Naomi D. Hershiser, Dean of Sustainability, Prairie Crossing Charter School (Grayslake, Illinois)

Phenomena-, place-, project- and problem-based learning (4PBL) is an engaging pedagogy that integrates core academic content with education for sustainability while exposing students to authentic learning experiences. In 4PBL units, students are challenged to solve a real problem in their school or community, often by creating or presenting a project to a group of stakeholders. This type of learning increases student motivation, retention, critical thinking, creativity, and communication skills, all while imparting valuable academic content and serving the community.

At Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS), we incorporate 4PBL learning into each grade level, kindergarten through eighth grade. Teachers have created 4PBL unit opportunities for a few pre-determined topics per year, and each year we strive to add more 4PBL units to the curriculum. Sometimes small, targeted opportunities arise that result in 4PBL experiences that won’t be repeated each year but result in much needed change in our community.

Are you ready to bring 4PBL to your classroom? Here are some tips and tricks for getting started!

Determine your learning outcomes. These include content topics, standards, 21st-century skills, and other things you want students to achieve. And don’t forget to align to education for sustainability content as well! Your 4PBL unit should be the curriculum, not an add-on!

4PBL units can effectively cover content area standards in multiple subjects. Here are some brief examples. Gardens are great places to solve problems. A class studying area and perimeter in math can work to determine the best shape for a raised garden bed, or given existing garden beds, can use seed packet information to determine what to grow and how many plants will fit in their garden. Older students can add soil volume calculations to the equation. These problems can be easily tied to science content, such as studying plant life cycles. Of course, working in the garden fosters a sense of place and serves as a living laboratory for learning about sustainability issues like access to healthy and nutritious foods, multicultural food traditions, the commons, and more!

Social science economics standards make great entry points into 4PBL units too. For example, students can create a small business that makes a profit after covering expenses. At PCCS, economics often tie into garden education – what can students grow that can be sold or made into a salable product?

Define the problem. One way you can do this is by assessing community needs. This can be done within a specific realm. For example, if your class is studying water, the needs inventory will be based on water issues – conservation, local wetlands, watershed pollution, etc. If your content objectives are broader, you can assess needs in a more general way, such as taking a walk around the neighborhood to look for problems or issues to learn more about. Alternately, teachers can present students with a pre-determined problem that meets a real community need, based on the learning objectives. If, as above, your class is studying water, you can challenge students to lower the school’s water bill, determine the levels/sources of pollutants in a local water body, or teach the community about the importance of water conservation.

Determine a product. Products should align with standards and project outcomes. Students should have input on the final product’s format, however, the level of input can vary based on their age and learning outcomes for the unit. In one 4PBL unit at PCCS, students studying Native American history created a Native Land Acknowledgement to incorporate into our school’s culture. Different groups had different final products. One group created a video that was shown at an all-school assembly. One group created text that became part of the morning announcements. Another wrote a brief article for our parent newsletter that explained the concept to families. As a note, the final project or product is a great place to incorporate ELA standards even if the 4PBL content isn’t primarily ELA related. Include appropriate writing, communication, and presentation skills, as students may share their projects or products with school administration or boards, local officials, or community members.

Tap into experts. Part of place-based learning involves working with community members who have experience and expertise. Contact local businesses, nonprofits, and organizations that work in related areas to see if someone can talk to your students about the problem/project. Look to your school’s parent community as well – parents represent hundreds of people with a wide variety of experiences and contacts and a vested interest in your class’s success!

A current 4PBL unit at PCCS involves green building design. The challenge was introduced by the architect who designed our school’s buildings and he is serving as a resource for students throughout the project. Earlier this year, a local farmer (and parent) visited students to provide information and context for their homemade applesauce sale.

Use KWL (Know — Want to Know — Learned) charts to set direction and track progress. Figuring out what prior knowledge students bring to the problem can help determine what support they will need, what direct instruction will support their problem-solving, and eliminate wasted time. Asking questions and determining what the class needs to know to solve the problem will guide research, lesson planning, and the need for partnerships and/or collaborations with community experts. Checking in periodically to review progress helps the class see what they’ve accomplished and determine what they still need to do.

4PBL often involves group work. If your students aren’t accustomed to working in groups, it’s a good idea to establish protocols for group work. This might include rotating jobs for roles such as timekeeper, note taker, discussion leader, and materials manager or conducting self- and peer-participation assessments.

Include frequent opportunities for reflection. Reflections can be written or conveyed through other means, such as discussion or art. Students should reflect upon what they’ve learned as well as their engagement and collaboration. This gives students an opportunity to process where they are and change course, if needed, as they’re solving their problem. At PCCS, classroom meetings and CREW time provide ideal opportunities for teachers to ask students to reflect on progress and keep the whole class up-to-date on projects and issues. Journaling during morning work is also used to encourage students to work through their personal reactions and share with teachers privately.

Celebrate successes! Finishing a 4PBL unit is a big accomplishment and students should have a chance to celebrate and share their success. How this looks depends on the final product that students create. If students film a video, we proudly share a link to the video with the community and will also show the video at an all-school assembly. If students present at a board meeting, this in and of itself is a sharing, celebratory moment, often recounted the following day for students that weren’t able to attend. Ribbon-cutting ceremonies are a very exciting way to unveil new signage, gardens, or other additions to the campus. This public sharing also increases students’ feelings of efficacy and empowerment, in addition to the work they’ve completed.

4PBL units can be extremely rewarding for students and teachers. Any initial time investment you make in the planning process is well worth the results you’ll see in engagement and achievement!

To learn more about 4PBL at Prairie Crossing Charter School, grab your copy of Trailblazers for Whole School Sustainability: Case Studies of Educators in Action.