Connecting your WHY to Project-Based Learning

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By: Brittany Tinkler

Southport Elementary School

Southport, IN


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From the time we first learn to communicate we ask why. Human minds are naturally driven by wonder and curiosity. My four year old daughter wants to know the “why” behind EVERYTHING! I’ve heard many people say the same thing about their young kids, but then at some point, as we age, this questioning stops. I don’t think it stops because we’ve become less curious, I think it stops because we learn that when we ask why it often gets pushed aside and replaced with a what or some type of statement that “this is just how it is” and so we stop asking, but we don’t stop wondering. Many of us even spend our lives searching for our “why” and a few of us are lucky enough to find that in our careers. So, if that’s the case, why don’t marketers, advertisers, leaders, and even we, as educators, promote ourselves by starting with what everyone really wants to know… the WHY? This idea was brought to my attention in a Magnify Learning PBL Workshop when watching a TED talk by Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.   As adults we get really good at letting everyone know what it is that we do, some people know how we do it, but very few people in our lives know why. Project- Based Learning (PBL) brought the why to the forefront of my mind, and I now I begin all the decisions I make as an educator, and the way I talk about my profession with the why. 

If you’re an educator then you’ve been asked the following question by many students; “Why do I need to learn this?” It’s not always an easy question to answer, especially when teaching standards that aren’t very practical or relevant to students. Not only have I been asked this, but I’ve known what it feels like to ask it, and be frustrated with the same repetitive answer: “I don’t know, you just have to” or “you might need it… someday.” Well, I was a student who didn’t do well with these answers. I struggled to see the connection between the content I was being told to learn and how that was going to impact my future. I needed to see and understand the why for my learning from the adults who were guiding my education. I needed the why from a learner perspective and not an adult perspective. PBL has given me the answer I always sought as a young student, and that answer is the one I communicate to students through the units I design. When people ask me why I facilitate my learners in a PBL classroom it’s because I want my students to know what their purpose is now, not someday. I want all students to have the opportunity to see how learning can impact the things they care most about right now. PBL supports everything I’ve ever believed about educating kids; it gives every child the opportunity to connect to a why through the use of their personal strengths, talents, and ideas. 

PBL leads kids to a why, a purpose, before they enter the workforce, college, or whatever plans they have for themselves after school. The real learning starts right away with PBL. It all begins with an Entry Event, which is the launch of a project. How many times have you introduced a unit or a project with what the students are going to be making and how you are going to be grading them? I used to do this… a lot. In PBL you reverse this by showing the kids a problem that they can relate to and, as an educator, you use that problem to drive the purpose of all the learning that happens within the unit. You’re starting with the why! Entry Events can look many different ways. One of my favorite entry events was an email and video sent by one of the lead community partners for one of our PBLs. Students watched the video and read the email for information about their role in the project. They were even asking questions about what some of the terms meant, and how they were going to successfully complete the project. We call these pieces of information “breadcrumbs”. They are purposefully placed in the entry event and ultimately lead the students to ask content or skill-related questions or what we call need to knows. It doesn’t matter how you launch the project just keep in mind that the overall purpose for the entry event is to get kids to buy-in to the project by intentionally leading them to the problem statement and driving questions. You may do this by showing a video, or inviting in a community partner who can talk to the kids about something going on in their community or in the world that they want the students to help with. This makes students feel like they are truly needed for an important task, while also getting them to care and develop a sense of empathy surrounding the topic of the unit.

During an entry event students should be able to identify what the authentic problem is and formulate a driving question, a broad question that is connected to the content/standards that will be taught. The driving question will connect to other questions throughout the project. I always think of the driving question as the way to continuously DRIVE the project; it should always communicate the why. The formula I use for driving questions is the job/role (who), the action (what), and the purpose (why). For example, if the driving question is, “How can we as environmentalists, inform our community about conservation efforts, so that we can help our local endangered species? The who that your students are acting as are environmentalists, the action they are taking, or the what is educating the community, and the why is so they can do something to help the endangered wildlife that lives in their community. After an entry event, students will share with you what they know about the problem and what they need to know. As the facilitator you will use the need to knows to drive the next steps in your instruction. Simply stated the Entry Event is the WHY! It’s what drives the learning throughout the rest of the project. To learn more about Entry Events check out some of the resources from Magnify Learning.

