A Whole New World: Part III

Welcome to part three of my series all about project-based learning. You can find the first two installments here and here.

I’ve spent the last two posts on this subject praising its results and unashamedly promoting its practice, but now comes the hardest part. It is easy to the sing the praises of anything you believe in, but showing reasons for others to believe are much trickier indeed. There are plenty of analogies for this–the most prominent of which might be good ol’ religion and belief. If you are reading this, excited about PBL, but have no idea how to incorporate it into your teaching practice, then this post will be an attempt to help you. For those reading this that are still quite skeptical, hopefully this post will give you some insight into how it can still be practical.

Lets discuss issues first:

#1 Access to Technology – This is a ‘biggie’ for most of us. School funds are limited, updates to school technology is always years behind, and time are all factors that make access difficult. PBL does NOT require the use of a computer, but they are awfully nice to use. Since most schools do have computers with internet access, the larger issue is how good the technology is and how much time and resources are available to create access. For our first year in the world PBL, we were allowed to use technology at all times. This was incredibly beneficial, but even with the constant access there were barriers between school firewalls and restrictions.

#2 Traditional to Untraditional – For PBL to be successful in its fullest sense there has be a paradigm shift on all parties involved–students, parents, and teachers. This can be very difficult. For an instructor, you have to be willing to let go of some of your traditional control in the classroom. For students and their parents, they have to be willing to see that there is another way to learn and accept that grades are not the most important part of education. This is especially difficult in high school as GPA becomes a large motivator for students due to the need to make high marks to get into the best schools.

#3 Battling Social Norms – What I mean by this issue is there is a battle in American society for what is acceptable and what is really needed in the classroom. I’ve written about this briefly before, but basically the challenge is that testing as a way of proving a child’s educational worth has become a social norm for us. Because of this, classrooms are not really allowed to create real rigor beyond maybe the traditional hours of homework. The social pressure to have a child perform at a high level on a test puts most educators in a bind from the standpoint of challenging students to a higher standard. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes how a child identifies him or herself with their test grades. In a survey I had given to my students this year, I had one young lady write, “I learned how to fail;” she wrote this in response to the question of “What did you learn from this class this year?” She had made an 89% on the test. This student is not alone in feeling that anything below a perfect 4.0 GPA is failure. Although it is encouraging to see young people take their work seriously, it can be disheartening to know that students believe a number grade defines who they are as a learner.

It can be hard to imagine students keeping up with productivity with time constraints, but there is way to make it successful for most students.

Now there are certainly more issues, but the three above sum up some of the biggest challenges. This year, my PBL  classroom was me jumping in with both feet into the deep end. You do not have to dive in as deeply as I did. In fact, the list below, is a very practical guide to implementing PBL style course work even in a more traditional classroom.

Please note*** The following tips are all paraphrased and borrowed from a document written by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss. You can find the original document here. I strongly encourage you to download the document and read it thoroughly!

I am sharing these specific points from Suzie and Jane simply because it may be the best set of advice you’ll find on making PBL work for you. Here is my revised top five list to begin with:

#1 Focus on Authentic Products – The most important tip I can give you is to keep your products for a project real. The result of a project should be tangible and something where students can see the result of their efforts. For instance, if you’re teaching a geometry students about right angles and various triangles, it is important for these students to use right angles and triangles in the creation of a product that shows how they work in reality. (To a degree you could be combining geometry and architecture or even physics.)

#2 Don’t Avoid Soft Skills – Soft skills can be defined as those skills that often times are not assessed in the traditional sense of a classroom assignment. Projects have the ability to assess and develop critical thinking skills, global awareness, and the ability to solve problems creatively. Check this link out: (http://critical-thinking.iste.wikispaces.net) A great source to get you started.

#3 Use Formative Strategies to Keep Projects on Track – This can be difficult, but it is essential to project success. This can come in the form of teacher reflections, mini-lessons (NOT lectures), and using formative assessments as a learning tool for students and not just a way to judge them. The key here is to get students feedback quickly and reflect on where they are in the project building process.

#4 Gather Feedback Quickly! – Getting students feedback in a timely manner is essential to their success. Two great ways to gather feedback quickly is using ‘bell ringers’ and ‘exit tickets.’ Bell ringers can be simple check-ins with students for the first five to ten minutes of class where you can check for understanding of concepts; exit tickets allow you to get quick student reflections after each class gathering.

#5 Focus on Teamwork – This one is tough, but essential. Students need to work together on PBL, but many students don’t know how to do this. Some practical things to do to help students is to have them write up a team contract that has standards they are all held to; students also can also create a project calendar to stay on deadlines. The key is to model good collaboration and team management with your students.

There are several more practical ways to get started with PBL, but above is really just my top five. Again, I strongly encourage you to

You can get the full document from Edutopia.

download the full document from Edutopia. (The original document has a very cool ‘bonus’ tip with links to resources to help you get started on rubrics, checklists, and and other assessment tools!)

Well, this was a rather long post, but I hope some of you find this valuable. I intend to continue this series from time to time when I find new elements to share with you all.

Happy project building!


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