Building Projects #3: Rethinking Content as Stories & Skills

Last time, in “Building Projects #2: What’s My Job?“, I define my role in the PBL classroom as a respectful and present cultivator of student learning. Next, off to define what type of learning to cultivate before I prepare the soil and select the seeds. What’s the content?

I see traditional subject areas as either primarily skill subjects or story subjects. Story subjects, such as biology, are based on a framework of understanding how interrelated parts connect, the understanding of the existence of relevant things, events, and phenomena and the application in decision making – stories of how things came to be, how they are, and where they might some day go. Skill subjects – such as math and languages – are tools for communication and organization of information to draw new understandings. Stories are communicated and documented using skills.

If we consider the following list to be traditional subject areas, we can sort them in to skill and story focused courses:

  • Math (Skill)
  • English Language Arts (Skill)
  • Foreign Language (Skill)
  • Fine Arts (Skill)
  • Physical Education (Skill)
  • Computer Science/Coding (a newly emerging “subject” in many schools that I feel deserves it’s own category) (Skill)
  • Making/Building/Measuring/Recording (Skill)
  • Social Sciences (Story)
  • Natural Sciences (Story)
  • Physical Sciences (Story)

I consider most of our traditional “subjects” be be skill focused, with the sciences (natural, physical, and social) making up the stories. Yes, there are skills involved in story subject areas and vice versa, but that’s because real life is interdisciplinary. In my perfect school, we’d design all projects off of the sciences (social, natural, and physical), and skills educators would build their scaffolding and skill development off of the sciences stories. This would streamline what the school day looks like and better support deep, focused, meaningful learning.

So, keeping this multidisciplinary approach in mind, I don’t want to design a project that is built off of one subject area’s content standards.When deciding content to build a multidisciplinary project upon, I prefer to start with stories from within my branch of science that are broader and more meaningful than one subject area’s content standards. I’m not saying projects can’t and shouldn’t be designed starting with the standards, or that it can’t be done very well, it’s just not my preferred method after having run projects that are minimally impactful on students and community, and the opposite.

Listed below are some theses to stories I want students to deeply understand and incorporate into their schema of the world that many of my natural sciences have been built upon over the years. This is living list. Projects I build are usually based on between two and four of these stories.:

  • Systems are made up of integrated, interconnected parts. There are patterns in systems that can help us better understand other systems.
  • Energy is everywhere, and is not created or destroyed.
  • Burning stuff isn’t the only way to access energy on demand.
  • There are specific strategies for designing and carrying out sound scientific investigations. Science is based upon empirical evidence.
  • There’s more than one way to be healthy.
  • The human body is made up of parts that we understand. The shape and function of these parts is impacted by our choices and behaviors, as well as by genetics and our environment.
  • Biochemical processes can impact our thoughts, behavior and decision making.
  • Neurons in our brains are impacted by our deliberate thoughts, actions, and practice.
  • Living things and their environment are interconnected as a part of a system – that includes humans (we’re not observers).
  • Individuals have a lot of choices, rights, and power.
  • Teams of diverse people solve problems with greater perspective and insight.
  • Real world problems are multidisciplinary.
  • All life on Earth has a common code, and we understand how to read and manipulate this code.
  • Natural systems minimize waste and utilize what’s available.
  • There’s a lot of decision making to be made regarding how individuals, communities, and nations interact with natural resources.
  • Citizen groups and local politics matter.

Any of the above story theses could be built upon to design a deep, multidisciplinary, standards-rich and meaningful project. It’s worthwhile to share these stories with other professionals in other fields and other staff to find common threads across multiple perspectives.

Oh…and here’s another reason I prefer to build projects based off of stories. Sharing meaningful stories feels good! I mean like sun on your back, seeps right down into your bones good. A story shared is like a warm collaborative bridge of experience between people through words, symbols, sounds, images. It’s connecting. When we build off of a meaningful story, in PBL often an open-ended story, we build off of a cross-cultural tradition that has sustained human knowledge and understanding for generations.

I leave you with one of my favorite stories (by Wangari Mathaii) to tell in our home: 

Reading to Boys