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How Do You Integrate PBL With...

Updated: 4 days ago

"What does it look like when a team of teachers plans for an interdisciplinary project?" "How can we have interdisciplinary project-based learning in high school when we don't share students?" "So when do you actually do project-based learning during the day?"


I love these questions. These questions mean that teachers have moved from a theoretical planning stage to something more practical. They are getting close to figuring out how they might implement the experience that they're planning for their students!


To continue to expand the thinking around best practices in PBL, I'd like to humbly offer a couple of narratives to add to the body of work that supports the thoughtful integration of high-quality project-based learning. Let's look at the questions that launched this voyage. I asked some friends to help me by describing a day in the life of their projects.


"What does it look like when a team of teachers plans for an interdisciplinary project?"


To explore how teachers might integrate an interdisciplinary project into their schedule, we're going to consider this example from a team of middle school teachers. (Please note that this process can be adapted for departmentalized intermediate grades)

About the teachers

These teachers share students and have a weekly common planning time. On a day during this project, the Language Arts, Science, and Math classes are actively using the project as a vehicle for their content.

Project Idea

Groups of students will investigate different forms of energy, forms of conservation, electrical systems, and create a proposal for ways to make their home, a building in the community, or our school more energy efficient. They should have a cost summary, a 3-D or Google Sketch-Up model, and a written proposal. They will present their recommendations to the class, the chief district engineer, and (when applicable) business owners, parents, and local government members.

Driving Question

How can we be more energy efficient?

Now that we have the background of this project, let's take a look at what might be happening on a day in the life of this project for each teacher in the team.

PBL on a Given Day:


Science - Groups are sharing their initial ideas with the district engineering department to get feedback on the validity of their plans.


ELA - Students write and revise proposals, focusing on learning how to cite research in their proposals.


Math - Individual students practice cost summaries using sample data to gain the skills needed to create a cost summary for the project.

Social Studies - This is not integrated into the project, so the teacher is engaging students in unrelated content but will refer to the project to the students and check in on how they are doing to show that they are a united team.


PE - This is not integrated into the project, so the teacher is engaging students in content that is unrelated to the project.


Specials/Electives - These are not intentionally integrated into the project, as students at this school take a wide variety of electives (world languages, orchestra, sculpture, etc.). The arts, tech, and engineering electives teachers are aware of the project so that students may direct additional questions regarding digital tools and overall aesthetics. There's also an agreement with the engineering teacher that students may use parts of the project (GoogleSketch up, etc.) to satisfy requirements in their classroom.

What did you notice in this description? I appreciated that these teachers didn't try to fit subjects into the project in the name of interdisciplinary learning. We need to remember our "why" behind project-based learning. It's not just for the sake of "doing PBL." Instead, we're trying to make learning more profound and meaningful for our students. We shouldn't add another subject to a project if the addition doesn't lead to better outcomes.


We need to remember our "why" behind project-based learning. It's not just for the sake of "doing PBL." Instead, we're trying to make learning more profound and meaningful for our students. We shouldn't add another subject to a project if the addition doesn't lead to better outcomes.

Another aspect I'd like to highlight is how the core team collaborated with the engineering teacher to allow students to get the most value out of the time they spent on the project. This example of collaboration indicates that teachers at the school take time to share learning to ensure that their students see connections. Planning for interdisciplinary projects is sometimes as simple as sharing what's coming up in your class with colleagues and looking for connections to support one another.


“How can we have interdisciplinary project-based learning when we don’t share students in high school?”


Before I share the following example, I'd like to take a moment to talk about a couple of approaches to planning integrated projects - interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary.


In "PBL Utopia" (if there is such a place), projects take place where all subject areas have an equally important role. Students build key content ideas and develop essential skills as they contribute to the products of learning, which is what we call the interdisciplinary approach. Finding the time for teachers and students to collaborate when there isn't common teaming or planning time is complicated. It's also quite challenging to sync the sequence of our syllabi. We often see success with interdisciplinary projects at the high school level when they're using the academy model or when two or more entire departments commit to collaborating. (Or when a handful of teachers go above and beyond to secure extra planning time to sort out logistics.)


