Project-based learning (PBL) involves a large time commitment, so if you are going to make the time investment, you'll want to focus on the big ideas in our classroom curriculum.
In order to frame project work, you need to determine exactly what it is you want students to know and do as a result of completing the project. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe refer to this process as "Backward Design" in their book Understanding by Design. Here is a simple process to help you determine the enduring understanding behind your topic:
1. Brainstorm a list of ALL the different things you teach on this topic.
2. Review the list. Group the items together by theme or other obvious relationship.
3. Write the theme or relationship next to each grouping.
4. Review the groups. Try to combine them together under a larger theme.
5. Repeat this process until you have only one theme left.
6. Write a sentence of no more than six words that articulates the big idea.
Once you have determined exactly what students should understand when they finish a project, framing project work becomes much easier. The next step is to write an essential question that will drive the project.
An essential question:
has many different answers and no obvious correct answer, and as such, provokes disagreement;
leads to discovery by requiring students to UNcover and REcover important ideas;
seeks to solve real life problems or address real world issues;
requires responses to be an assessment of current information combined with experiments and
experiences to form an argument or solution;
is at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy;
engenders further interest in the topic by leading to many more questions.
For example, look at the topic of immigration. A question like "How many immigrants entered the United States from 1800-1850?" has a right answer. While you may ask the above question, it should not drive a project.
Instead, you might ask "What factors contribute to successful relocation of new immigrants?" This question drives at the enduring understanding much more effectively. The question has more than one right answer. The topic was and is still is an important issue. A product or task you could assign the students might be to develop a plan for support the new immigrants who arrive in your city.
If search online for "essential questions" and your subject or topic, you are sure to get some relevant hits. Wallingford Public Schools in Connecticut has also posted some great enduring understanding and essential questions to their district website for:
Dr. Sara Armstrong also shares some great idea for questioning in general in her article, "How Do You Know and Why is it Important?"