By David L. Reese, Ed. D.
Explorers such as Vasco de Gamma, Ponce de Leon, and Magellan used maps to help navigate the oceans and waters of the world to find routes and new places. Some of these places were known but many were unknown and waiting to be discovered. The map was only one part of the journey to reach the destination. The Captain needed to have knowledge of many things such as stars, weather, water currents, as well as an understanding of the tools necessary to apply this knowledge. The crew was very complex, and it was critical that the Captain lead the crew and maximize their output. Skills were often different for each crew member. The ability to interact and work with the leaders of countries and ports was also necessary to make the expeditions successful.
Curriculum is similar, in that it is a map to a destination. The map is only part of the curriculum. To truly become successful in an uncertain world, students need to be learning navigators. Through an authentic learning process, students utilize soft skills, learn how to problem solve, use a variety of skills and content areas to discover new destinations and answer the challenges before them.
In the “real world” academic content rarely exists in isolation. The world we live in requires us to use content knowledge from multiple disciplines to navigate the world and solve problems in our daily lives and in the world around us. This premise begins the foundation for creating an authentic and engaging curriculum. It is critical for students to have knowledge based upon a strong foundation in the content provided in school. The application of this content to new and “uncharted” situations allows students to utilize this content in a variety of ways to demonstrate true understanding. In each situation, students will need to apply information from a variety of content areas to solve a problem or address a situation through the development of products.
For instance, marine archeologists utilize a variety of subjects to help plan and implement a mission. Often, the discovery of a shipwreck raises concerns related to historical artifacts and the ethics of dealing with potential human remains. Students need to understand the importance of maintaining a shipwreck site while also being able to retrieve items either for a museum or to sell to fund this and future exploration. Students need to understand how ecosystems may be impacted by the shipwreck as it settled and potential issues associated with the exploration within the shipwreck. From a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) point of view, the students need to understand the inputs and outputs necessary to get to the wreck site. This journey may involve a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and the pressures existing at different depths impacting the functions of the ROV. Also, students need to think of innovative solutions to retrieving artifacts while maintaining the integrity of the wreck. Often a number of governments may fight over the sovereignty of the wreck, creating much debate about the true owner of the wreck and the goods within.
Another critical attribute of an authentic and engaging curriculum is the utilization of skills that can help make students “future ready” and learning navigators. These are often referred to as 21st century skills or the 4C’s (communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking). It is essential for schools and teachers to provide students with the opportunity to use and apply these skills to address issues and solve problems. Other skills to incorporate include problem solving, globalization skills, and entrepreneurship.
In the marine archeologist example, students need to collaborate to gather and utilize information related to the shipwreck and the location of the wreck. Then they must think critically to determine the best way to navigate the wreck. Based on their target audience, they need to communicate these findings through a variety of products and explain the value of the wreck and its contents. To be successful, these products should be creatively crafted and consider the culture for which they are intended. The use of technology may be beneficial in the development and presentation of certain products.
The guided inquiry process utilizes performance tasks to help students structure the problem or project. Many educators employ the Understanding by Design GRASP template (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) for the development of a task. GRASP is an acronym for Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, and Products. This framework presents the opportunity for students to analyze the challenge and begin to determine the best way to move forward. Performance tasks have several key components. One important characteristic is that they often have more than one correct answer. These tasks require students to utilize higher-order thinking skills as well as 21st century skills. This enables student to create a personal connection to the task.
Students need to understand the task before them and most importantly their role in the task and the audience who is the focus for product creation. The goal will drive their research and the communication of knowledge to the audience. In this process they need to use evidence from content and research to justify their conclusions and support their perspectives.
To make this process successful, supportive teaching strategies should be utilized. A number of inquiry-associated processes can be beneficial. A synthesized version of the Cycle of Learning for Authentic Work (Pahamov, 2014) and the Buck Institute’s (2015) Gold Standard for PBL are two great resources for understanding and implementing performance tasks. Within this pedagogical process inquiry begins driving the process based upon the target audience. Research is conducted and collaboration occurs among the team members. Having students work in teams is very valuable. Groups of three are ideal. The result of this collaboration is the product development and presentation. Having the students role play the audience, or having an authentic audience available, strengthens the relevance of the process and increases student engagement. The students take much more pride in their work when sharing with others in a real-world setting.
Reflection is the final part of the process. In the real world, seldom is a first version the final version. This is often an “ah ha” moment for the students. This can also be a chance to do self-reflection, consider peer feedback as well as feedback from the teacher and the audience.
Creating authentic and engaging curriculum is challenging for teachers and school systems. Sharing ideas on how this can be done purposefully and in alignment with learning targets across subject areas is the goal. These ideas can also reinforce the vision for a school based upon the citizens they wish to produce as they exit the school system. Connecting content and skills through a meaningful teaching and learning process benefits all stakeholders and prepares students for their journey ahead.
This process can help students gain the skills necessary to become learning navigators. For past explorers, the unknowns often turned out to be incredibly successful. They began their journey looking for one thing and through the process found much more. When provided with the opportunity to hone the necessary skills and content, students will be better prepared to explore the world and their own learning.
Cabrera, D. & Cabrera, L. (2009). Thinking at every desk. New York: Norton & Co.
Hoerr, T. R. (2013). Fostering grit. Alexandria, VA:ASCD
Larmer, J. & Mergendoller, J. (2015, April 21). Gold standard PBL: Essential project design elements. Buck Institute for Education. Retrieved December 15, 2016, from:
McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Pahomov, L. (2014). Authentic learning in the digital age. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2015). Characteristics of 21st Century learners. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from:
International Center for Leadership in Education (2014). Rigor/Relevance framework. Retrieved December 13, 2016, from:
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