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Reimagining AP teaching with PBL

Amber Graeber
May 20, 2021

Students taking Advanced Placement US Government and Politics are required to study 11 foundational documents and 15 landmark Supreme Court cases. You have some choices about how to teach this course. You can give students a mound of Supreme Court cases to read and regurgitate information from, or you can set up projects like moot court where students take on the roles of the judges and attorneys. Which do you think will be more memorable for students? Which will help that learning stick with them after they take the exam? Which will be more fun for the students and for you as a teacher? My answer: the project.

I believe AP teaching should do more than prepare students for the test. It should provide them with a well-rounded view of the content that goes beyond just reciting facts. I’ve found the best way to do that is through project-based learning.

A research-backed approach

But it’s not just me saying this. Research backs this up. I’ve taught AP courses for years and have trained other AP teachers how to implement PBL in their classrooms using the Knowledge in Action curriculum, a PBL approach to AP classes. I also received professional development from the nonprofit PBLWorks which helped me take my teaching to the next level. A few years ago, I and several other teachers who had been through the training, participated in a research project conducted by the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences to measure the impact of PBL on students taking AP courses in Environmental Science and US Government and Politics. The results: PBL, coupled with high-quality professional development, significantly improved student performance when compared to students in non-PBL classrooms. I was thrilled to see the findings because they validated what I’ve known for for more than a decade -- that PBL works.

A game-changing shift

PBL has changed the way I teach. Before I was introduced to this teaching style, I structured my instructional planning around the use of the College Board’s framework. I would sketch out lessons, and have students read articles, watch film clips and take quizzes and tests. But I never would have tried something like having students create a podcast or engage in an election simulation. I felt I was too busy just getting through the expectations for the course. We were doing just fine, but it wasn’t really engaging for me or the students. Why would you want to teach using traditional methods if you can have students be documentarians or members of Congress instead? PBL puts students in the driver’s seat and lets them lead their learning. They still learn the content, but they have a lot more fun in the process and remember the content better. Plus, students gain other skills along the way like public speaking, collaboration, and project management.

Now I’m an instructional coach at Des Moines Public Schools where every year our AP students are doing something spectacular. Whether they’re holding moot courts, doing “TED talk,” competitions, or creating political action plans for an interest group, they’re learning by doing and there’s always a buzz around this AP class.

Here’s an example. In an AP US Government and Politics class, Instead of telling students about components of a political campaign and having them memorize facts about how elections work, I had them engage in an elections simulation. Students chose roles such as running an interest group, becoming a party leader, acting as a member of the media, or a member of a political campaign (candidate, campaign manager, or communications director). I said ‘Here’s information about what each of those jobs does so you can decide what role you want to play.” Then I let them rank their choices. I put them in teams and said “Now you need to learn how elections work to get this campaign going. Let’s learn about how the nomination process works --  what’s the difference between a caucus and a primary? Who are your targeted voters? How do you know? Does money matter? Why? Suddenly, students were engaged. They were creating social media accounts and planning speeches for their candidates. They were writing stories about the “election” and developing policy goals for their interest groups or political parties. They were still learning all of the standards they needed to learn to pass their test and get their college credit, but they were doing it in a way that was deeper and more meaningful. Suddenly the class was about more than just the grade for them. PBL gave them a reason to care.

3 tips for project-based AP teaching

For those just starting out, shifting to PBL might seem daunting. But it can be done! And it will be worth it. Here are some suggestions for those who are ready to start.

Get some training. PBLWorks, in partnership with College Board, now offers online workshops specifically for AP teachers. Participants learn how to implement the KIA AP curriculum in US Government and Politics and Environmental Science using a PBL methodology. This training was transformative. I learned about the elements needed to design a PBL unit and what teaching moves I should be making along the way. It grounded me in the theory and practice around how I was teaching and connected all the dots. 

Find some friends. Get colleagues together and create your own professional learning community with other like-minded educators. You can work as a group to design a project together. It’s incredibly helpful to have a network of peers to lean on and learn from and share successes and challenges as you’re moving through. your projects

Start small. Any AP course can be transformed. It’s OK to start small and think about low-hanging fruit. There is always something in your course that can be taught through projects. Pick one unit and start there. Once you have the framework, it’s really just a matter of using your creativity. I have a sheet that I bring when I help teachers in my building design PBL units. It has a list of projects and career roles that students can play. I sit down with the teacher and we discuss what roles we could offer to students. For instance, if you’re an engineer what could you build? A Ferris wheel maybe? Students can take on that role and their job will be to build a Ferris wheel and the teacher can build the math content into that project. When I see some of my students who are now adults, they still remember the roles they played during their PBL classes.

I absolutely love helping teachers implement PBL in their classrooms. I recently participated in an Edutopia panel discussion about the PBL research. I said then --  and I’ll repeat it now -- that PBL has fundamentally changed the way I look at teaching and learning. It affects every teaching and every coaching conversation I have. Every time I walk into a classroom I think about what is the driving question students are trying to solve for? Do we have an opportunity for students to take roles and solve authentic problems? I believe that this kind of learning is not only more fun and engaging, it also helps students perform academically. Students are incredibly creative and productive. Sometimes we just need to guide them, and then get out of their way.

Amber Graeber is an instructional coach at Des Moines Public Schools. She has taught AP social studies courses for almost 15 years in both Washington State and Iowa and coached other teachers on using PBL in Advanced Placement classes. She received a bachelor’s degree from Drake University, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Washington and a master’s degree in Educational Administration from Iowa State University. She is currently a PhD candidate at Iowa State University in Educational Leadership.

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