Gold Standard PBL in the Golden State

Golden Gate Bridge, Golden State Warriors, and the Golden Gate Bakery are just a few of the attractions that draw tourists to northern California. The views are stunning, and the food is succulent. But for me and 1,400 other educators, the Golden State also delivered golden opportunities. We had the opportunity to learn and grow as practitioners of project-based learning (PBL). The PBL World Conference is an annual event held in June amidst the mountains and vineyards of Napa Valley. The PBL World Conference attracts educators from around the globe including teachers, administrators, curriculum coaches, and yes, school librarians.

PBL fosters students’ exploration of new ideas to gain an understanding, to generate solutions, and to demonstrate mastery in a visible way. PBL is different from the traditional forms of instruction that rely on lectures and worksheets. PBL anchors academic concepts in practical situations, making content come to life. With PBL students gain more than a mastery of content knowledge; they develop 21st-century skills and a love for learning.

Many elements of PBL fall within the realm of school librarianship. Librarians assist students with research, demonstrate presentation tools, and connect students with experts in the field. During a PBL unit, students will utilize a range of innovative resources to garner information and present their findings to others.

Gold Standard PBL

The PBL World Conference engaged me in deep, focused, real work, in collaboration with peers. Workshops are a blend of direct instruction, video analysis, engaging hands-on work, resource sharing, and peer collaboration and feedback. The workshops are based on Buck Institute for Education’s Gold Standard PBL model and provide participants with the skills and knowledge needed to design, assess, and manage a rigorous, relevant, and standards-based project.

Gold Standard PBL is a comprehensive, research-informed model for PBL to help teachers, schools, and organizations measure, calibrate, and improve their practice. In Gold Standard PBL, projects are focused on students’ acquiring key knowledge, understanding, and success skills (PBL Works n.d.).

PBL Coaching Workshop

During my three days at the PBL World Conference I participated in the Coaching Workshop. The workshop focused on strategies coaches can use to support and enable high-quality PBL implementation. Like all good PBL units, the workshop commenced with a driving question: “How can we create a coaching toolkit to effectively support teachers in project-based learning?” I was excited to collaborate with fellow educators on the creation of an online coaching toolkit. Teachers need support when executing a PBL unit; it is not easy.

With the driving question and issues presented, our purpose was clear: to create an active Google site equipped with resources and strategies to help support the design and implementation of PBL. My coaching cohort identified “look fors” of each teaching practice in the Project Based Teaching Rubric. The rubric presents detailed, concrete indicators that illustrate what it means to teach in a PBL environment. My team focused on “Scaffold Student Learning.”

The Gold Standard level for this teaching practice consists of the following indicators:

  • Each student receives necessary instructional supports to access content, skills, and resources; these supports are removed when no longer needed.
  • Scaffolding is guided as much as possible by students’ questions and needs; a teacher does not “front load” too much information at the start of the project, but waits until it is needed or requested by students.
  • Key success skills are taught using a variety of tools and strategies; students are provided with opportunities to practice and apply them and reflect on progress.
  • Student inquiry is facilitated and scaffolded, while allowing students to act and think as independently as possible.

For each indicator of “Scaffold Student Learning,” we listed what teachers might do or say and what students might do or say. This is a great exercise for any teaching practice. See our example below. The next time your organization establishes or evaluates learning criteria, think about the “look fors” to drive your efforts and decisions.

The process of brainstorming “look fors” will prove to be helpful the next time I design a PBL unit. The activity challenged me to think of evidence that constitutes Gold Standard PBL. I have a greater awareness and understanding of the resources and services teachers need when designing, implementing, scaffolding, and evaluating project-based learning.

From Worry to Hope

I entered the PBL Coaching Workshop with an array of worries. I was worried about how to sustain student excitement throughout a project; how to address teachers’ self-efficacy related to inquiry-based instruction; and how to provide just-in-time coaching. Fortunately, I left the PBL World Conference with more hopes than worries. I hope to inspire school and public librarians to launch PBL units of their own. I hope PBL will nurture my students’ curiosity and hone their problem-solving skills. Most importantly, I have hopes of making PBL available to all learners in my school and district.

My school district is committed to supporting inquiry-based teaching. I intend to nurture this commitment by taking what I have learned about PBL from the PBL World Conference to facilitate in-house training sessions for faculty. Teachers from all levels, subjects, and years of experience need opportunities to expand their pedagogical repertoire for fostering an inquiry-based classroom. My professional development sessions will inform teachers on best practices of inquiry-based teaching and motivate them to learn even more about PBL. When teachers are engaged in the preparation and implementation of inquiry-based learning, the greater the likelihood that students will benefit. After all, the teacher is the one in the classroom facilitating student learning.

PBL for All

Inquiry-based teaching reduces the gap between subgroups of students (gender, race, and socioeconomic status) and improves student motivation. Therefore, opportunities to participate in PBL should be made available to all students across all grade levels. High-stakes testing often results in teachers ensuring that students are performing well on tests, detracting from education in other areas like art, engineering, and even social/emotional learning. Some students are simply not good test-takers. When they perform low on these exams, they feel discouraged. Yet, these same students may excel in areas that test prep does not target. When learning is interdisciplinary and authentic as it is with PBL, students’ engagement and academic performance will increase.

It has been said that at the end of a rainbow lies a pot of gold. One would assume that the gold is of greater value than the rainbow. Similarly, students and educators often think that the culminating presentation is the most important part of project-based learning. I would argue that the beginning and the “messy middle” of PBL are just as much, if not more important than students’ final products. It is in the project’s development that learners will find the gold. That gold can be characterized as asking questions, exploring resources, considering new perspectives, collaborating with peers, and realizing that greatness seldom occurs on the first attempt. During this year’s PBL World Conference I found my pot of gold. It is now time for my teachers and students to experience the golden possibilities of project-based learning.

For more great Gold Standard PBL resources:

Work Cited

PBL Works. n.d. “Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements.” <> (accessed July 24, 2019).


Author: Sam Northern, Ed.D.

Sam Northern is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian at Simpson Elementary School in Franklin, Kentucky. He currently serves as President of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians. In 2014, Sam was selected for the Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminars Abroad Program where he spent four weeks in China. Since then, Sam has voyaged to Antarctica as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and worked aboard a research vessel on the Atlantic Ocean as a NOAA Teacher at Sea. From January to April 2018, Sam traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program to research best practices for project-based learning. Connect with him on Twitter @Sam_Northern and Facebook @themisterlibrarian.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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