Ready for Platinum Standard PBL?

Written by ThThTh contributor Troy Miller, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Iowa BIG.

Last week I wrote about how public education needs to be saved from itself. In what might have sounded like a flippant solution (we need to fund innovation), I also referenced one specific tactic wherein we at Iowa BIG are experiencing fantastic success. Most folks would look at what we are doing and categorize it as “Project Based Learning,” or PBL. We believe our model goes far beyond the standard view of PBL…beyond the “Gold Standard PBL” elements  that the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) recently released.

The Iowa BIG model is what we call immersive Initiative-Based Learning (IBL). I have yet to find a adamantium_by_nephren_ka-d4exx6gdefinition for PBL that’s truly aggressive enough for the changes that can and are taking place in high school education. Don’t get me wrong; l’m a big fan of BIE’s efforts, however if I were to use their language, I’d likely classify Iowa BIG as “Platinum Standard PBL.” But we’re not calling ourselves Platinum, Rhodium, or Adamantium. For our purposes, we use the term “Initiative”, which has double entendre.

  • As a noun, an Initiative is a plan or program that is intended to solve a problem. For Iowa BIG, an Initiative originates successive projects that often lead to an unprecedented educational outcome. Iowa BIG student initiatives bend the very fabric of educational time and space…and assessment. I’ll provide an example below.
  • As a verb, Initiate means to set something going or originate. For Iowa BIG, students must demonstrate personal fortitude to Initiate a plan that often leads to an unprecedented educational outcome. Initiative is required at Iowa BIG because in the real world, acceptable outcomes are the result of creativity, insight, and self perseverance.

Allow me to illustrate with the following:

Scenario A- Jonny’s high school class wants to propose renovations for a local elementary school so that a fresh new emphasis can be placed on STEAM. Jonny and his classmates use Trimble SketchUp to create renderings of what they think the renovations could look like. Classmates work together to create nifty looking schematics that they later present to the elementary students which represent an “authentic audience.”


Scenario B- Across town, Bre’s Iowa BIG class works with local architects and engineers at Shive-Hattery to design an actual $100,000 renovation, already approved by the School Board for Johnson Elementary STEAM Academy. In conjunction with professionals while embedded weekly at the Shive-Hattery offices, students create Trimble SketchUp schematics to address the customer’s requested flooring, lighting, aesthetic appeal, workspace flow, aquaponics system, and much more. Students then present the final schematics to the Principal and STEAM curriculum coordinator at Johnson Elementary. Students later present their year-long outcomes to C-level executives at Shive-Hattery.

I think we can all agree that Scenario A with Jonny is much closer to “real life” than what happens in most high schools today, and to that I applaud. Without exhaustively breaking down the scenario, I think it largely qualifies as a Gold Standard of sorts. But let’s not stop with “good enough”…we can do more for students.

Scenario B completely redefines the usage of time and space in education, plus it’s a real example. Students choose to immerse with local architects and use their personal initiative to complete multiple projects on their way to creating an initiative that is also an unprecedented educational outcome with multiple authentic audiences. The final presentation doesn’t determine the student’s grade, but rather we track the standards the students meet all year long, and we do this with a custom Learning Management System that we built, called BBQ.

Iowa BIG has 40 such initiatives on-going as we wrap up the school year. Some initiatives will applereach a final outcome (such as the Shive Hattery Initiative), and some will continue throughout the summer on the students own initiative. Yes, you read that right. And no, we did not invite the cream of the crop to apply to Iowa BIG, but rather we specifically accepted a demographic set that reflected the entire student community. We did this to prove that our methods are scalable. Furthermore, some of our best outcomes are from students with below 2.0 GPA. How ’bout them apples?