Dipping Our Toes into PBL: First Meeting with Ms. S and Ms. C


Yesterday, I sat down with two science teachers in my school building, Ms. S (chemistry) and Ms. C (oceanography/biology), to start a conversation about developing project-based learning (PBL) in their classes.

Both are new PBL as an instructional method, but both are interested in developing their pedagogy to include PBL as a more authentic approach to their content. While Ms. S is planning more so for next year, Ms. C is working on a PBL for her oceanography students that would take place in March/April. Inside today’s post, I go through the pace of our conversation and the questions and concerns they both had moving forward into uncharted waters.

We all met during my school’s flexible period we dub “Academy Time,” which hosts a multitude of opportunities for students. Honestly, the block of time is weird, but we’re slowly learning how to make it meaningful for more students and teachers.

When we set down, I started by asking both of them what their concerns were based on attempting PBL. Ms. C expressed concerns about time and grading. Both teachers felt the process of planning PBL was a bit overwhelming, so we began with baby steps. First and foremost, we have to start with the standard or standards you want the project to help students do a deep dive into. Without the standard, or if you take standards out of it the purpose of the learning, developing a project becomes almost a useless task. I then emphasized that there will be other standards they may want covered that the project does not cover explicitly; I use moments like this to emphasize that a PBL does not replace all lecture, labs, and traditional assessment. In fact, part of the planning process is to determine what moments during a project will be dedicated to whole group instruction versus small group or pulling out students individually to cover concepts and fomatively assess learning. When done well, PBL is the epitome of differentiation.

Currently, Ms. S is narrowing down her standards for our conversation coming up next week where we’ll start developing driving questions for the projects she envisions for next year. Ms. C on the other hand had hers ready. While I intended to get into the driving questions with her then, we ended up discussing the overall approach to the project, including how we would build in authenticity. PBL is at its most powerful when students are faced with real issues and problems with real audiences to present their solutions to. Ms. C’s original idea to have students create water habitats in a museum/aquarium style was a good start. While the product is basically determined, what the product looks like and what it does is still open. To make the product worth making for her students (which are primarily seniors are suffering from some real hardcore senioritis), we brainstormed ways to give the product purpose. We came up with developing these water-scapes for our cluster’s elementary school students, where students would take their learning and make it accessible and exciting to younger students. This adds the challenge of logistics of where this “pop up” museum goes and how it’s constructed together. This is a great challenge for the students though. As of this writing, we’re in contact with the elementary schools to make our intended audience a reality.

When we discussed assessment, I told them to focus on reflection being the summative focus of the project. That said, if there is a traditional test to be taken, students should still take that test. Most grades associated with PBL should be formative in nature (think daily grades and quizzes) where we emphasize process over product with our students. The plan with Ms. C’s classes is to develop a reflective writing for them to take on as their summative assessment for the project. This emphasizes process and does not punish students who work hard on the product versus team members who do not help along the way.

Finally, we talked a bit about project management, which is when I covered the SCRUM method with them that several of our classroom teachers now use. SCRUM is a method for product development that companies use to improve processes and meet important development deadlines. I like using this method with students as it is a real strategy used in various business environments. If you happen to know what SCRUM is and know who uses it, you might find it fairly impressive that both teachers and 15 year olds in our building know how to use it.

Both Ms. S and Ms C appeared relieved after our discussion and were getting comfortable with developing good PBL for their students. Each week as I help them build their projects, I’ll share the process as well as artifacts as we create them. My hope is watching the process unfold will be powerful for other teachers worried about taking on PBL. I know it will certainly help me reflect on my instructional coaching and how I’m supporting teachers.

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