Behind the PBL (Project-Based Learning) Curtain


By: Trisha Burns, Middle School Facilitator

CSA Central-Columbus Signature Academy Middle School

Columbus, IN


There is a balance between teachers teaching what is required and empowering students to drive their own learning. In fact, it can be one of the scariest parts of starting project-based learning (PBL) in your classroom. However, this is where you have to make sure your project design and facilitation skills are on point. Think of the project as a play. Anyone who has ever been to a play knows that there is just as much going on behind the curtain as in front of it.

Before the project begins, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the curtain. Teachers start with standards, authentic problem ideas, and employability skills that they want to teach and create a project with. They contact possible community partners and create a list of breadcrumbs, or a trail of clues that the students need to know or be able to do during the project. Once they have the breadcrumbs written those can become a list of possible need to knows that they make sure goes in to the entry event, which launches the project and hooks students.

On project launch day, the students receive the entry event and generate their list of need to knows. If the teacher was intentional with placing breadcrumbs in the entry event, the students asked the questions that the teacher needed them to (and more, because students are way more creative that teachers!) In front of the curtain, the students are driving the project and behind the curtain, the teacher breathes a sigh of relief because the students asked about the content the teacher needs to teach. The facilitator organizes the students “need to knows” in the order that the questions need to be answered and now behind the curtain, the director has their project calendar in which to build their scaffolding.

Students begin to define the problem they need to solve by summing it up in a driving question. They should be able to use clues from the entry event to answer these three questions:

  • Who are we in the project?

  • What are we doing?

  • Why are we doing it?

Again, behind the curtain, the teacher planned the entry event with clues in it. On the stage, the students define the problem which (again) will be even better than what the teacher anticipated.

Next, it is time to get a community partner who can help solve the problem with you. Behind the curtain, the teacher has already contacted a community partner and has a plan on how it could possibly work. On the stage, the teacher facilitates a protocol, like a chalk talk, to have the students generate a list of possible community partners. Again, behind the curtain the teacher breathes a sigh of relief when their possible community partner has been written down. The other thing that happens behind the curtain is that the teacher is given a list of other community partners that he/she never would have thought of on his/her own. This is HUGE. The teacher could have just given the community partner to the students and said that they wanted to work with them, but by directing this play (or facilitating the classroom), the teacher was able to give the students a voice and the project becomes better than expected. Furthermore, the students gain a sense of empowerment in the project and their learning.

What happens when the students don’t follow the cues or the breadcrumbs the director gives them? Let’s face it, there are times that actors decide to improv a little, and it makes the director nervous. However, if it is a non-negotiable content cue they missed, the director should feel free to lead the discussion or protocol in a way to make the actors realize they need the information. There are times in my classroom, if I’ve tried to facilitate and ask questions, and they aren’t picking up on my hints, I just flat out ask them or suggest it. If it isn’t a content non-negotiable, let it go. This is part of giving up some of the “power” of the play. Behind the curtain, the director gives himself/herself a pep talk, readjusts the script to make the changes, and then moves on.

The project moves along. The shows goes on, and the director/facilitator begins to see that a lot of his/her work is done behind the curtain, before or at the beginning of the project. His/her role switches into giving individual group feedback based on a group's solution or on a group's performance. The director also spends time facilitating the actors/students to adjust their own progress. Sometimes students need more help than was expected; it’s okay. The facilitator creates more scaffolding to build the students’ knowledge up and help them successfully complete the project.

The most rewarding part of the “play,” is at the end of the project. This is the time that the teacher is more than excited to step back and let the students get the glory for all of their hard work. And then when it is all said and done, the teacher goes back behind the curtain and reflects on the project. This is the time to think through what he or she learned throughout the process. This play has ended, and now it's time to begin planning the next one!

*Blog originally posted April 10, 2018

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Trisha Burns is an 8th grade math facilitator at CSA Central Campus in Columbus, Indiana. She is a certified teacher and trainer through the New Tech Network and certified through Magnify Learning to teach project-based learning in Indiana. She has taught in the classroom since 2009 and facilitates for Magnify Learning in the summer. When she is not developing and implementing projects in her class room she loves to hang out with her family and scrapbook their memories!


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