Reflections on Designs 2013: Exploring Project-Based Learning


“Teachers are designers.  An essential act of our profession is the crafting of curriculum and learning experiences to meet specified purposes.”

-Wiggins & McTighe, 2005

Three years ago I worked with a team of instructional leaders from the North Vancouver School District  in developing an after school workshop series for educators called “Designing Curriculum for Deep Learning and Diversity“.  The goal of the series was to introduce teachers to McTigue and Wiggin’s Understanding by Design model that had been gaining momentum across the US and Canada.

41uSdFj3KUL__SL500_AA300_Another major goal for the series was to emphasize the importance of planning for diverse learners, with differentiated  instruction and assessment strategies built into every curriculum, using the Universal Design for Learning framework.


Interest in the in-service series in 2010 was high, with over 100 people registering and attending a total of five after school sessions in their school teams.  At the first workshop a secondary teacher pointed out that the name of the series was too long. He suggested we consider something shorter that could roll off people’s tongues. At the time we were living the Olympic dream in Vancouver, so everything had a catchy name ending in 2010. “How about Designs 2010?” he suggested. I  agreed and the name stuck.


Feedback from the Designs 2010 series was very positive. Teachers expressed an  interest in continuing to explore UbD as a model for curriculum design the following year. Designs 2011, developed and facilitated by teacher leaders who attended the  2010 series, offered participants the opportunity to collaborate in grade (elementary) or subject (secondary) specific groups on the development of UbD unit plans. The Designs  2011 series helped deepen educators’ understanding of backward curriculum design and led to the development of several district  UbD planning tools and shared resources.

During job action in 2012  teachers were not able to attend any district-led in-service. I wondered if it would be possible to revive the interest in curriculum design a year later.  In fall 2012, with the strike behind us, and in my new role as Director of Instruction for Learning Services, I began to notice a renewal of interest among teachers in after school in-service. It was time to start planning for Designs 2013…

The growing interest among North Vancouver teachers in the Project-Based Learning (PBL) model was hard to ignore.  A group of administrators had visited High Tech High in the spring of 2012 and had introduced their staff to PBL through photos and stories.  Some schools had even organized their own trips to HTH for their staff members in the fall of 2012.  The wave was catching on, but was still isolated to certain corners of the district.


At the same time, I was beginning my doctoral research in PBL at one of our schools.   I was interested in following the story of implementation for this group of teachers who had been asked to consider Project-Based Learning as a way of increasing student engagement and academic achievement in a secondary alternative education setting.  In particular, my research was going to focus on professional development support for the successful implementation of PBL.

The choice of Project-Based Learning as a focus for the Designs 2013 series seemed obvious to me given the emergent interest in the field and the direct links to our previous work in UbD.  Yet I still wasn’t convinced that knowledge or understanding of the PBL model had spread far enough in our school district to attract a critical mass of teachers to a three part after-school series.  It took  a strong team of teacher leaders, with a passionate interest in PBL, to develop a framework for the in-service.  In early January we sent out the Designs 2013 Poster.  We were happily surprised when, within a month, over 130 educators registered for the series!

This in-service was truly designed by teachers, for teachers.  Session 1 provided participants with an overview and frameworks for PBL, while sessions 2 and 3 focused on exploring examples and stories of PBL designs from North Vancouver classrooms, and structuring opportunities for teachers  to practise developing and fine-tuning their own PBL designs. Participants left with a list of Project Based Learning Resources that included links to PBL videos, frameworks and templates for planning. Teachers were grateful for the opportunity to do their own background reading online in between sessions.  We also created a Linoit board for participants to post questions and links to other resources.


The Designs 2013 series wrapped up this week and we are now in the process of gathering feedback from participants.  So far, the reviews have been really positive.  This is extremely satisfying for our leadership team, who worked hard to design an in-service that would be deeply meaningful and impactful for teachers.  But we are still left with the question: “Now what?”

