Blog Post

Blending Content Areas Through Problem-Based Learning

Distance learning has not been easy.  It has required a mind shift―the methodologies and practices used in face-to-face education do not necessarily translate to distance learning. Teachers, students, and parents have had to make adjustments to try to make sense of the new reality of education. Despite the numerous setbacks, the lack of end-of-year standardized tests in many states allowed some teachers the flexibility to reimagine their teaching strategies rather than rushing to review and “buckle down” for testing. One strategy that can be used during lessons in-person, through distance learning, or a hybrid model, is problem-based learning (PBL). This allows not only for students to take more ownership of their learning, but to blend together multiple subject areas. 

PBL is a student-centered approach to teaching where students investigate and learn about a concept by working to solve an open-ended problem. Students work in groups to study the problem, possible solutions, and other questions along the journey by pulling information from multiple subject areas. The open-ended problem is what drives the motivation and the learning. The teacher’s role shifts to that of a facilitator of learning rather than the primary source of information. 

One strategy for teachers when planning for PBL the idea of backwards design. Backwards design is discussed in the book Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Wiggins and McTighe describe three stages of curriculum planning through backward design:

  • Stage 1: Identify Desired Results - What should students be able to do? What are the essential concepts that students should understand by the end of the unit? What are the “priority learnings?”
  • Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence - How do you know if students have achieved the learning goals? How will you assess student understanding?
  • Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction - With the essential concepts and assessment in mind, what strategies or lessons will be used during instruction? What will the flow of lessons be? What resources will be used? “What will count as evidence on the field, not merely in drills, that they really get it and are ready to perform with understanding, knowledge, and skill on their own?”

Instead of first thinking about how to teach a concept, a deep dive into the desired result allows for more targeted instruction. As described by Wiggins and McTighe, “Backwards design may be thought of, in other words, as purposeful task analysis: Given a worthy task to be accomplished, how do we best get everyone equipped?”

Equipping all students is important no matter the setting—in person, virtual, or in a hybrid model. With many districts implementing shorter amounts of time of synchronous (in-person or virtual) teaching with students, it is even more important that lessons are targeted and all work towards the end goal(s) for student achievement. By creating opportunities for students to see how topics are interconnected, they are able to see the bigger picture. Math, science, social studies, language arts, computer science, etc. do not exist in our world in isolation and by developing ways for students to see and uncover those connections, it helps to deepen their understanding. 

How might you utilize PBL and/or backwards design when planning future lessons? How could you implement problem-based learning in a virtual environment or a hybrid model?


Lisa Rode is a CS for All Teachers Community Ambassador who teaches sixth grade at Kings Glen Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. CS has transformed Lisa’s own classroom—she includes programming and robotics into all the subjects she teaches. She is passionate about advancing the integration of programming, computational thinking, and physical computing into all elementary school subject areas. Lisa was chosen as the 2019 Fairfax County Public Schools Outstanding Elementary Teacher.