C is for Centered on Students: The ABC’s of PBL … Building Blocks to Transform Learning

C is for Centered on Students: The ABC’s of PBL … Building Blocks to Transform Learning

Welcome to this third post in a series that promotes PBL and 21st Century Learning through the examination of Seven Building Blocks. In this third post, I feel it is important to stress the importance of a student centered classroom. It is only when we get our students to own the learning, that really great things can happen. Before reading, please take a moment to subscribe by email or RSS, and also give me a follow… on Twitter at mjgormans. I promise you will find some wonderful information coming your way in the posts that follow…So sign up now and please pass this on with a retweet. Also, remember you can book me for a conference or your school district with workshops that are informative, engaging, and practical. Check out my Booking Page and as always… thanks so much! I am taking dates for 2018 with 2017 just about full… Mike Gorman (https://21centuryedtech.wordpress.com/)

One of the most powerful attributes of Project Based Learning is that it is both student centered and driven. The student autonomy may come in varying degrees depending on student age, student experience with PBL, and teacher experience and comfort in both facilitating and activating a PBL learning experience. PBL at its most powerful stage is a deep learning experience allowing students to self-regulate and gain insight into their own learning process. PBL employs student ownership, voice and choice, personalized and relevant experiences, and a culture of learning that can drive engagement, rigor, and student success.

1. Engagement (Activation)
2. Ownership (Self-Regulated)
3. Personalized (Student Voice)
4. Student Driven Culture

Engagement and Activation
– A project engages and activates student learning through its authenticity and inquiry. This produces a learning culture where students are in a flow. The project begins with a staging activity event that provides an age appropriate and high interest hook. This activity activates student inquiry that should be aligned with curricular content and skill based outcomes. This is the very first step at getting each student to own their learning. This engagement is powerful because it often relies on past knowledge and nuild new knowledge from prior learning. This connection helps in both activating the learning and engaging students.

Ownership (Self Regulated)
– A goal of PBL is for the student to gain ownership of the learning and the process associated with learning. In a true PBL environment the teachers is a partner that not just facilitates, but activates this process. The goal is learning that becomes self-regulated by the student. The amount of ownership will depend on student maturity, comfort, and past experience with PBL. The teacher must also have a comfort level built on experience in the PBL classroom. The steps from teacher controlled to student autonomy may come in increments,, and teachers should feel free to begin at the bottom of the stairs when they first implement. As students begin to own the learning a new classroom synergy becomes evident.

(Student Voice) – A student centered learning environment allows student to choose how to learn, within given parameters, that can support essential content and skills. This personalized ownership begins with giving students voice and choice in certain areas, eventually growing to a large part of the process as comfort levels and experience rises. When students have a voice and choice there is an exciting empowerment which leads to wonderful engagement. This voice and choice may be a say in classroom operations, creation of contracts, choosing tools to demonstrate learning, and even deciding on an interest within the boundaries of the standards. The teacher in a PBL classroom provides differentiation using grouping, roles, one on one conversations during group work time, and tasks in the scaffold. At the highest levels of PBL students become familiar with their strength and strategies in learning. Having the ability to personalize the learning experience students can often see relevance of the why and what they are learning. They are able to take with them an important skill of lifelong learning which will serve them beyond their formal schooling.

Student Driven Culture
– A student centered PBL classroom and related project portrays a unique and powerful culture that embraces and fosters learning. Students learn what it means to be a member of a Personal Learning Community. The classroom is a place of opportunity, wonder, expression, excitement, and knowledge. Critique and revision by individuals and peers are a common place and performed in a kind, caring, and effective manner. Norms are established and protocols are honored. The idea of process and formative learning trumps content acquisition, although content is still rich and becomes more vibrant. Learning is student regulated. The students in a true PBL classroom genuinely display an understanding that they really do own their learning.


Learning will always be most powerful when the student is in the center of the experience. Putting the student in the center provides a motivation and engagement that will serve well beyond the formal education years. Perhaps the most learning a child ever does is in those years before school. These are years when a child is in the center asking observing, questioning, and trying. There is no formal instruction, and perhaps that is for the best. PBL allows students to go back to that amazing time period of wonder and excitement while the teacher carefully crafts experiences and activates possibilities while keeping in mind that the student must be in the center.

Resources For Centered on the Student

cross-posted at 21centuryedtech.wordpress.com

Michael Gorman oversees one-to-one laptop programs and digital professional development for Southwest Allen County Schools near Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a consultant for Discovery Education, ISTE, My Big Campus, and November Learning and is on the National Faculty for The Buck Institute for Education. His awards include district Teacher of the Year, Indiana STEM Educator of the Year and Microsoft’s 365 Global Education Hero. Read more at 21centuryedtech.wordpress.com.