Project-Based Learning (PBL) has been all the rage in social media and education circles as of late. And, since I have recently attended a conference where I learned about PBL from industry experts and have adopted the practice of PBL for my classroom I figured I’d share out some of main resources and methods for transitioning to a PBL curriculum in your classroom.
I am in no way an expert on PBL but as I stated I am currently experimenting with PBL so I may be able to provide some insight about how to approach the practice from a classroom teacher’s perspective.
Why should I use Project-Based Learning in my classroom?
Many arguments have been made for the benefits of using PBL and its effect on student learning and you can access the research and data here. I believe in using PBL because it's a great way to apply learning standards to real life situations and scenarios where students have choice and voice on how they will learn.
The internet and technology has drastically impacted the amount and level of access to information. This has led educators to begin to ask some serious questions regarding the knowledge, understandings, and skills we want our students to attain. The status quo has been altered by the fact that we can look up or Google any question or fact and have the resulting answer in seconds. Therefore, we need to move towards creating curriculum that helps develop students who can identify, analyze, and solve problems.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe background/fundamental skills and knowledge are important to build a foundation for learning and skill development, but we need to focus on helping students to learn and develop their skills to communicate, collaborate, and to use their creativity to solve authentic problems.
Developing curriculum that focuses on Project-Based Learning fosters these types of skill development and teachers can embed the learning standards for their content into the PBL. This is not an easy undertaking, but the end result along with the process along the way is completely worthwhile.
Depth vs. Breadth
The amount of learning standards that are required to be covered throughout a course is daunting and many times unrealistic. For example, the number of historical events that need to be covered in an AP History Class would require the instructor to only spend 2-3 days studying the U.S. Civil War if they went through and taught every standard and topic required. Therefore, teachers have already been making decisions about which standards and topics to teach and to what depth. What PBL allows for, is a much deeper study of a set of standards and topics.
Teachers may not be able to cover the breadth of standards each and every single year, but by teaching the standards in depth and building other types of skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, students are still able to perform well on tests (research is here).
Also, at the end of the course, quarter or semester, your students will have a portfolio of work and a tangible project to show what they have learned and completed. Far more meaningful than a score on a test at least in my eyes.
How can I structure and design a PBL for my class?
From my own personal experience along with some tricks of the trade I’ve learned along the way, a solid PBL can be broken down into 3 separate phases with specific criteria connected to each phase in which I will describe in further detail.
1.Rubric and Assessment Design
2.PBL Challenge or Topic
3.Timeline and Schedule
Rubric and Assessment Design
This is where you will decide which learning standards you want your students to master throughout the PBL. This is also where you will develop two distinct rubrics for the PBL. One of the rubrics should be a Summative Assessment based on the learning standards taught throughout the PBL. The rubric for this assessment should be structured where the written standard should correlate with a level of mastery on the rubric. This summative assessment will serve as an individual grade for each student.
The second rubric should be designed to assess the product or presentation the students must complete as part of their PBL. This will be scored at a Team Level and can focus on standards as well as other criteria and skills such as communication, teamwork, and effectiveness of design. This rubric is specific to the project or presentation you will be creating.
PBL Challenge and Topic
The challenge or topic of the PBL will be the driving question and/or the purpose of the entire project. It is important that the challenge is authentic in nature which means that it is a real problem that exists locally or a real problem that current professionals in industry are looking to solve. Student should be addressing this challenge for an “Authentic Audience”
In this phase, the teacher can provide all of the requirements for the PBL with the learning standards connected to each requirement. The teacher will explain how the students will present their projects with the use of a “Hook” that lays out the challenge and explains how the teams of students will be presenting their projects or presentations to the public and or working professionals. (The Authentic Audience)
Timeline and Schedule
The teacher will then create a schedule with predetermined dates or timelines for events, tasks, and lessons. The teacher should provide a calendar that lays out the exact dates for specific deadlines for progress checks. During these progress checks, students can receive feedback from their instructor as well as provide/receive feedback from their peers.
The teacher should also create a system for students to be able to schedule workshops and check-ins with the teacher based on their own needs. During these workshops, teachers can provide further instruction on varying parts of the project requirements and on specific learning targets.
Here are some examples of workshops students can sign up to attend:
●Workshop on using the CAD software
●Workshop on figuring out the surface area of the rectangular prism so we can figure out how much material we need to purchase or create for the packages of our product
●Workshop on using camera/video equipment
●Workshop on comparing and contrasting two methods for conducting market research
Structuring the schedule with built-in workshops leads to differentiation and interventions because individuals and teams will struggle with different aspects of the project at different rates. The teacher can provide the dates for Formative Assessments to monitor and track the progress and learning of students. Some examples of formative assessments can be journals, concept maps, self-assessments, peer assessments, and quizzes.
It is important that students are required to take the Summative Assessment before the due date of the project or presentation so the teacher can provide any last interventions and differentiated instruction to support students as they work to finish their projects
PBL in Your Classroom
Hopefully this rough framework can provide you some guidance as you incorporate PBL in your classroom. PBL is nothing new and many teachers have been using the concepts of “learning by doing” and “applying learning to real life scenarios” for decades. This is a testament to the ebb and flow of educational policy and practices. I will provide a list of resources and references for the information and ideas I provided above.
