Teacher team presenting project idea to other PLC teams in district
Students outside measuring garden space
Outside content expert is showing students satellite images and data
PLC meeting

NCTAF Learning Studios – Toolkit
The Learning Studios Toolkit provides district curriculum coordinators, instructional coaches, and teacher team leaders with a set of design and evaluation tools, protocols, rubrics, and case studies to guide and monitor the complex, interdisciplinary curriculum and assessment work that the new standards demand.

Theory of Action

PBL + PLC + OCE = Deeper Learning

IF authentic, Project-Based Learning (PBL) for students is collaboratively designed by high-functioning, multi-subject Professional Learning Communities (PLC), in partnerships with the content expertise, resources, and coaching supports of Outside Content Experts (OCE)

THEN students and teachers will be more engaged in excellent teaching and deeper learning.

Character Graph Key

A Traditional Classroom

Traditional Classroom chartIn traditional science classrooms, students learn science by reading textbooks, listening to lectures by the science teacher, conducting standardized lab experiments, and taking exams.

Traditional Classroom graphic

Learning Studios

PBL chart


Provides student-centered, authentic, deeper learning opportunities

In Project-based Learning (PBL), students learn science by collaboratively investigating authentic real-world problems and designing meaningful, relevant solutions. The teacher acts as a co-facilitator in the process by providing instructional supports, feedback, and room for student voice and choice.

PBL Tools


Overview of PBL Tools

Process Map of Curriculum Design and PBL Tools

The first set of tools provides an overall curriculum planning map for the project, as well as scaffolded activities to focus on standards alignment and assessment design. The Curriculum Map is a collaborative tool for planning that can also be used to provide documentation of standards-based cross-curricular design work. The NGSS Starter Activity provides support for selecting the most relevant NGSS and performance expectations. The Assessment Design Activity provides guidance in setting a performance task, identifying evidence sources, and generating a standards-based checklist. The Assessment Review is a protocol for reviewing student work and validating assessment criteria.

The second set of tools is focused on building the essential elements of Project-based Learning as defined by the Buck Institute for Education. The PBL Survey provides a set of individual and team scores on the PBL elements to be measured at the beginning, interim, and end of a term or year. These scores can be used by teams to set goals and instructional strategies to test. The PBL Checklist is a quick tool that allows teams to check-in on their PBL goals and collect evidence of improvement between using the surveys.

PBL Case Story



PBL + PLC chart


Supports collaborative work focused on cross-curricular connections and instructional improvement

In Professional Learning Communities (PLC), multiple teachers work together around the real world problems and design cross-curricular connections. For example, the science teacher works with the math and literacy teachers to plan and co-teach across their classrooms to support reading, writing, speaking, and doing math like scientists.

PLC Tools


Overview of PLC Tools

Process Map for Professional Learning Community Tools

To improve how and what a team does together in a professional learning community, the Collaborative Culture Survey provides baseline and summative descriptive measures of collaborative culture, instructional improvement, and organizational supports.The Discussion Protocol uses the average team scores to set goals, establish strategies, and periodically review evidence of progress across a term or year.


PLC Case Story



PBL + PLC + OCE chart


Optimizes learning opportunities with outside content expertise and resources

An Outside Content Expert (OCE) is a workforce professional that works with a teacher team to provide content expertise, resources, and curricular coaching. The OCE also co-teaches with the teachers to provide expert instruction and feedback to students. Having an OCE engage in a PLC and in the classroom can make for stronger school to career connections!

OCE Tools


Overview of OCE Tools

Process Map of Outside Content Expert toolsThis set of activities and tools provides opportunities for teacher teams to develop shared agreements and establish initial productive relationships with outside content experts. The OCE Characteristics Ranking Activity helps teams to decide what they are looking for in a partner. The OCE Introductory Presentation provide partners with a way to explain their work and connect to the project idea. The OCE Discussion Protocol provides a guide for establishing shared agreements on roles, resources, and expectations.

