Where Performance Tasks Fit in the PBL Spectrum

Teachers often joke about the jargon in education—I’ve heard it called “edu-speak.” It can be mysterious to non-educators, and confusing and off-putting even to those of us on the inside. Have you run across, for example… authentic assessment? Social-emotional learning? Blended learning? Culturally relevant pedagogy? Personalized learning? Design thinking? Place/phenomenon/inquiry/problem-based learning? And let’s not even get started on the acronyms…

In this post, I’d like to clarify what I see as the relationship between two of these edu-terms: “performance task” and project-based learning (PBL). Those of you who are familiar with Defined Learning have seen them both used in their curriculum for Defined Learning and Defined Careers.

I’ve recently begun to consult with Defined Learning, which includes writing performance tasks –which in DL’s model are basically projects—for civics. I come from a background with the Buck Institute for Education (now dba PBLWorks) and have lived in the world of progressive education, deeper learning, and whole-school reform for over 30 years now. The projects I’m helping Defined Learning create are compatible with the kind of PBL I’m steeped in, although DL’s brand has distinct features.

(Side note: my colleague and occasional co-author of books on PBL, Suzie Boss, wrote a blog post in 2017 for Edutopia that describes Defined Learning’s use of career-focused PBL curriculum units.)


The Range of PBL

My recent post at Defined Learning’s Educators Blog talked about what PBL is and is not. I distinguished “dessert projects” from “main course” PBL, with the latter being a more rigorous and fully-developed use of the teaching method. The key difference: is the project just an engaging activity that is peripheral to the unit, or is it used as the primary vehicle for teaching the content? 

I’ve observed that there is a range within main course PBL, too. Although they all are what I call “Gold Standard PBL,” projects may vary along several dimensions. Here are three basic categories:

Shorter projects:
  • Take about 1 week to 10 days (5-8 hours of class time). If it has fewer than that, it will lack key features of PBL.

  • Have one or two relatively easy-to-create products.

  • Focus on 1-3 standards/learning goals.

  • Usually involve one subject area.

  • Tend to involve less-formal presentations or other ways of making student work public.

  • Do not typically involve going out into the community or interacting with outside experts, organizations, product users, etc.

Longer projects:
  • Take at least 2 weeks, sometimes up to 4 or 5. Most work is done in class, but some may be homework/done outside of class time.
  • Often include more two or more subject areas.
  • May have more complex products that require more time, skill, and tech tools to create.
  • Include time to focus on explicitly building and assessing “process skills” (aka 21st century success skills).
Ambitious projects:
  • May last 6 weeks or more—even a whole semester sometimes.
  • Involve more than one complex product.
  • Usually include several subject areas and multiple standards/learning goals.
  • Typically involve work in the community or wider world, and interaction with outside experts, organizations, product users, etc.
  • Usually culminate with a “big event” involving a public audience.

Where Performance Tasks Fit

Defined Learning’s brand of PBL uses the term “performance task” in the projects they provide. As originally outlined by Jay McTighe, these tasks align with the Understanding by Design framework. Each project comes with an “essential question” and a “big idea” that frames the project. Then there’s a performance task—which basically means an activity in which students have to do something to demonstrate their learning, not just memorize information.

Each performance task is written for the student audience, and contains five parts, with the acronym GRASP:

  1. Goal: What your overall task is.
  2. Role: What your career role is.
  3. Audience: Who you are doing the task for: typically a client or company.
  4. Situation: What the real-world scenario is: the problem you are solving or need you are meeting.
  5. Product(s) and/or Performance: What you need to create.

The tasks are typically on the “shorter” or “longer” side of the PBL spectrum described above; teachers can choose to make them longer and more complex if they wish. They are typically simulations, but teachers and students can also make connections to actual real-world organizations, experts, and public audiences. Because they’re so engaging for students, they might become more ambitious than originally planned—that tends to happen in PBL!


An Added Benefit

I see the performance tasks as serving an important purpose beyond their educational value for students. The tasks are well-designed, do-able, fully supported projects that can help teachers learn what PBL is all about. Instead of having to design their own projects from scratch—which, although enjoyable, takes time—teachers can “jump-start” their practice of PBL, which might be new to them, and get comfortable with this new way of teaching and learning.

Moving forward from that, I hope and trust that teachers and students will find PBL to be rewarding and effective, and not just use it occasionally but make it part of their regular experience in school. And then, voila - education will have shifted in a new direction for the 21st century. It’s about time!

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 is now an independent consultant who has written a forthcoming book on civic education for K-8 teachers, is writing a PBL history curriculum for Educurious, and develops civics performance tasks for Defined Learning.




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