Once a teacher has been "doing PBL" for a few years they will discover that they can choose whether to take standards and think of a project idea around those standards, or, take a project idea and fit standards into that idea.
Since I have immersed myself into looking at standards, in my new job as an instructional coach, I will base this post on going from the standards to the project idea.
Our district is currently using a Power Standards Protocol, as first mentioned in Larry Ainsworth's Power Standard's book. If you use this process, along with your district's curriculum guides, you will be set up for creating projects that are fully standards based.
To use the protocol you first need to have your district curriculum for the year. Many districts call this a Year at a Glance or YAG. Within your YAG, or equivalent document, you will have standards that you will be expected to cover during set periods or within designated "Units." If you're lucky your district will have given the units a theme or big idea. Having a theme or idea will immediately translate to a project idea and you are already heading in the right direction.
But no matter how it is presented to you, there will be standards that are expected to be taught and here's where the Power Standards Protocol comes in. Power standards are those standards that have endurance, leverage and/or readiness.
Endurance standards are those standards that will be important for students throughout their academic life and beyond. For example understanding whether a math answer is reasonable is a standard in many math courses and at many grades. It is also important in life - when you get that car loan does the monthly bill seem reasonable? That standard has endurance.
Leverage standards are those standards that will be important in multiple classes. For example understanding how to read data in a graph is important in math, in social studies, in science and in many other courses. That is a standard that has leverage.
Readiness standards are those standards that help build a foundation for success in the next course or grade. For example basic arithmetic standards for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing are required to be successful in subsequent math classes. This example is also a standard that has leverage and endurance. So, some standards have all three requirements. And, these are standards that are more powerful - hence power standards.
These days we also look at how standards effect the successful completion of state standardized tests. And so the ideas of endurance, leverage, and readiness must also be discussed in relation to these tests. Results from the previous year for individual students or for specific grades can, and should, be added into the discussion of which standards are Power Standards. If only 44% of your students got the correct answer for questions involving a certain standard and there were 8 questions from that standard on the latest test, then this standard might be a power standard.
So, look at the standards that you have to cover in your next unit. It is a good idea to make an initial prioritization based upon your knowledge of your content and any other relevant factors. Then look at the data from previous years as well as the leverage, endurance, and readiness qualities. This will often change your initial prioritization. Now you are ready for a final prioritization of the standards for that unit.
It is important to understand that prioritizing the standards does not imply that you don't have to cover those standards that received the lowest priority. Every standard will have to be taught and assessed. But, those standards with the highest priority will be your power standards and you will want to make sure that you plan to teach, assess, and reteach (if necessary) these standards. And, you will want to have these standards as key components of your project.
One way to emphasize the power standards is to have them listed in your rubrics. We like to use 4-column rubrics with the first column listing the standards to be covered in the project. You may also want to have line items in the rubric that address these standards specifically. If students know that they are required to master a certain standard or task then they are more willing to take them seriously. Make sure they are aware of what standards they are expected to learn and they will take charge of their learning.
Data mining is now an expected skill in education. And, I would say, this is one of the more important tasks teachers learn in their first few years in the classroom. Through the process of finding the power standards teachers now know what key topics their students need to learn to be successful in the classroom and in the students' future classes. Knowing their power standards can turn teachers into power educators.