Andrew Miller

Building Student Capacity in the Middle Grades

Project-based learning (PBL) is being embraced by schools nationally and across grade levels. Educators know that each grade level comes with its challenges as students are in a variety of developmental levels and abilities. However, through practicing 21st century skills in a PBL environment, students can build their social, emotional, and cognitive capacity. 

Because the middle grades are a paradigm shift for most students, middle-grades teachers are presented with an exciting opportunity to engage 21st century learners, but they also need to keep in mind that these students need unique scaffolding.

As someone who taught using PBL at the middle-grades level, I have seen students be very successful, with careful and deliberate scaffolding. Of course, there are unique challenges when working with middle-grades students, not only in terms of their development but also in terms of the level of PBL project they have accomplished previously, if any at all.

Because many students have not done PBL regularly, it is important that the PBL projects are tightly managed and teacher-directed at first. This is because you need to make it safe for students. PBL has students collaborate, present, and think critically. Although these may seem like "skills," they are crucial to any child developmentally. Just as good teachers scaffold content learning, teachers need to scaffold this learning as well. Middle-grades students can collaborate, present, and critically think, they just require more scaffolding and focused guidance.

Below are the first stages of a PBL development guide created by Angela Dye of the Small Schools Project. I think these are great targets for teachers to use at the middle grades. I believe that if you are using PBL effectively and regularly in the classroom, students can reach stage 3 or higher by the time they leave your classroom for high school. In fact many elementary schools focus on PBL projects that would fit in steps 1 and 2; so if PBL is built into the scope and sequence of the entire life of a student, one can only imagine the amazing things students can do at the middle-grades level, let alone in high school.


Step 1: Project Taskmaster

At this level, students are connecting themselves to the problem-solving process. Here is where they commit to learning the problem by completing specific, subject-matter tasks. They take responsibility for building their knowledge base for the project. They use the computer effectively to collect and display data. They collaborate with others for accuracy of data and information. They learn to view the teacher as an advisor and not the central source for knowledge and learning.


  1. Report of problem (outlined by facilitator)


Step 2: Project Scholar

At this level, students analyze the global aspects of the problem. They are able to take the data collected and articulate a sound description of the problem. In addition, they use the Internet and other resources (other than the teacher) to add depth to their analysis.


  1. Report of problem (outlined by facilitator)
  2. Problem analysis


Step 3: Project Leader

At this level, students are able to use their global awareness of the problem to identify outcomes (needs) of the problem. By connecting these needs to a social institution, they then design a solution that is a concrete object, an event (or activity), or a process. Although the solution is not carried out at this level, the design is valid (researched) and applicable (realistic) and ready for implementation.


  1. Report of problem (outlined by facilitator)
  2. Problem analysis
  3. Project design


PBL is a great way to not only build skills but also foster student growth emotionally, socially, and cognitively. When students collaborate, they become social beings in a context. When students present their work, they build their emotional confidence. When students critically think, their brains are working hard. How thankful your high school will be when your middle-grades students leave you as not only project leaders, but also confident and secure young adults.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is a National Faculty member for ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.

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