How PBL Aligns with Effective Teaching Frameworks, Part 2: Planning

In my last post, I made the case for easing teachers into the shift from traditional teaching to project-based learning. I discussed the alignment between project-based teaching and the frameworks for effective teaching already used by many schools, districts, and other organizations. In this post, I’ll focus on one category of teaching practices found in both the Danielson and Marzano frameworks: planning.

The Danielson Group lists these 6 components of “Planning and Preparation":

1a. Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy 

The elements of this include knowledge of the academic discipline; of prerequisites; and content-related “signature pedagogies.”

1b. Demonstrating Knowledge of Students 

The elements of this include knowledge of child development; of the learning process; of students’ skills, knowledge, language proficiency, interests and cultures, and special needs.

1c.  Setting Instructional Outcomes 

The elements of this include setting outcomes that represent the value, sequence, and alignment of disciplinary standards; that are clear, referring to what students will learn, not do; that reflect a balance of different types of learning, such as knowledge, conceptual understanding, and thinking skills; and that are appropriate for diverse students.

1d.  Demonstrating Knowledge of Resources 

The elements of this include the use of appropriately aligned and challenging materials, including a range of texts, internet and community resources, and guest speakers.

1e.  Designing Coherent Instruction 

The elements of this include the use of learning activities that engage students; instructional groups; and clear and sequenced lesson and unit structure.

1f.  Designing Student Assessments 

The elements of this include assessments that are aligned with outcomes; clearly defined criteria and standards; and the use of formative assessments.

The Marzano Center/Learning Sciences International, in its Teacher Evaluation Framework, calls the domain “Standards-Based Planning” and describes these 3 elements:

    • Planning Standards-based Lessons and Units

This element includes alignment with grade-level standards; supporting different student needs; incorporating resources and technology; planning questioning strategies and group processes, and monitoring student work for evidence of learning.

    • Aligning Resources to Standards

This element includes the resources and technology used; the level of text complexity; and the use of other human resources besides the teacher.

    • Planning to Close the Achievement Gap Using Data

This element includes addressing the cultural and demographic needs of students; knowledge of equity issues; and using formative and summative assessment strategies to track individual and whole-class learning.

How Teachers Plan PBL Experiences

I could just say, truthfully, “all of the above are included in high-quality PBL” and be done… But that would be cheating. I do see all of these effective teaching practices employed by teachers during projects, plus more that are particular to PBL. But rather than attempt a one-to-one matching exercise, let me explain what I see as some of the clearest connections.

An important note before going further: like teachers using “traditional” instruction, PBL teachers can either design their own units (aka projects) or adapt already-designed materials they’ve found online, borrowed from a colleague, or gotten from a curriculum provider (like Defined Learning). When using already-designed materials, if they’re good, teachers find that many of the effective teaching practices are already incorporated into them. But teachers still need to plan how to meet the needs of their own particular students and context, map out the details, and adapt the materials as necessary—that’s where the effective teaching practices come in. This is the case whether a teacher uses traditional or PBL materials.

Another important note, in case teachers and school leaders, have a common misconception about what PBL is—there are many forms of “project-based learning.” One goes more or less like this: students pick a topic, learn something about it independently, then share their learning in a written product, presentation, or by constructing a physical or digital artifact. That’s the common stereotype.

A different form of PBL is when the teacher designs or adapts a project that the class does as a whole. There is room for student voice and choice in this model, and student teams may work on different aspects of the project or perhaps produce varied products. This is the kind of PBL I’m talking about. There is room for both forms in a student’s school experience, but the more teacher-guided project is where the effective teaching practices align the most.

Alignment of the Frameworks and PBL Planning

Both frameworks for effective teaching describe planning in terms of content, pedagogy, resources, and meeting the needs of students. A major theme is “alignment.” Here’s how a PBL teacher uses these same practices:


  • Teachers design or adapt projects that explore important ideas, skills, and concepts in a discipline. A project is not simply an “engaging activity”; it is focused on important learning goals and key standards. Good projects explore ideas and concepts at the heart of academic disciplines. Teachers consider whether a project is appropriate for students, given their age, prior knowledge and experience, and where it fits into the sequence of a course or subject. 
  • Teachers design or adapt projects that engage students by focusing on issues, problems, or topics that connect to their lives, cultures, identities, and communities. This requires knowledge of their students—their interests, backgrounds, skill levels, and special needs.
  • Teachers bring a variety of resources into projects, which may include technology, authentic informational text, outside experts, and community resources. 
  • Teachers plan instruction and activities that are all intended to support successful completion of the project; everything in the project is coherent because it is aligned toward that goal. Teachers plan how to differentiate and scaffold students learning in a project; how to use student groups; and how to use formative assessment to guide instruction.

To sum it up, the process of planning a PBL experience is very similar to planning a unit in traditional teaching. The differences have to do with the degree of student independence (there’s more of it in PBL) and the degree to which the teacher directs every lesson and activity (there’s less of that in PBL). The other key difference is about whether students learn better by passively absorbing knowledge delivered by a teacher or textbook, or whether they learn better by becoming engaged in a task that creates a genuine need to know the content and gain the skills. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, but I think you can guess my opinion on that!

In my next post, I’ll discuss the next category of effective teaching: the classroom environment and conditions for learning.

About the author:

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. He has also written numerous blog posts and is the author of several articles and books on PBL for K-12 teachers, school leaders, and parents. John is now the PBL Senior Advisor at Defined where he supports the development of the company’s PBL content strategy and professional learning program.




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