Bradley Bostick, Ed.D.

One of the most challenging parts of developing a PBELL lesson plan is where to find inspiration. You are aware by now that a PBELL lesson starts with a meaningful problem (See “A tricky part of PBELL” if you need a refresher on the topic). Inspiration for a meaningful problem can come from many places; your curriculum guide, state or national standards, or problems in and around your classroom.

One option for developing a PBELL that is often quickly disregarded is finding topics outside of the curriculum. When I make this suggestion to teachers I often hear that there is not enough time to add something else to their curriculum or that teachers must stick to planning guides and standards because their evaluations are based on including those. Instead of quickly disregarding the idea of developing a PBELL from topics beyond the classroom, I suggest considering the opportunity to connect your students to real and relevant PBELL experiences. 


Where to Look for Inspiration


Consider your everyday life. Who and what do you interact with on a daily basis? Perhaps you volunteer at your church or coach a sport. Maybe you belong to professional organizations or have a spouse that works for a local company. Even current news and trending topics can provide a connection to learning. 

Let’s consider one option pulled from the headlines - how soon should professional sports return after the COVID-19 pandemic? To meet the expectations of a meaningful problem, the topic should be relevant to students or their community, offer multiple solutions, and require new information to solve. I believe you can create a problem from this topic that meets all of those expectations...but how do you connect it to learning in your classroom? Perhaps you have your students explore facts about the spread of the disease (see the CDC website on Coronavirus) and make a recommendation to the president of their favorite sport. You could also have students look at rates of transmission in major sporting cities (again, visit the CDC for more information) and make individualized recommendations to the city that hosts their favorite team. 

Another option could be to consider a local company that the students interact with on a regular basis. For example, one of my neighbors works for the city of Phoenix in garbage collection. There are many meaningful problems that can be developed around the idea of garbage and recycling - How does the city plan the pickup routes? What items can be recycled? What happens to the trash after it is picked up? How can we help our garbage collectors do their job? During the inquiry phase of the PBELL lesson, you could even have the students interview someone who works in that industry!


Connecting your Meaningful Problem to Standards


The next step is to connect your meaningful problem to learning standards. All state and national standards contain references to overarching learning targets. Below are some standards pulled from third-grade reading and math standards from the Arizona Department of Education (you can find similar examples for grades kindergarten through 12th grade). These examples of overarching, big-picture type learning objective can be difficult to incorporate into your instruction but with a little planning, you can easily incorporate them into a PBELL lesson. 

3.RI.7: Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).

3.MP.8: Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning. Mathematically proficient students look for and describe regularities as they solve multiple related problems. They formulate conjectures about what they notice and communicate observations with precision. While solving problems, students maintain oversight of the process and continually evaluate the reasonableness of their results. This informs and strengthens their understanding of the structure of mathematics which leads to fluency. 


Final Thoughts


Beginning a PBELL outside of the curriculum can be intimidating in this era of standards-based instruction and increased scrutiny of lesson planning. Instead of shying away from this type of instructional design, consider it an opportunity to address some of the educational standards that are more difficult to incorporate. Think about the community your students regularly engage with and the events and experiences that are relevant and meaningful to them. With some creative planning, anyone can turn those topics into a meaningful problem that connects students to the world around them and still meets the expectations of standards-based instruction.

Connect with Bradley Bostick, iTeachELLs Instructional Coach at

For more information on planning a PBELL, check out our Lesson Plan Guide, or visit the iTeachELLs Resources page.