Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Symptoms and Remedies for Hacking Project-Based Learning

By Erin Murphy — November 25, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest blog post is written by Erin Murphy, Middle School Assistant Principal in the East Penn School District.

A bright, thoughtful teacher sits with her lesson plans, and she dreams of engaging her students in authentic, innovative learning. The magnificent idea comes crashing down around her as the feigned fears associated with planning such an authentic, innovative experience become overwhelming. We call this feeling: PBL Paralysis.

While the term project based learning (PBL) has circulated the education arena for decades, it has yet to breach into mainstream instructional practices. While there are undoubtedly some systemic factors that inhibit this forward motion, I have found countless educators hesitate to implement PBL due to causes of PBL Paralysis.

The first step towards a cure is a diagnosis, so let’s examine four symptoms of PBL Paralysis:

The Binder Clinging
I can still picture my color-coded unit binders lining the shelf behind my teacher desk, the plans I spent hours crafting carefully enclosed in their sheet protectors. When we hear the term “traditional” or “old school” there is often an associated assumption that teachers are just too lazy to move towards more innovative approaches.

To the contrary, I loved my binders because they represented moments I cherished in my classroom. Moving away from a favorite lesson or unit can be an emotional experience, much like the experience of giving away a childhood toy. In hindsight, I know I made the right choice, and I created new moments through PBL that my students and I treasure. However, as administrators, coaches, and teacher leaders, we cannot devalue the emotions associated with change.

The Lack of Professional Development
When an organization is not ready to make the systemic shift to PBL, teachers can feel like they are on an island trying to adopt the practice on their own. They sit through professional development targeting an array of topics, none of which are PBL.

Even in districts offering professional development for PBL, it never feels like it is enough because PBL is a learning-by-doing endeavour. Chances are, you will never feel 100% ready to jump into PBL. The key is finding a way to start small with an idea that works for you. Perhaps begin shifting the ownership of asking questions from teacher to students, or test out a two-day design challenge. Gradually begin adding to the experience as your comfort level grows.

The Grades
Grading can be an obstacle, even for educators comfortable with the overall PBL practice. Grades get the best of us because it is hard to quantify student learning. We work with students as they grapple with a challenge, and then we celebrate when the “light bulb look” finally spreads across their faces. How do we grade that look? The simple answer: don’t grade PBL. Throughout a project, students will receive ample feedback from the instructor, their classmates, and even themselves. By the time the project comes to a close, it will be clear which students have demonstrated understanding of the content, and which students have not.

If a grade is absolutely necessary, create a test to assess student learning. Rather than grading the project, grade the assessment. Avoid creating an assessment made up of a series of vocabulary words or multiple choice questions. Your project’s guiding questions or other open ended prompts work well for this purpose as they require students to connect their learning in a new context and more accurately reflect the level of learning present throughout the project.

The Right Versus Wrong
Judgement can be a barrier to progress. Worrying about doing PBL “wrong” may be one of the most significant PBL Paralysis symptoms. You may have seen one of the PBL versus project graphics, or perhaps you have a high flying PBL colleague. These factors can create an unnecessary pressure around the experience. Keep in mind, every step forward counts.

As discussed in The Lack of Professional Development, you need to find a place to start that works best for you. A little bit of discomfort is good, because it means you are trying something new. Take the risk and then be reflective. Make notes about what worked and what didn’t work, and then ask for feedback from your students and trusted colleagues.

In our upcoming book, Hacking Project Based Learning, Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) and I create an approachable path for educators on the PBL journey. Whether serving as a classroom teacher, administrator, or coach, each of the symptoms may be part of your reality. We aim to address each of these PBL Paralysis symptoms and demystify the PBL experience through ten easy hacks.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP