Differentiation through Project Based Learning

Transforming one’s classroom from a traditional setting to the implementation of project based learning can be an intimidating task.  One of the questions that can arise is how educators can differentiate learning in a project based setting.  McCarthy (2016) points out five key areas that can be differentiated in order to meet the learning needs of all students.  They are:

  • Authentic Purpose
  • Entry Event
  • Need to Know protocol
  • Checkpoints
  • Student Voice

Students who are at risk or struggle with learning in a traditional setting might become less motivated to learn or really cannot understand that what they are learning applies to the real world.  Through project based learning, students have a wider audience and they apply what they are learning to real-world activities.  They are not just answering to their teacher.  When they see that their projects make an impact on the wider community, they might be more motivated to work.  No longer can students say, “When am I ever going to use this?”

Likewise, a strong entry event sets the tone for the project.  It gets students engaged in the project and develops a purpose for what they are going to learn.  A strong entry event connects students interests with the curriculum.  Like the authentic purpose, an effective entry event shows students how the curriculum relates to their world outside of the school walls (McCarthy, 2016).

It is important to check for content understanding throughout the entire project.   McCarthy (2016) calls this the Need to Know protocol.  It is similar to the K-W-L  strategy except the questions are revisited throughout the entire project until all the questions are answered.  Because the Need to Know protocol is frequently run throughout the project, new questions may arise.  When the instructor reviews the answers with the students, the students vote whether the question was fully addressed.  If there are students who do not feel the answers were addressed, then the instructor must give additional support to those students who feel they need it.  The students help determine whether they feel their academic needs were met rather than the instructor deciding whether the content was covered.

Weekly or bi-weekly checkpoints should also occur along with daily formative assessments.  Students who pass the checkpoint move onto the next skill level; however, students who do not pass the checkpoint will receive differentiated support to meet their needs.  Checkpoints are useful to the instructor and student because they help identify any problems or misconceptions before they get too far into the project (McCarthy, 2016).

Finally, one of the biggest ways to differentiate learning in PBL is to allow for student voice.  Students might be able to design the topic focus, make choices on the end product, and/or design their own plan of action (McCarthy, 2016). This aspect may be hard for instructors who are very used to leading the show, but it is very important for students to be able to help lead their learning.

The two areas that excite me about project based learning are the authentic purpose and student voice.  I think when anyone with any type of ability feels like what they are doing has meaning and when they have a choice with regards to completing the task, learning will undoubtedly take place.  As I read about the Need to Know protocol and the checkpoints, they seemed very familiar and logically take place even in a traditional educational setting.  Formative assessments take place daily in both settings; however, I feel that the checkpoints discussed in PBL are more planned and probably take place more frequently in a PBL setting.  It seems that when carried out effectively, PBL feels more planned and more attention is paid to detail and whether all the students are understanding the material rather than just covering the content.

McCarthy, J. (2016, November 15). How do I differentiate through project-based learning?. In teachthought. Retrieved February 5, 2017, from http://wegrowteachers.com/differentiation-in-a-project-based-learning-unit/