Connecting Project Based Learning to Standards

A 3rd-grade class is preparing for an upcoming unit of study.  The teacher envisioned a cross-curricular approach to connect content in social studies with English Language Arts (ELA) using project based learning. She mapped out some potential topics and pulled some resources for students.  She hoped that the outcomes for students might include engaging in research, increasing their ability to work in cooperative groups, and boost their presentation skills. 

She had no idea that this learning would lead students to create a public service announcement, design and publish their own e-book, and present to the local town council. The goals of the teacher were far surpassed, as she used an instructional approach that provided voice and choice for her students while focusing on a driving question for the unit.

Driving questions capture the heart of the learning by posing critical questions to be uncovered. These are compelling questions with big ideas that can’t be answered with a yes or no.  These questions can guide an extensive unit of study pushing students to ponder, discuss, and investigate topics.  At the elementary level, questions might include:

  • Why is it important to be physically active?
  • How might we create a more welcoming environment for new students in our school?
  • Why are bees so important to the environment?

These aren’t just literal level questions.  They require inquiry. These questions don’t just focus on science or social studies.  They encompass design thinking, problem finding, and solution building skills that stretch across many subject areas, as a part of a project based learning (PBL) approach.  Project based learning can be a pathway to discovery and new knowledge.  It can be used in all grade levels and across multiple subject areas, in a way that is student-centered and engaging.

It’s Not About Projects

The name project based learning is slightly deceiving, while students do engage in a culminating experience, this instructional strategy is not simply about projects. It is more about the way that students pursue new knowledge in a comprehensive and meaningful way.

PBL is not an “extra” activity that you squeeze in when you’re done with the regular lesson and have some time. It IS the lesson!  It is real, connected learning that is driven by learners in your classroom.  The 3rd-grade students in the opening scenario were focused on the driving question: How do celebrations convey information about the culture of a region? They investigated their own familial celebrations, as well as local, state, and national traditions.  The PBL experience expanded as students inquired about other countries and the celebrations related to their nationality or countries that they’ve heard about on the news.  This prompted student research, interviews, and the collection of ideas for an e-book on their iPads.  Students were given permission to think beyond the boundaries of a typical lesson and dream creatively about how they might demonstrate their understanding to others.

Connect to Standards

Some teachers may hesitate and ask, “how does this fit into my curriculum?” PBL is a way to connect many aspects of your curriculum with the standards that you need to teach.  Many states have adopted the Common Core Standards to determine what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. While these standards are rigorous, there are other standards that districts and states may adopt.  In addition to these standards, many school districts have also adopted standards in technology (ISTE Standards) or science (Next-Generation Science Standards).  College and career readiness standards are also on the horizon for many states, which could also fit into a project based learning experience.

In a project based learning experience, students are working towards a number of standards.  Not only in reading, but also in speaking, listening, and writing.  Here are some Common Core Standards that would be targeted within just about any PBL experience:


  • Ask and answer questions to demonstrate an understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
  • Why It Aligns: Learners have to read the content to understand the topic and find answers to the driving question. Referring back to the text for answers is a skill that is being built in many ELA classrooms.
  • Use the information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate an understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).
  • Why It Aligns: Learners have to access new information in a variety of ways through text, images, and digital resources.  They also need to take the new information that they have gained and know how it relates to the driving question.
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
  • Why It Aligns: While not all PBL experiences have to incorporate writing, it would make sense that students would (in some form or another) share their ideas in a written form through notes, slides, or on paper.
  • Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.
  • Why It Aligns: The culmination of a PBL experience should include some type of presentation or exhibit where students provide details about their learning. Developing speaking and listening skills are embedded within the standard.
Consider how the Next Generation Science Standards might also be met through the in-depth work that occurs in PBL classrooms.  As students are discovering science concepts, they can:

Additionally, with the increasing access to technology tools in the classroom, our students can also be working towards technology standards within their PBL experience.  Many districts have adopted the ISTE standards as a guide for technology competencies in the 21st century.  Whether as a “Creative Communicator”, expressing themselves using different platforms, tools, and digital media or as a “Global Collaborator” enriching their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally, students are meeting technology standards through their involvement in PBL.

PBL in Action

Student work is displayed around the classroom and into the hallway.  Parents, families, and community members have come to the school to learn more about project based learning from the students who are sharing some of their new knowledge.  One group is sharing a video from the council meeting where they presented about the annual community celebration, while another group is playing a podcast that they created.  Other students are sharing some artifacts from family celebrations and answering questions from visitors.

Though the study was intended to focus on a social studies topic, it expanded into many other areas of the curriculum.  It allowed students to exp[ore new tools and new ideas.  They were able to work both individually and collaboratively through different aspects of the study.  Students were able to connect with their families, their community, and experts around the globe.  Their work was driven by their motivation to find answers to questions and share their knowledge with others.

Project based learning is an opportunity for students to find out about things that impact their world, things they are curious about.  It is an instructional strategy that teachers can implement to provide students more voice and choice in the classroom.  Most importantly, PBL is one step towards giving students ownership over what, how, and why they learn.

About the Author: 
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at


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