Recently I came away excited from an informational session at the Innovate to Learn Institute on the new C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards by lead writer Kathy Swan Ph.D. because of the emphasis on inquiry, communication and action, all hallmarks of effective project based learning. Taking a look over the Framework PDF I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness and connections to the Common Core and what they call the Inquiry Arc and while the steps are definitely in the right direction I’d like to examine the “Four Dimensions” through the lens of authentic project based learning.
The development of this Framework intentionally stopped short of designating particular standards and content and likely was not meant to advance project based learning specifically. Still, what has been accomplished is a practical structure for planning purposes that should include many of the elements of effective PBL. The table below shows the dive into critical thinking with questioning, inquiry and evaluating in Dimensions 1 and 3 while Dimension 4 pulls in the communication and action that we often see as summative products in PBL with the always important addition of reflection seen here as “critiquing conclusions”. CTL’s PBL model emphasizes Academic Literacy and in the project rubric includes “Students build literacy skills and content knowledge while engaging in expert thinking“. We want students to think like experts in the disciplines in which they are working and I like how Dimension 2 speaks directly to that. But while all of these are pillars of great teaching and learning they stop short of completing the circle of inquiry that makes for effective project based learning by not necessarily building in authentic purpose and engagement for students.
It’s not uncommon for good social studies teachers to work with students to apply the principles of Dimension 2 as they ask students to explain the role of competition in a market economy or compare different accounts of the same historical event. What is uncommon is doing so in a truly inquiry based environment where students are using those Dimension 2 tools of the discipline to uncover content and learning. Returning to the C3 Framework document I like how they have offered some thinking about constructing compelling questions as well as some sample questions like:
- Was the American Revolution revolutionary?
- Was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s a success?
- How will an increase in the minimum wage affect local job opportunities for teens?
- Why are there rules?
- What path should a new transcontinental pipeline take? Or should it be built at all?
As a social studies teacher I like these questions but I do wonder if they are necessarily compelling to students and how we might link them to the communication and action of Dimension 4 with an authentic purpose. One frequent mistake of teachers designing PBL units is to assume what is engaging for us should also engage our students. Supply and demand charts, for example, are very interesting to me but my students often did not share my vigor. One way to increase the engagement is to focus on the “why” students are answering the question. All of the above questions are important for our students but why are they important to them? If the answer is because they’re important in a social studies context that likely will fall short with all but the most scholarly students. If, however, they’re answering those questions in order to take action, communicate or accomplish a goal personally engaging to them we’ve established an authentic and meaningful purpose.
To help with this I like to suggest teachers start by using a template like this for developing a driving or central question for a PBL unit:
How can we as_________________________(role if applicable) do________________________(task) so that_________________________(why/purpose)?
This allows us to make sure the right components are present, especially the task and purpose, before working to make it more student-friendly. The purpose or why could likely be coached or unpacked from several of the sample questions above but that would need to be intentional. Using this template perhaps some of those questions might look more like:
- How can we use the spirit of the American Revolution to create a multimedia appeal for open inquiry in our society today?
- How can we use the lives of present day minorities to tell the story of the success of the ’60’s Civil Rights Movement?
- How can we evaluate the impact of increasing the minimum wage on teens so we can make policy recommendations to local legislators?
- How can we learn the importance of rules so that we can develop norms for our school?
- How can we assess the impact of the transcontinental pipeline in order to make proposals to the governor.
Admittedly these questions are a bit clunky and perhaps awkward but with the task and purpose made clear they’re ready to be distilled down to something more engaging and student-friendly.
Toward the end of the workshop session Dr. Swan noted the challenge of getting teachers and schools to make the instructional shift that the Framework asks and I would agree. But while many might view project based learning as an additional challenge to implementation of the C3 Framework I see it as a means to that end, especially as a vehicle to enhancing the inquiry that Dimension 1 emphasizes. With a clear focus on authentic and engaging purpose the pathway to the cycle of inquiry becomes much easier to navigate as students will more likely lead the way.
For more on our approach project based learning visit Authentic and Project Based Learning.