For some reason, we have been successful in getting teachers to participate in the district “Designs” series.  Perhaps it is because the “Designs” brand really has caught on, or because the topic of curriculum design has more universal appeal for teachers than other aspects of teaching (literacy instruction, assessment, etc.)

Nonetheless, we know from research that in order for professional development to be effective and sustainable, district-level workshops are not enough.  Teachers who attended the series need to continue exploring PBL through meaningful, collaborative, and on-going learning opportunities with their colleagues, either at the school level, or through facilitated cross-district sessions.

More importantly, how do we measure the effectiveness over time of this in-service series?  Having participants  answer a few questions in a feedback form will tell us how they liked the workshops, but won’t necessarily provide evidence with respect to a change in practice in classrooms across the school district.  Nor will the feedback from the series provide any evidence of increased student achievement as a result of the implementation of PBL in classrooms.

I am reminded of Thomas Guskey’s Five Levels of Professional Development Evaluation and wonder if there is a way for us to dig deeper or reach higher in our evaluation of the Designs series. It’s a good inquiry question for us to grapple with as a leadership team.



Sergiovanni (1995) said, “ Students learn best by doing, and doing is best when it is lifelike – When it involves engagement with real or near real problem solving.”  This is also true for teachers.  They need time and support to work with colleagues on the development of new curriculum design.


Like the PBL model itself, effective curriculum design is hard work.  It requires a high level of engagement in problem solving, creativity, and collaboration with peers.   Above all, it requires support over time in order to be sustainable.

The best school systems in the world are now investing in professional development for teachers that enables them to collaborate on curriculum design.  In Finland teachers have opportunities to engage in joint curriculum planning and approve school-level curriculum.  “The importance of curriculum design in teacher practice has helped shift the focus of professional development from fragmented inservice training toward more systemic, theoretically grounded, school-wide improvement efforts” (Darling-Hammond & Rothman, 2011). 

Many of the participants in the Designs 2013 series are already asking for this kind of investment and support from the school district in implementing more inquiry and project-based designs for learning.

It behooves us to find a way to make it happen.

Darling-Hammond, L. & Rothman, R. (2011). Teacher and Leader Effectiveness in High Performing Education Systems. SCOPE.

Guskey, T. R. (2000). Evaluating Professional Development, Corwin Press.

Sergiovanni, T. (1995).  The principalship:  A reflective practice perspective, Allyn & Bacon.

Wiggins, G. & McTigue, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. ASCD.


Does Curriculum Always Need Intentional Design?

Yesterday in my first post on the new Blog, I explained in detail one of my favourite curriculum design frameworks – Understanding by Design. The underlying message in my post was that teaching for deep understanding, and transfer of skills and knowledge, requires thoughtful curriculum design that begins with the end in mind.  Intentional curriculum design works backward by asking the question: “What big ideas and enduring understandings do we want students to develop that they will remember 40 years from now?”

At the risk of contradicting myself, I would now like to offer an alternative perspective.  It is what we might call Learning Without Design.  Today’s post is inspired by a session I attended this afternoon at one of our schools.

In our school district we support teachers’ action research, through what we call “Collegial Conference” projects.  School teams are invited each year to submit proposals for funding that will allow them to pursue collaborative, inquiry-based projects focused on the improvement of their instructional practice.  In order to qualify for the funding, school teams must identify the instructional or assessment practices they wish to research, and demonstrate how the project will enable a collaborative, site-based approach to professional development among staff members.  The team must also commit to a debriefing session, during which they reflect on their collegial conference project and share their research results with school and district administrators.  Hence my invitation to the session today, which was an opportunity for a team of teachers to debrief a collegial conference project at one of our large, dual-track schools.

The staff member ‘lead’ on the project provided the audience with the highlights of this collegial conference project focused on the use of iPad technology to enhance classroom teaching and learning.   The presentation included photos and testimonials from the group of teachers who had participated in the project.  These teachers teach a variety of grade levels and in two distinct programs (English and French Immersion).