The other successful approach that folks take in high school is multidisciplinary learning. In the multidisciplinary approach, there can be a single overarching question (e.x. What is the impact of movement on our lives?), but each participating class has its focus and project. The teachers use moments of reflection to help students connect learning to that overarching question. There might be an exhibition at the end that celebrates all the different projects. Let's take a closer look at a day in the life of multidisciplinary projects at a high school.

About the teachers

These teachers don't share students and don't have regular time to meet together. Their building leadership supports innovation, so they've provided the teachers with a stipend to meet once a month after school to plan for project-based learning. On a day during this project, a handful of teachers from Language Arts 1, Dance 1, and Global History 1 classes are actively using the project as a vehicle for their content. This school will invite the community to celebrate student learning through a whole school event towards the end of the semester.

Project Ideas

All of the classes connect their projects under the umbrella of the question I referenced in the paragraph above, "What is the impact of movement on our lives?"

  • Language Arts 1 students are investigating "How can we move others?". They're studying poetry forms and creating a poetry slam-style performance.

  • Dance 1 classes wonder, "How can we tell a story of movement through movement?". They're studying dance from various genres to choreograph a performance in which they will tell the story of the movement of people around the world.

  • Global History I is exploring "How does oral storytelling keep history alive throughout time" Students study ancient cultures and civilizations to examine how oral storytelling was used to preserve and keep memories alive before written communication was the norm with a nomadic lifestyle. Students then consider some modern forms of oral storytelling and decide on the story they want to tell to keep the memory alive.

We've got the basics of these projects and their foci. None of the teachers have the pressure of keeping their schedules in lockstep. We'll see the impact of that as we take a closer look at the learning during a day in the life of these projects below.

PBL On a Given Day:

Language Arts 1 - Local poets visit the class - some in-person and some on zoom. Students share their current poetry draft with one of the poets and discuss how they might make it richer.


Dance 1 classes - Students rotate through mini-workshops to learn some simple movements within genres and practice what they saw. They're providing feedback to one another using the rubric and project expectations that they developed at the start of the unit.


Global History 1 - Students are engaging in a text-based protocol in which they're studying the nomadic lifestyle and storytelling of the people of Asia. The teacher will facilitate a whole-class discussion to guide students toward making connections between the text, the questions students asked at the beginning of the unit, and the stories they want to tell.

In this example, you see the multidisciplinary approach in full effect. Each teacher has their project, and their students are fully engaged in the project-based learning process, albeit at different places along the journey. Teachers in this team will likely share their progress, successes, and challenges during their monthly check-ins and asynchronously via their school Slack accounts (an app for quick conversations). Being multidisciplinary means they don't have to be as concerned about the pep rally or fire drill that might put one of the content areas behind the others. In fact, they have started planning for a school exhibition on a date that gives all of them enough of a buffer to have their projects wrapped up.



"So when do you actually do project-based learning during the day?"


A couple of our friends have written excellent blogs on integrating project-based learning within a schedule. We love how Angela Marzilli debunked the traditional approach to PBL in elementary school through the story A Day in a PBL Classroom: Demise of the "PBL Block" (PBLWorks). She noted that many elementary schools have "PBL time" as a separate part of their day, and anything PBL related is limited to that time. Limiting the experience to a self-contained and disconnected block of time is the opposite of what we want project-based learning to be. We don't want project-based learning to become another thing on a teacher's plate. We want it to become THE PLATE.


We don't want project-based learning to become another thing on a teacher's plate. We want it to become THE PLATE.

Aaron Eisberg also gave some guidance for creating a schedule for an interdisciplinary project in his blog Interdisciplinary Projects and Schedules (New Tech High CFE). New Tech High is a wall-to-wall project-based learning school that has served as a place to learn more about what works in PBL. In his blog, Aaron shares how New Tech High uses flexible scheduling to allow for learning and collaboration among teams of students.


In summary

I hope some of these examples give you a place to start the next time you wonder how you might integrate project-based learning with schedules or subjects. To summarize, here are our tips:

  • Interdisciplinary projects should have a natural fit where every subject engages in meaningful content. If not, don't force the connection.

  • Have regular conversations about your upcoming project with other colleagues - not jus