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.


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.


Collaborative Groupings in PBL

I’ve written before about the difference between collaboration and group work. The impact of focusing on collaboration seems to be one of the major sticking points from critics of PBL, as well as, a hurdle for educators in implementing effective projects.

Whether it be the argument that collaborative work can reduce academic rigor, the challenge of effectively scaffolding and assessing both individuals and the team, or building skill sets in students to overcome some of the barriers of collaboration, it’s vital that we think about the role the structure of collaborative grouping plays in project dynamics and success.

There is years of research available on what makes teams successful, whether it be at Google, MIT, or the work of J. Richard Hackman, but unlocking this in a project can be tricky. Many times we get too caught up in how we group students versus why we group students. The how is the easy part.  There are many strategies for HOW we group students:

  • Student choice, ability, heterogeneous, homogeneous, age, likes, topics, etc.

We must move beyond how we put students in groups and begin to concentrate on the collaborative grouping structures that bind deeper learning through a project.

Below are some structures to consider in the course of a project cycle to maximize collaborative grouping too it’s fullest.

1. Start to Finish

As always, this is the most typical collaborative grouping strategy used in projects.  Students start on Day A in a group and finish Day Z in that same group. Now, throughout the course of the project their might be scaffolds that jigsaw students or utilize peer feedback, but for 99.9% of the project, the students are in the same grouping.  When used appropriately, it can be highly effective.  However, I believe the heavy reliance on this strategy has only fueled the fire of many project-based learning critics.


2. Start and Finish

In Start AND Finish, students enter the project and culminate the project in the same groupings, but various arrangements occur in-between.  For example, in a project examining voter registration laws, students might ideate in Group #1.  However, for research, students conduct this phase of the project individually.  The next phase has students doing community focus groups in Group #2 and then Group #1 comes back together to share their proposals.  This collaborative grouping strategy can be highly effective when you want multiple perspectives to influence the original groups product(s).


3. Catch and Release
The next grouping focuses on establishing a strong team core that individuals can then work off of.  For example, in a project students are creating art pieces for a museum exhibit around social justice.  To start the project students are in groups to build key content knowledge, learn various art modalities, and explore social justice issues.  However, the final scaffolds are based off of each individual students choice and focus and each student creates an individual final product to be displayed.  This grouping strategy can be effective when you want to develop shared knowledge, skills, and habits of mind, but allow for individual students to display their understanding via their final product.


4. Release and Catch

This is obviously the opposite of the previous strategy.  For example, in a project students are working to redesign an urban space that is sparsely used.  To start the project, scaffolds, benchmarks, and reflections are pursued individually.  The focus is on developing key knowledge, skills, and processes for each student.  When ready, groups are formed to ideate and design their plans for the urban space.  When done properly this grouping strategy can allow for key aspects of personalization to happen prior to groups being formed.  Groups then build upon each individuals development at the beginning of the project cylce.


5. The Maze

The fifth collaborative grouping strategy highlighted can be intimidating even to the most seasoned PBL practitioner.  This strategy highlights the agility and adaptability of the project-based learning environment.  Each phase of the project takes on it’s own unique grouping identity.  For example, in a singular project, students might start in Group #1, then work individually, then work in Group #2 and Group #3, move back to Group #1, culminate the project in Group #2, and then reflect upon the project individually.  In this instance, the purpose of the phase dictate the type of grouping that occurs.  Students might be grouped based off of need, type of scaffold, or even to develop a specific collaborative skill highlighted in a tool like the New Tech Network collaboration rubrics.  Collaboration becomes a driver and not just something we hope happens because we are in a group.


It is always important to note that individual assessment and differentiation can occur while students are in various grouping structures AND collaborative skills can be built while students are working on an individual aspect of a project.  They are not mutually exclusive.  Unlocking the WHY behind collaborative grouping must be the next step for an educator to deepen their PBL practices.  It’s time to stop worrying about drawing names on popsicle sticks to put students in groups.