Sometimes we need to color outside of the lines to read in between them

Tips for facilitating effective project based learning units

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I am a huge fan of projects and project based learning.  I love how PBL is about the process of learning and not the process of compliance.  I love how PBL is about questioning and not following.  Most importantly, I love that when implemented correctly, PBL acts as a vehicle for students to acquire knowledge while simultaneously strengthening their skills and deepening their understanding.  The results of successful project based learning units include student autonomy, deep inquiry, and organic engagement.

To achieve such desirable results, however, mindful planning and strategic facilitation are necessities.  I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on my own practice and collaborating with other teachers about their PBL experiences.  What I have found is that often times while well-intended, project based learning attempts do not garner anticipated outcomes.   Why is this?  For the longest time the answer to this question eluded me.  But, then I started to see patterns and it seems that there are three primary reasons why project based learning attempts sometimes fall flat.

Stumbling block  #1:  The unit requires that the end-product look  pretty.

In 2001, I began my teaching career and assigned a project to my social studies students. “Create a poster or diorama depicting something from World War II. Posters must be on a poster or tri-fold board.  Dioramas must be three-dimensional.”

Looking back, I am happy to see that I offered my students some “choice”, but I quickly remember why in subsequent school years I strived to create project based learning opportunities for my students that did not require specific materials.  While the criteria I used in 2001 guaranteed that some of the projects would be visually appealing, this project also ensured two other things: 1) many of my students focused on the end result and not the learning process, and 2) many of my students felt stuck and disengaged as they were asked to demonstrate their learning in a way that was not suitable for them.

Try this instead

  • Use your relationship and personal knowledge of your students to help direct them to a specific area of interest within a unit of study.
  • Offer differentiated product options.  You can differentiate product type (poster, podcast,  TedTalk) and product requirements (length, group make-up, medium).
  • Suggest materials and mediums instead of requiring them.
  • Conference with students to find out how they would ideally like to show their learning (written, using technology, creating something tangible). Then, work with them to determine specific criteria for their product.

Stumbling block #2: The structure of the unit is compromised.

The suggestions above will work best if stumbling block #2 is avoided.  PBL in its purest form encourages students to solve a problem or delve deeper into a topic of interest. Students are encouraged to work together to determine the best way to do this. Conversely, traditional project assignments give students a road-map to follow. Unfortunately,  with either of these approaches we run the risk of losing our students.

Try this instead

  • A hybrid of PBL and projects: allow students to choose  a specific topic within a broader category (i.e. choose an industry in which to start a business).  
  • Differentiate the structure of the project for student groups based on need (some groups can be given a daily goal while others are given a weekly goal, and other groups determine their own goal).
  • Remember that PBL is not an instructional strategy.  Research based high-impact instructional strategies need to be embedded into PBL units.  Appropriate content (subject matter, accessibility , format)  should be selected for different learners.

Stumbling Block #3: Students must follow a predetermined schedule or format for the unit.

As an assessment for learning enthusiast, this is the obstacle that I work most diligently to avoid.  I admit there were many times that I felt the need to provide my students with project timelines complete with a day-by-day agenda and due dates. The natural way to avoid this was for me to just give my students a final due date.  I constantly had to  remind myself that If I did either of these things I was jeopardizing my students’ learning needs and not showing respect for the integrity of the learning process.

Try this instead

  • Determine what standards and/or skills are being assessed.
  • Create a solid structure that allows for students to have flexibility in acquiring content and moving at their own pace.  I like to create phases of projects  (i.e. reading, writing, speaking).  Each phase includes  different “parts” that assess different skills or standards.  
  • Use appropriate formative assessment to monitor students’ mastery level of the skills and standards. Students can work through the phases at their own pace until they show mastery of each standard assessed.
  • Embed small group and individual conferencing that provide students with actionable feedback.
  • Give timely, non-attribute feedback frequently (instead of “great job” or 100%, try something that restates the learning objective: “You have selected two relevant texts about entrepreneurship in the tech space.  I can clearly see both experts perspectives with the text evidence you state.  Now, determine which perspective would be most helpful to you as you write your business plan and why.  Then, share your next steps for additional feedback.”)

 

I hope that you are excited to try some of these suggestions! If you want a thinking partner I am here to help you. I am happy to share any of the project based learning units I have facilitated or collaborated on with colleagues. I welcome your questions and feedback as you embark on this process.

 

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