Not your traditional projects: Three Understandings about PBL

A big open secret about Project Based Learning (PBL) is that it’s a great structure for designing possible_thinkingunits of study. But many educators struggle with this understanding. It’s no wonder when you think about the concept of project carries so much historical baggage. As a student, I remember doing school projects that were fun and engaging, like book projects, where I got to tell other students about a novel that I enjoyed. Unfortunately, it had little relevance to my learning something new. Or the curriculum objectives could be better communicated. What if the project was teaching skills in understanding plot, characterization, and author’s craft? The end result could be a published review of the novel that addressed those 3 criteria, and the final product artifact could be a paper, multimedia report, or something else that is student generated. Now that’s something with substance.

Yet many traditional projects–not all–started after the final test, when learning had already taken place. We might call them enrichment activities or as one teacher told me:

“My students and I worked very hard in the last unit. This project is a break for us, before we start on the next important unit.

The value of traditional projects is that students get to demonstrate what they’ve learned from the unit where they–not the teacher–crafted their ideas into some product of their own design. One problem is that the project work was “extra”, after the completion of major assessments. Often they are assigned to be completed outside of class time. One has to ask, if little to no time is provided during school, how important is the work to what students need to learn? Homework might be assigned from the project. Such assignments are based on work done during the classroom time so that the work feels job embedded. PBL, unlike projects, embeds the work inside the instructional time so that it is job-embedded for students.

There is  value in the process and experience for students and teachers alike. Teachers want students to be engaged in learning, participate fully, and develop the skills needed to be a successful and productive member of society. Students want schooling to be interesting, purposeful, and successful. These interests are not in opposition, yet the means to transform education that satisfies everyone remains a complex puzzle for many. PBL is one solution that meets everyone needs if we can come to a common understanding about what it is and how to start.

1. Have PBL become the Unit Structure

Make PBL the focus of the unit objectives, and students will link all the skills introduced to the final performance or presentation. Teachers can use any instructional strategies in their toolkit to guide learning. Those tools are used in context of PBL.

Which would students rather learn about:

  • Show understanding of the geography themes as they pertain to the United States regions, such as physical features, culture, and economy. Write a report for your teacher. Or…
  • Design a challenge race segment for a new cable pilot called Amazing Race US Edition. Contestants will need to participate in challenges that incorporate physical features, culture, and economy so that audiences and the participants learn about geography teams as they pertain to the locale. Create a multimedia pitch that includes a sample of the segment. Yours may be sent to the producers of Amazing Race.

Sometimes teachers express apprehension through wanting to wait on introducing the project until foundational knowledge is established through a series of lessons that may take 3 days to 2 weeks. The concern is that students can not do the project until such foundational knowledge and skills are developed. They are right about students being unable to complete the project without the instruction. No one expects students to design the final product on day one of a 2-5 week project. Think about projects given to adult workers. I remember being given the charge to provide Differentiated Instruction (DI) support to the 34 school districts in the county as needed. I had classroom experience with DI, but I researched the concepts and studied under some of the best in the DI world, Carol Tomlinson, Susan Allan, and Marcia Imbeau. I took my experiences and learning and crafted highly successful professional development for teachers in the county, and eventually nationally.

When PBL becomes the unit structure, it expands the possibilities for involving students into their own learning, by embedding strong communication, as the next understanding makes clear.

2. Communicate the project finale on the first day
A_MAZEStudents need to know on day one what will be expected by the end of the unit. This enables the teacher to connect each day’s lesson with the ending in mind. Helps students understand the connections of the skills and concepts in context with what they are crafting by the end of the unit. Students stop asking, “Why do we need to know this?” Or the teacher or students can answer that question because each lesson ties into the final product or performance. The conversation might sound like this…

Student A: “Why do I have to research demographic data regarding ethnicity and cultural values in Michigan?”

Student B: “Because when design our Amazing Race segment we’ll need to build a challenge that teaches about that stuff. You know, recreation in the Grand Rapids area is different from Detroit, or the Upper Peninsula.”

Speaking for myself, I find productive meetings stake out clearly what are the outcomes that participants must accomplish. The agenda items breakdown steps that map a sensible approach to meeting the goals. At meetings where the objectives are fuzzy or not communicated effectively, the agenda steps seem without clear purpose, and one can feel like they are underwater trying to hold their breath for as long as they can. When a PBL unit introduces the project outcomes on the first day, and then proceeds to connect the dots each day back to the ultimate purpose, students get lost less. They have a road map by which to communicate with the teacher and other students for help and support.

3. Involve students in shaping the PBL experiences

Student voice is a powerful engagement tool that can lead to rich exploration of content that goes far deeper than when a teacher assigns the work. In a previous blog entry, Generating ideas for meaningful projects, I talk about how students can come up with their own unique way of epiphanyexploring and representing what they know when given the chance. Consider what makes a job fulfilling so that you look forward to going to work, and are willing to spend time “outside of work” thinking about the tasks or challenges?

I like that relies on me to design a proposal or solution. When teachers provide clear academic criteria, students can run with the project, design a solution, and develop an artifact that demonstrates their understanding of the criteria. Students have ownership and find it challenging to figure out solutions or new proposals in collaboration and alone.

Students of all ages are the same. Given clear criteria of what the final product or performance must include, let them figure out what the want to do and how they will get it done. For the Amazing Race US Edition project, teams of students design their own race segment that incorporates challenges in formats that they conceive. So long as the academic criteria is represented, the students can design however they choose.

When PBL becomes the unit, teachers can still use the tools that they have found useful to supporting learning. Some of the tools may be used in different formats. For example:

  • A lecture may be provided to a portion of the students who need it, while other students are working on related tasks.
  • Formative assessments might include observational data collection or Exit Cards (5 minute non-graded questions at the end of a lesson).

Support becomes more easily provided because in a PBL unit students are pro-active and expected to do more of the heavy lifting around learning. Teachers provide strategic small group and individual support, in addition to traditional strategies such as lectures, whole class discussions, and individual desk work. If we want students to take ownership of their learning and be proactive, these PBL understandings make a difference. To be successful, teachers need to consider that when PBL becomes the unit, it meets the needs of students. How can we do more?

Adjusting for Success

Defense wins games; rebounds wins championships.

Bullish on formative assessmentsAs a sports fan and a former basketball coach I’ve seen this to be a truism. Take the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Michael Jordan was the leader who could will a victory from games that should have been lost. While an offensive force, he and Scottie Pippen lead a team defense that when unleashed left opposing teams in tatters. Both would consistently win Defensive honors and 3 consecutive championships from 1991 to 1993. Their second 3-peat championships from 1996 to 1998, was again driven by defensive wizardry as Dennis Rodman joined Jordan and Pippen to become a three-headed monster. Rodman dominated the boards for rebounds.

Phil Jackson, coach of the Bulls, is the other critical factor to the Bulls’ Championship success, but also for 3 championships under him by the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning and losing is a game of adjustments. Phil Jackson is a master at making adjustments throughout a game that helps his teams win. There are games remembered as great upsets that were examples of the effective execution of adjustments: Duke win over UNLV (vid: 1991), Giants over the formerly undefeated Patriots (vid: 2008), and the US  defeating the USSR in the Winter Olympics (1980).

As a high school coach, I’ve experienced this process. Coaches and players assess action on the field of play, looking for weaknesses of the other team to exploit or protect their own that are exposed. My teams have won games on buzzer beaters with plays devised in a timeout, and lost games because the other team adjusted to us more effectively then our response. Whether it’s a hail mary pass or a calculated plan unveiled as the game progresses, success is based on data analysis and how the coaches and players execute the plan to great effect.

In classrooms, adjustments are made every day in each lesson. Each course and/or content lesson is like a game where effective teachers make adjustments based on the continuous flow of observational data from students’ progress and/or struggles. A well planned unit includes lessons that prepares for students who succeed to easily and for those who will struggle. Anticipating how students will respond, as with athletic coaching, enables the teachers to plan scaffold supports and enrichment extensions so that all students are stretched. But as with any plan, once implemented, things can and will go awry.

Successful teams make adjustments to the game plan based on the situation. Often quoted in football by quarterbacks and receivers regarding success is: “We take what the defense gives us.” Rarely does a team do well when the coach refuses to change a plan that’s not working, or makes adjustments on poor or inaccurate data. The same is true with instruction and learning. If students fail to meet the lesson objectives adjustments need to be made.

Differentiated Instruction (DI) is a critical strategic approach to successful adjustments towards student achievement. There are two phases to include if all students have a chance to stretch and grow.

Phase One: Formal Differentiated Instruction

Formal DI happens during unit and lesson planning. One guaranteed prediction for education is that students enter a learning at different levels of understanding and skills. A plan targeted to a specific group, typically the lower middle, fails to meet the needs of those who struggle and students who already know the content. Devising such a plan is the first step. Then…data_collection

  • Create additional layers, or paths, that attend to the other students, from scaffolds to enrichment.
  • Include students on collaborative teams and individualized processing activities. Learners need chances to digest information and concepts.
  • Use learning styles data to help shape activities. Collect data from students through inventories. At a minimum, using learning styles provides variety in learning activities, which can maintain attention; and at best, students make stronger connections because they resonate with the activity processes.
    Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Multiple Intelligences
    Meyers Briggs
    True Colors
    4 MAT
    Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences
  • Plan assessment checkpoints to track student progress. Often this occurs at the end of each lesson. It’s also good to have 2-3 processing activities during the lesson for informal check-ins. Students could be summarizing ideas in writing or in small groups, sample the class with questions to see how they are responding, or use a learning signal, such as thumbs up (I understand), thumbs to the side (I think I understand enough to continue), and thumbs down (Stop! I don’t get it. I’m lost.).

(Additional resources can be found at a DI website I developed.)

Formal DI does take planning time. Yet it reduces the surprises that can derail a lesson because you’ve anticipated much of what might and could go awry. It makes informal DI feel less chaotic and more targeted to students’ needs.

Phase Two: Informal Differentiated Instruction

Informal DI is something that most teachers are very experienced at doing. Remember, adjustments are always going to happen regardless of how well you plan. When a good plan is prepared, those changes on the fly will be more seamless because whatever could go wrong, you’ve already anticipated during the formal planning process. The key to informal DI is to use the assessment check points (see 4th bullet in Formal DI) to determine adjustments for the whole class or individuals. When collaborative teams are working independently, that’s a great time to provide coaching or customized support to one or more students sharing common needs. Some adjustments may get planned for the next lesson. In that instance, help students to finish the current lesson with a feeling that support will arrive just in time at the next meeting or through communications.epiphany

A critical key to successful coaching is to have plan that has multiple layers. Anticipating how a lesson might go well or fall apart leads to layers of support that are ready to implement if or when needed (Formal DI). No one feels good about being caught flat footed when something unplanned happens. With a strong plan, the real-time adjustments will be mostly anticipated, which leads to strong responses and greater confidence by the students (Informal DI). When something unpredicted happens, well, we remember to take a deep breath, draw from our experience and do the best that we can for the student(s). Sometimes the solution can still be found inside the thought formal plan.

In the end, all students learn. That is the true victory.

Generating ideas for meaningful projects

In the adult world projects are a way of living life. It’s amazing to me how much I do that is project-based bothLiving in Projects professionally and personally. Opening and maintaining a consulting business is a major project. There is much to do and things that I learn along the way, such as how do I effectively communicate my national expertise with instructional design such as PBL and school improvement. Last week my family hosted a graduation party for my niece. The planning and preparations, along with the collaboration with her and family from out of state, lead to the culminating event.

My kids love to play open-ended games like Sandbox, Terraria, and Minecraft. They watch numerous videos of other players playing these games to learn about the environment, geography, and strategies. They download mods that enable them to build towns and terrains in collaboration with other players who share a similar passion. This sounds like game based learning, a topic for another time, but what is really happening is that they are embracing projects of their own choosing. Just as others take the project journey to earn their drivers license, get a summer job, or craft stories with dolls or action figures, project based learning occurs for all ages.

What is amazing about both the adult and children examples above is that if we reflect on the activities, we can identify skill sets from different content areas that are represented.

I invite you to pause. Choose an example or choose one of your own life projects. Brainstorm 3-5 skills from at least one discipline. Bonus bragging points if you identify skills from 2 or more disciplines 😉

Pause……………………………………………

meditation1

 

The point of the stories and the reflective exercise is that as teachers, we can generate many projects that makes the curriculum content engaging and meaningful to students. Ideas fit into at least 3 lens:

  1. Solving a problem
  2. Exploring an idea
  3. Pursuing a passion

Lens 1: Solving a problem

There are challenges, puzzles, or conflicts that need resolution. In business, society, and personal worlds, there are problems to be solved. Frame one or more problems that students seek solutions. Include criteria that requires them to incorporate needed skills either explicitly or as background.

Media saves the beach

Lens 2: Exploring an idea

Experimentation is a great way to explore ideas. Whether the idea revolves around science or social issues, for example, students are given or choose an outcome and then figure out how to get there or come up with an entirely different destination. Designing a roller coaster or community skate park can lead to in-depth understanding of Mathematics, Science, English Language Arts, and Social Studies–just to start.

Courtyard Redesign

Lens 3: Pursuing a passion

Teachers are often hesitant to have students study an issue that is close to the instructor’s heart. Yet when students see the teacher’s passion about the topic it interests them. Consider when someone told you about a movie, book, or restaurant that “you’ve just got to check out!” Their eyes sparkle with energy as they tell you in vivid detail about the experience. It’s hard not to get drawn in. There are schools that cultivate students’ passions into curriculum skills and standards.

Kinectic Art

However you develop the project idea, think about how the idea will manifest by the end of the project. The final experience should be meaningful beyond the classroom walls. Students should be told on the first day of the project what they will solve, create, or pursue by the end of the unit. If possible, give students flexibility with the final product/presentation so that they can differentiate themselves from the others. Any idea can work. Just begin with the framework of the three lens, and you’ll soon have a project based learning experience that has rich potential to address content standards and connect for students the content to life context.

Welcome to Opening Paths

Hello and welcome.

This is a space for dialog about exploring ways to help learners be successful. Whenever there’s a social gathering of educators the conversation finds it way to how education would be so much more effective if we, insert sub group of educators, could “really” run things. I always feel sorry for the spouse or date who tagged along and is not an educator. This is a passionate conversation that takes place around many a coffee potNewPaths or dinner. Despite what is sometimes portrayed, educators are very passionate about the profession and genuinely want to meet the needs of all students by whatever means necessary.

But there are obstacles, perceived and real, that must be tackled and windmills that must be tilted. Here, I will attempt to explore and take on those needs and challenges. For every need there are solutions. There are roads either less traveled or unseen because of the many and sometimes conflicting initiatives that demand an educator’s attention. Yet there are possibilities by finding and exploring these paths, worth fighting through the bramble that catches at feet to trip or leave deep scratches from attempting to push through. With courage and a vision-based compass, we can uncover paths to the better world for learners.

Come. Join me on this exploration for opening paths…