It was apparent that this project had had a positive and lasting impact on these teachers, all of whom spoke of how the iPads had enhanced their ability to engage students in their learning, differentiate instruction for a wide variety of learning abilities and styles, and begin to shift to a more paperless style of teaching (e.g. using blogs to publish student writing).

They had certainly thought through the necessary components of the project: required technology (iPads purchased by the Parent Advisory Council), a mentor/lead teacher (an intermediate teacher who is very tech savvy), and a process for collaborative planning, teaching and reflection (release time so teachers could work in pairs and groups).   It was also apparent that they had spent a great deal of time carefully planning classroom experiences designed to empower learning with iPad technology.

But did the teachers plan the sequence of learning that unfolded for themselves? What these educators spoke of with great passion was the opportunity the project had provided for them to learn and grow as professionals within a safe, collaborative, and emergent learning environment.  They talked about how the iPad technology was new for most of them, how they had simply leapt in with both feet and learned as much as they could, asking for guidance and mentorship from the lead teacher when they needed it.  They talked about stopping often during the project to ask themselves, “Where are we going with this?”  Most of all, they talked about the value of collaboration, discovering together with their colleagues new ways to engage learners and enhance their teaching practices.

This was clearly a group of educators who had become a highly engaged community of practitioners.  They learned about, through and from their action research in a manner that was unplanned, unrehearsed and unpredictable.  No design required.  Just a spirit of inquiry, trust and collegiality.

Reflections On Curriculum Design…

I would like to begin my reflections on Curriculum Design with a framework that I admire greatly and have worked hard to implement in the North Vancouver School District – Understanding by Design (UbD).  This particular framework was created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two American educational scholars and published authors who are regular contributors to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)’s UbD Exchange.  UbD is based on the principles of a ‘backward design’ model and was inspired by the work of Stephen Covey who reminds us all to “start with the end in mind”.  It is a philosophy that guides my own practice as an educator and director of instruction, whether I am designing curriculum for adult learning, or engaging in administrative problem solving.

I was first introduced to UbD in 2008, when I attended a Coast Metro workshop series with guest speaker Alison Zmuda.  Alison is an educational consultant who works with the Association for the Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in the Understanding by Design cadre. Alison was in the Lower Mainland presenting Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, a book co-written by well-known author Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe.

Zmuda ran a three part workshop series that focused on deepening participants’ understanding of how differentiated instruction could/should be incorporated with the UbD framework in order to meet the learning styles and needs of our diverse student populations.  For people in the audience it was a first exposure to UbD, so layering Differentiated Instruction (DI) into the mix created a powerful but very advanced framework as a starting point.  Many teachers from our school district left the series a little baffled and overwhelmed by the complexity of the presentation and the proposed curriculum design process.

However, a small team from my school district was sold on the UbD model as a powerful curriculum design framework, and we were determined to introduce it to educators in North Vancouver.  The first year (2009) we invited interested teachers to join a ‘Collegial Conference’ three part series that focused on expanding understanding of UbD and building leadership capacity across the school district for this model of curriculum planning.  The series was popular, particularly with teachers from our International Baccalaureate high school who were just learning to implement into their practice the inquiry-based IB curriculum- planning model, a framework that is surprisingly similar to UbD.

We introduced that first series with this key quote from Wiggins and McTigue:

Teachers are designers.  An essential act of our profession is the crafting of curriculum and learning experiences to meet specified purposes.”