OCE Case Story



BASIC-Level MID-Level HIGH-Level
Deeper Learning Outcomes
Curriculum is generally aligned with content standards for core subject area. Specific content selection is mainly directed by teacher or district curriculum. 21c skills may or may not be implicitly addressed through project work. Curriculum is designed around core subject content standards and may make connections to other subject areas. Student interests may be considered in content selection. Content exploration is driven by core concepts, inquiry questions, and design problems. 21c skills are implicitly addressed through project work. Curriculum is designed around content standards that connect core concepts and practices across relevant subject areas. Content is meaningful and worthwhile to students who have had a voice in its selection. Content exploration is driven by big ideas, rich generative questions, and real-world design problems. 21c skills and non-cognitive learning strategies are explicitly supported and assessed in the PBL unit.
Authentic Assessment and Feedback
A final project or test provides a summative opportunity to demonstrate subject area understanding, knowledge, and skills. A range of activities may be graded with feedback comments from the teacher that may or may not be guided by a standards-aligned rubric. A culminating project provides a summative opportunity to demonstrate understanding, knowledge, and skills outlined in the standards. A range of assessments may be used to provide periodic monitoring and feedback opportunities. Feedback mostly comes from the teacher and may or may not be guided by a rubric or engagement with exemplars. Culminating projects are designed as performance assessment tasks that expect novel student-solutions to real-world problems. The final task builds on a scaffolded series of embedded assessments and related practice activities. Ongoing formative feedback is based on multiple evidence sources and is provided by students, peers, teachers, and outside content experts guided by exemplars, standards-based assessment checklists, and/or rubrics. Projects are shared with an authentic community audience.
Authentic Project Work
Projects are mainly developed and directed by teachers. Project focus is likely to be on subject area concepts without an explicit connection to school or community issues. Project is meant primarily to demonstrate learning of content and skills. Projects are developed and directed by teachers, but students may be provided some options around the problems, activities, or project ideas. Project focus may be related to addressing a school or community issue. Students may have opportunities to work as collaborative groups to solve problems. Project organizers are provided to monitor work progress. Projects may be shared publicly as part of a school fair or display. Students have a voice and choice in the development and revision of inquiry questions, design problems, and project planning. Multiple activities and feedback opportunities build skills and knowledge to solve meaningful, engaging problems of interest to students. Activities require students to work independently and as a group, think critically about the content and its relation to society, manage project steps and resources, and monitor progress towards goals. Final projects should demonstrate the construction of knowledge, as well as argue an evidence-based case using elaborated forms of communication.

BASIC-Level MID-Level HIGH-Level
Collaborative Culture
Periodically scheduled time and place, part of existing meetings, or ad hoc. Common domain of practice or project, but collective work may not be well defined. Basic norms for discussion are established. Basic autonomy with limited reporting or accountability to peers or principal. Regularly scheduled and committed time and place. Mostly concerned with collaborative planning with some sharing and feedback on curriculum, resources, and student work. Safe space to share ideas, address problems, and get constructive feedback. A coach may be used to build norms, routines, and inquiry habits. Limited reporting to principal about collaborative work, although principal may be invited to periodically participate. PLC has regularly scheduled, committed time and place with full participation by most members. Clearly defined co-curricular design, instructional improvement work, or inquiry around specific problems of practice towards shared goals. PLC has shared values, agreements, and routines for longer term collective improvement work. Providing data-based feedback to each other is the norm. Leadership is distributed where participants take turns to share and facilitate work. A coach may be used more extensively for content expertise and feedback. PLC has a balance of autonomy and accountability. The improvement work leads to instructional innovations to be tested across contexts. Effort and results are shared professionally.
Instructional Improvement Focus
PLC engages in collaborative planning, sharing of resources, and material development. Informal agendas are commonly used to guide meeting. Structured tasks or protocols may be used occasionally with or without the assistance of a coach or external PD provider. PLC shares problems of practice. Planning is still the main focus, but student work and data may be periodically reviewed. Protocols may be used more regularly to structure and focus this work. Assistance of a coach may be used more extensively to build routines and facilitate protocols to foster meaningful feedback that informs subsequent iterations of the work. Collaborative work is oriented towards action and continuous improvement. Protocols are systematically selected and used to focus and guide inquiry as well as provide opportunities for structured feedback. A range of student work and data is routinely examined and assessed. Data from multiple assessment sources and local performance measurements are dis-aggregated to systematically monitor student progress, respond to needs of struggling students, and guide instructional decision-making.