References and Resources
Matt Kuhn -
Edutopia Annotated Bibliography of Research on PBL
The Journal of Economic Education
6 PBL ideas for Math Classes from Teach Thought
Edutopia PBL Resources and Further Articles
PBL for Elementary School (K-5)
Yummy Yogurt Makers
Lift Off - Engineering Rockets and Rovers
Scuba Diving in Belize
What’s the Beat?
PBL for Middle School (6-8)
The Advantages of Machines
Forensics - Get a Clue
We’ve got the Power
Invention: Computer Technology
Dance Pad Mania
Bridge the Gap
PBL for High School (9-12)
Mathematics and Heredity
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
There’s a great expression/meme I found circulating the internet that describes how adults encourage young children to talk, play, and discover the world, yet when these young children move on to elementary and middle school, we implore them to sit still in their seats and be quiet. It’s quite confusing for children and completely unrealistic expectations for them.
Teacher-centered instruction, where students are sitting quietly in their seats with the teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing, should be a practice that is long forgotten. It should go the way the Jenko Jeans I fondly sported in the early 90’s and stay in the past.
As educators, we need to be realistic and take into account our own personal experiences when designing lesson plans. I have quickly learned one of my least favorite parts to the job is sitting still at staff meetings or professional development presentations for extended periods of time. I’m an educator: I like to move around the room and experience what I am learning; I find I lose interest when someone is talking at me instead of with me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand these types of meetings are part of my professional development and I get the value of important deliverables delegated at these meetings, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy them.
Even thinking and writing about them makes me tired, lethargic and overall annoyed. But, I am an adult, and as an adult with years of practice in controlling my emotions and attention, I am able to put a smile on my face and accept that I am always going to be a part of these meetings and dealing with them is just another facet of the job.
Now, when it comes to my students, and when they are forced to sit still for 50 minutes taking notes on a subject they may not be so excited about, can I really just expect them to put that same smile on their faces that I am able to muster up and deal with it? When were they taught that skill and where was I?
We need to take into consideration the attention spans and feelings of young children who grew up in the digital age and have intrinsic needs for stimulation and movement in varying contexts.
Teachers need to be cognizant of these realities and incorporate specific teaching practices to target student engagement and attention. Significant preparation and thought needs to go into lesson design, and all decisions should be made through a student-centered approach.
We recommend using our lesson plan design that helps to promote engagement, but obviously we’re biased. If you choose to use another design, be sure to include the following practices to ensure student engagement and focus:
Incorporate short Brain Breaks into your lesson plan to provide students with a break from academic activities and have a little fun. Brain Breaks allow for rejuvenation and refocusing of attention. You can also use this time to try a class-building or team-building activity.
Allow for Active Interactions and Movement
Design your lesson to incorporate movement, discussions, and interactions in the classroom. Learning is an active endeavor and students need to be active in some form or another to learn. However, the difficulty here is purpose. It is vital to connect the active engagement to the actual learning target.
For example, when I have tried to teach coordinate geometry, I will have students stand up and make a “Y” with their hands to remember the y-axis is vertical, and then I have students make an “X” and then move their arms straight out from them horizontally. They chant the following while they are performing those hand motions:
Classroom Procedures and Routines
Just as with most aspects of life, things get boring if you do them all the time. Therefore, it is important to modify or change your classroom procedures to keep them new and fresh. Some ideas might be to assign students new roles or jobs each week. Change up your seating arrangements so students can work with new classmates. Add in new procedures or routines for your daily Do Now or warm-up.
Direct Instruction to Active Learning
This is the phase of your lesson where you are explicitly teaching your students. Instead of just lecturing in front of a power point presentation, you should employ the practices of guided notes, graphic organizers, demonstrations and questioning.
I usually print out my power point slides and provide specific moments throughout the presentation where students must respond, fill-in information, or develop their own questions.
Along with guided notes, graphic organizers are an invaluable way to break down concepts and ideas into a visual display more in line with how the brain perceives and stores information.
Teacher or video demonstrations of the skills and concepts being instructed is vital. If possible, provide students with several examples of these demonstrations and perhaps require them to develop their own model, alternative connections, or questions about the demonstration.
Also, the use of cooperative learning structures is a great way to help students participate in questioning. Technology is a great tool we can use as well to capture student understanding during the active learning phase of the lesson plan.
The method I usually employ for the guided practice phase of a lesson is I DO, We DO, You Do. I provide three practice problems where I use this strategy and then I extend the “You Do” portion with more problems for students to work independently. This is a great way to differentiate by providing leveled/tiered problems for students to work through as well as student choice in choosing which problems to work on.
Many of these practices and resources may be common place in your classroom, and that’s great! I find it valuable to revisit these practices to ensure my ability to connect the learning target with actual classroom engagements or activities to maintain student attention and focus.
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