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Now that the students know the why, you as the facilitator, need to keep that why in the forefront of their minds. How do you do this?  By giving the students voice and choice throughout the project, continuing to utilize the know and need to know chart as a living document, and by staying in contact with community partners. Let me start by explaining how voice and choice impacts the motivation and engagement of students. All people have different interests, talents, and strengths. As educators, one of our jobs is to provide our students with experiences that will build their confidence. Students need opportunities to develop their academic strengths, and to see how their strengths can make a positive difference in the work they are doing. As a PBL facilitator you find ways to engage all students within a project. Your artistic minds may be in charge of designing: advertising, creating logos or business cards, etc. While your speakers/social students may reach out to community partners by emailing, making phone calls, greeting guests when they visit the school, presenting new learning, and leading group conversations, etc. Your writers may act as editors, blog writers, letter writers, or organize paragraphs for final products to be placed in group presentations, etc. Finding roles and letting students choose what they work on and how they do it gives them ownership and creates a culture of interdependence. They feel needed by their classmates, by their facilitator, and by the community partner. For more on the topic of interdependence and how to build it you should read, Creating a Culture of Interdependence in PBL, by my colleague who also facilitates a PBL classroom. 

Another way to keep students connected to the why is by continuously referring to their need to knows. You can read more about his process in Freedom Comes from Need to Knows. If students told you they need to know how to find area and perimeter in order to create a final product then as the facilitator grab that need to know off the wall right before you teach your math lesson on area and perimeter. Remind students that they are the ones that told you they need to learn it and now you are going to teach it. This shows students that you, as their facilitator, value their needs and listen to what they feel is important.

One of the biggest ways to keep kids connected to the why behind their learning is by utilizing community partners and adult connections throughout the project. When students are being asked to learn a new piece of knowledge or skill, and then use what they learned to impact their own world and help multiple community members, people they look up to, it makes the work they are doing so much more authentic and meaningful than the scenarios we get really great at making up. They are not learning because they are being told to; they are learning because they know it impacts the community and their community partner needs them to do this task in order to help make a positive difference. You can involve community partners throughout a project in a variety of ways: invite them to introduce the entry event, to give students feedback throughout a project, to be an extra set of hands during workshops, to be an expert guest speaker to help students with research, or to attend culminating events as the audience. Involving adults throughout a project not only motivates students to engage with the content, it also closes an opportunity gap for students who may not have many adults they can look up to in their home lives. This connects students to an even bigger purpose and may lead to them to make choices that positively impacts their future success. It may lead them to ideas about careers that they would never have known existed otherwise. 


I’m going to close with one more story that has strengthened my why. PBL makes learning authentic for students and engages even the most challenging students. After my first year of implementing PBL with my students, my most challenging student found out that he would be moving to a new school the following year. Being in a PBL environment helped him grow behaviorally in so many ways throughout the year and even though he was only 8 years old he recognized and could talk about this positive impact. In our classrooms, we post a PBL roadmap, which is how we visually represent our rubric and benchmarks, and we use it to help guide students through the PBL process. On the last day of school he was taking pieces of our PBL roadmap off the wall and sticking them in his backpack. When I asked him what he was doing he informed me that he was taking everything he would need to teach his new teachers how to do PBL. It’s stories like these that are going to be continuously added to my “why” year after year as I go through my own educational journey. 

Here are some action steps you can take to help you keep working from your “why” every day for yourself and your students; 

  • Journal out your why; and then add to it your most inspirational student stories. 

  • Start the year with the why! Develop your classroom expectations with your students. Ask them to tell you why they are here and what they need to be successful learners. 

  • Put in place some intentional protocols that support student collaboration, ownership, and respect in the classroom. Explore these protocols for some we commonly use in the classroom. Attend a Magnify Learning Workshop to learn more about how to use and adapt these to your own classroom.

  • Generate a list of community partners and reach out to them! You will be surprised at just how many inspiring adults want to work with kids. Here are some other resources for understanding how to find and use community partners.

  • Seek growth for yourself, and use feedback to grow yourself (your students can do this too!) Something I like to do at the end of every project is the “Chalk Talk Protocol.” In this protocol I set out a chart paper and remind students that we are all silently reflecting. On one side of the chart I write glows (these would be anything that went really well in the project) and on the other side I write grows (this would be where we give kind, specific, and honest feedback to get better). As a class we all go up and silently write our glows and grows for the project. I then take the chart and use it to reflect more deeply about the feedback my students provided. 

  • Utilize Twitter; it’s a great support system for educators, post about the amazing work your kids are doing and feel the encouragement from other educators like you. Follow @magnifylearning for access to PBL resources and to see PBL in action across the United States!

Brittany Tinkler teaches 3rd grade at Southport Elementary School located on the south side of Indianapolis. She loves teaching in the same district that she graduated from. This year is her 8th year teaching, and her first year serving as a mentor on her school’s leadership team. She has spent the last 3 years becoming trained, implementing projects, and working on becoming PBL Certified with the support of Magnify Learning. In her free time she enjoys living an active lifestyle alongside her husband and their two children. She strives to model her love of learning wherever she goes, and hopes to inspire all kids to find their purpose.

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