BASIC-Level MID-Level HIGH-Level
PBL Supports
Shares resources and materials for PBL unit. May visit school or classroom to provide a presentation related to the science content addressed in the PBL unit. Shares specific resources and content expertise that are responsive to specific content and practices addressed in the PBL unit. May visit classroom to give presentation or provide co-instruction. Attends culminating activity and provides informal feedback to some students. Adapts content expertise to local needs and facilitates deeper understanding where misconceptions are identified. Often acts as a translator of science practices and content to the classroom context at the developmental level of students. Provides expert classroom instruction and is increasingly active in student assessment feedback.
PLC Supports
Shares resources and content expertise before PBL unit or as needed. Not a regular participant in ongoing team meetings. Periodically participates in curricular planning discussions during team meetings. Is flexible and available for consultation by phone, email, or other online collaborative platforms. Becomes a regular participant in team meetings and plays more of a curricular coaching role. Judiciously applies pressure to expand awareness of instructional possibilities. Follows through between meetings to encourage action on specific plans. Acts as a project manager and community liaison for processes normally outside the responsibilities of a classroom teacher.


Supporting Improvement

The Learning Studios Toolkit is designed for district curriculum coordinators, STEM coaches, and teacher leaders who are supporting systematic improvement of curriculum. These design, monitoring, and evaluation tools provide ways to gather data and provide productive feedback to teacher teams.

For these tools to work optimally, teacher teams require curricular guidance through coaching, collaborative time and routines to work together, and district systems for recruiting, building relationships, and supporting longer term external partnerships.

The tools were developed and tested for improving project-based curriculum design, fostering productive teamwork in PLCs, and managing relationships with outside content experts. The PBL and PLC program components have process maps and tools that can be used over the course of a school term or year to provide baseline information, interim progress monitoring, and summative evaluation. The OCE Program component has a process map and tools to build relationships and manage entry for external partners.

The tools are a mix of design and communication templates, reflective discussion protocols, and evaluation surveys. They are meant to be used by PLC teams and are designed for a typical planning period time-frame. Facilitation of the process by a coach or team leader is highly recommended particularly at early stages of the work. The tools are available as collaborative Google docs or as downloadable files.

Case Stories
Other Resources
The development of the Learning Studios Toolkit was funded by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Learning Studios

From 2009-2014, NCTAF conducted the Learning Studios program which brought together teachers from across subject areas into teams focused on designing authentic, project-based STEM learning experiences for students. STEM Learning Studios integrated three strategies – collaborative teacher teams, external STEM partnerships, and project-based learning. Teams of four to six teachers within the same school worked in interdisciplinary, cross-curricular teams with local scientists and engineers to develop, and then implement extended project investigations. Learning Studios improved teacher collaboration and student learning by engaging teams of teachers, students, and STEM professionals in meaningful collaborative project design and implementation.


The National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) was founded in 1994 as a bipartisan effort to engage education policymakers and practitioners to address the entrenched national challenge of recruiting, developing, and retaining good teachers in order to ensure that all students have access to quality teaching in schools organized for success. For 20 years, NCTAF has worked to drive and inform the national dialogue about the importance of good teaching, especially in hard-to-staff schools. NCTAF’s research and recommendations inform innovations and improvements in teaching quality nationwide, focus attention on the importance of equitable distribution and retention of teachers, and promote promising practices for the development of teachers’ skills and career pathways.

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The Learning Studios Toolkit by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions for some content are beyond the scope of this license.

Team Lead, Content Development and Design: Don Glass