According to Wiggins and McTighe, teachers don’t pay enough attention to the importance of curriculum design.  As a result, most teachers are guilty of one of the two ‘twin sins’ in curriculum planning:

  1. ‘Activity-driven’ lesson and unit planning.  This type of planning is popular among primary teachers in particular.  In these classrooms, an ‘apple’ theme in the fall is often more about making every subject fit within the theme, than planning based on identified learning outcomes.  Other popular themes in the primary grades are bugs and dinosaurs.  I like to refer to this as the ‘birthday party’ approach to curriculum design – having your napkins match the plates and paper cups and… 
  1. ‘Curriculum-driven’ planning is the second sin, which is generally more common among intermediate and secondary teachers.  Curriculum-driven planning is essentially the equivalent of ‘marching through the textbook’.  You start at the beginning of the book, and with any luck you will get to the end by June.  Another variation on curriculum-driven planning is what I have coined “PLO-itis” – a disease common among educators who see planning as a systematic checking off of the incredibly long lists of prescribed learning outcomes common in our current Ministry Integrated Resource Packages (IRPs).

Wiggins and McTighe argue that teachers must adopt a more thoughtful and creative approach to curriculum planning.  They must learn to seem themselves as designers who shape engaging, meaningful learning experiences based specific learning goals.

With design in mind, we shaped the three sessions of our series around the three stages of Understanding by Design, which essentially map the curriculum backward from specific, targeted knowledge and transfer abilities or skills.  The three stages of UbD are:

  1. Identify Desired Results – establishing priorities for learning based on goal setting – unpacking learning outcomes to determine  ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Essential Questions’ that guide learning and teaching
  1. Determine Acceptable Assessment Evidence – based on principles of formative assessment, the 6 Facets of Understanding and an emphasis on authentic ‘Performance Tasks’ (vs. traditional testing).
  1. Plan Learning Experiences –activities, learning experiences and lessons that incorporate 21st century skills and lead to achievement of the desired results (stage 1) and success in the identified assessments (stage 2)

That first UbD series was such a success that we decided to continue the implementation phase into the next year.  Those who had been participants in the 2009 series joined the planning team and became workshop facilitators in 2010 when we named the series “Designing Instruction for Deep Learning and Diversity”.  The length and wordiness of the original title was a problem, which was pointed out to us by one of the participants at the first session.  He suggested we needed something shorter and catchier. We agreed and renamed the series “Designs 2010”designs 2010 flyer.

Maybe it was the positive influence of the Winter 2010 Olympics (and short catchy titles created by the government prior to the Olympics – in the spirit of “Legacies 2010”) that caught people’s attention with our name change, but I like to think that it was direct focus on the concept of curriculum ‘design’ that educators found fresh and appealing.  In any case, we had record numbers of teachers and support staff sign up for the five part series in 2010, which took place in the after-school hours and provided dedicated time to school teams for discussion and curriculum/unit planning in a variety of subject areas and grade levels.  A Gallery Walk at the last session allowed participants to see all the UbD units that had been developed in collaborative planning teams. The feedback at the end of the series was very positive, and participants indicated a desire to continue learning about UbD and engaging in collaborative curriculum planning the following year.  However, they also requested a change in the format from interdisciplinary school teams to cross-district planning teams in subject or grade level groups.  They also asked us to provide them with the planning tools.  And we obliged, developing district Backward Design templates and other materials.

The following year “Designs 2011” designs 2011 attracted many of the same participants, as well as some new people who had heard the buzz from 2010.  As requested, we designed the 2011 series to facilitate grade and subject area planning, which encouraged collaboration among teachers from across the district and resulted in the development of some interesting curriculum designs.  We also continued to invite teacher leaders to become presenters, which helped build leadership capacity at the school level and sustain the momentum for learning about and implementing UbD across the district.

Sadly, there was no “Designs 2012” this year because of job action.  I am hopeful that teachers have continued to plan curriculum on their own using the UbD framework, or at the very least, that they have continued to be thoughtful and intentional with their own planning frameworks.  We need curriculum design to go beyond themes and ‘coverage’.  Students need to ‘uncover’ the big ideas themselves through inquiry, develop deep understanding of concepts, and apply their skills and knowledge to new situations in meaningful ways.