educators; may come from learners, but educators typically lead them to the question or topic; serves as the conceptual understanding that learners should be able to answer at the end of the project
  • Social Contracts and Collaboration – set expectations for learner interactions
  • Rubrics (Academic and Future-Ready Outcomes) – scoring guide designed to provide feedback; learners are graded as individuals
  • Scaffolding Activities and Benchmarks – mini workshops to teach concepts and skills as needed and/or requested; critical to ensure academic standards are being learned; check for understanding often
  • Critical Friends – individuals who provide feedback to improve the project; formal process; learners have the option to ignore or accept feedback
  • Final Product – presentation to authentic audience with results of PBL
  • Assessment – designed to assess learners’ growth; formative and summative

PBL empowers learners by giving them voice and choice during different phases of the project; perhaps the focus of the topic, the presentation platform, the product, who they work with, etc. The Critical Friends process has taught our learners and educators to give respectful feedback and question decisions through “I like[s]…” and “I wonder[s]…” language. The Mockingbird future-ready outcomes (21st Century Skills) rubric measures collaboration, communication, character, and critical thinking. PBL affords our learners an opportunity to practice life principles in an authentic setting. Learners are also expected to be able explain their thinking in every facet of the project.

Impact on Teacher Planning & Collaborative Learning

Even though we do not use the PBL framework for all lesson design, there is no doubt that it has significantly influenced our campus. Educators now design lessons that include learner voice and choice, are differentiated based on learner strengths and preferences, and give students the opportunity to reflect. Learners have more autonomy about where to work, who to work with, and how to demonstrate learning through menu choices. We had to move beyond classroom space to enable our learners to collaborate and create work products when completing a PBL Participating in PBL has taught learners how to respectfully work with their peers. It is not unusual to see unsupervised learners collaborating in hallways, the library, or Learning Labs, no matter what they are working on. We love that learners are continually writing proposals and bringing ideas to their teachers (and me!) about how to improve our campus or help others.


Mockingbird Elementary is in an affluent community, but much of my experience is working with children in poverty. I have no doubt that learners in poverty would benefit greatly from PBL as well. They often feel powerless and struggle making meaning of what is being taught.  Having an authentic purpose for learning is motivating for all children, but is particularly important for those in poverty. It helps them make academic connections and transfer concepts learned.  PBL engages all learners in authentic problem-solving opportunities that captures their interest to ensure that they acquire a deep understanding of the content and apply what they learned to real-world situations.

Designing quality PBL is definitely challenging, but none of us would go back to life before PBL.

Learn more about enhancing your curriculum in’s guide to principle 6: