The Surface, Deep, & Transfer of PBL

I’ve been blessed to know Michael McDowell for some time now. Michael previously taught at New Technology High School, worked for New Tech Network, and is now currently the Superintendent of Ross School District in Marin County and author of Rigorous PBL by Design.  Recently, our Center for Excellence, a professional development program that provides educators, schools, and districts project-based learning training and support, decided to partner with Michael to offer an innovative professional learning opportunity for educators around the facets of his book, with more to come in the Spring.

In Rigorous PBL by Design, McDowell argues that for PBL to be successful students must be competent in learning on three levels: surface, deep, and transfer.  Summarizing, the surface level is the use of facts and skills within a discipline, the deep level is the relation of facts and skills within a discipline, and the transfer level is the ability to extend those ideas to other disciplines (McDowell, pg. 14).

At New Tech High, we decided that we were going to push our thinking around our project design by applying these three levels to what high-quality PBL can and should look like.  By doing this, we have effectively been able to better articulate what is our baseline norm as a school for our project implementation (surface), how to extend those norms across contexts (deep), and how to transform what we know as project-based learning to a new norm of project-based living (transfer).

HQPBL @ New Tech High

In order for us to wrap our mind around how to apply the surface, deep, and transfer approach to our project design, implementation, and revision, it was necessary for us to articulate some key examples that could move through the progression.  Below you can find two simple articulations of applying the surface, deep, and transfer approach to project elements.

Example 1) Group Contracts

SURFACE – On the most simplistic level, group contracts can be used to help a team create norms, explore strengths & weaknesses, and determine project guidelines.  At the surface level, group contracts are implemented at the beginning of the project during the project launch.

DEEP – To extend the use of group contracts, the teacher must successful scaffold the use of that group contract continuously throughout the project.  Teams must have multiple times to re-engage, re-negotiate, and refine how their contract helps them productively work through the need to knows and next steps of the project.

TRANSFER – To move beyond students feeling like their contract is just a document, the transfer level means that project management is redefined using industry standard tools.  Whether it be through scrum meetings, kanban boards, or project management apps like Trello, student teams navigate their norms and project guidelines via tools used outside the confines of what we know as school.

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Example 2) Audience

SURFACE – Many times we talk about the importance of an authentic audience, but we don’t articulate how to progress through the continuum of adult connections.  At the surface level, many times the audience is the student’s peers.  This is and can be perfectly acceptable if the context is appropriate.  For example, students might present their ideas for restoring a local watershed to the class.

DEEP – To extend the role of the audience beyond the classroom, the teacher engages with industry professionals to come in to evaluate the watershed ideas.  They might bring in a member of the county commission, a local non-profit with environmental protection, and a environmentalist.  The audience lives in the same context that the problem being solved does.

TRANSFER – To transfer the view of what a project culmination can be, the students actually work with the local organizations to implement their watershed restoration ideas in the field.  The work moves beyond just formulating ideas and sharing, to actually doing.  Many times we get stuck in the “simulation” or “modeling” of real world work that we forget we can actually do it.  The transfer level is hard becomes it takes creativity, time, and rethinking what we actually define “school” as.

Copy of Collaborative Grouping- Start to Finish.png

There are positives of being at all three levels.  There is high-quality surface level PBL and there is really bad transfer level PBL.  By being able to begin to articulate what elements of our project design and implementation live at what level, we have begun to better understand what high-quality PBL looks like at New Tech High and what our next steps for transforming our world to truly begin project-based living.

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