When you ask someone what that expression means, you may hear different answers. Is it the product you want your students to create? Is it the knowledge the students have to explain to an audience? Or, is it that you want your students to successfully pass a state driven standardized test?
More and more it is the latter. If you are at a normal school in a normal district in the USA, then the pressure of performing well on the state's standardized test can be overwhelming. And when you decide that you want to start teaching with PBL as your mode of instruction, you will hear from someone asking the question, "But will this help students perform at a higher level on the test?"
I like to think that the end goal needs to be that students are achieving a deeper understanding of the standards that are going to be assessed on the test. In other words, have the standards be the "End" that we keep in mind. Let's look at an example of this thinking from an 8th grade U.S. History course. This is a state tested course in Texas. I recently met with our 8th grade teachers to start planning for a project.
The two standards they wanted to focus on for this project were (Texas) 8.15C and 8.15D. 8.15C states: Identify colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and explain how those grievances were addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 8.15D states: Analyze how the U.S. Constitution reflects the principles of limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and individual rights.
In addition to the content we like our teachers to examine certain 21st Century Skills. In our district these skills include Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Digital Citizenship, and Work Ethic. I want our teachers to focus on one or two of these skills when they plan a project. So, our two teachers decided that they wanted to focus on Critical Thinking and Collaboration for this project.
The next step was to look at what role they wanted the students to take. A quick brainstorm gave us the following possible roles: writer/poet, historian, federalist, citizen, and delegate. Then we started looking at how the verbs in the standards, the role the students will play, and the 21st century skill work together for project planning.
Now we were ready for the final step: Using the 21st Century Skills to look at the standards. For example, I suggested the following sentence stem: How do federalists think critically about convincing the public about (something)? The teachers added the following question - "How have (or will) lives change(d) because of this?"
Suddenly our brainstorming for project ideation was really flowing. We could visualize the students in the role of colonial people. We could see them interacting and conversing about this huge change that was coming. Once the teachers could visualize what they wanted their students to experience during the project the rest fell into place.
Beginning with the end in mind can mean different things to different people. I want our teachers totally focused on the standards we are told to teach. That should not hamper the project planning and should not limit the scope of our projects. Instead, the standards should be a catalyst for discussion and project planning.