Teaching Opinion

Response: Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 27, 2013 9 min read
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Last week’s question was:

What are the Do’s & Don’ts of Project-Based Learning?

Few people know more about Project-Based Learning than Suzie Boss, and she graciously agreed to respond to this “question of the week.” In addition, several readers left thoughtful comments.

Between them, I don’t really have much to add. However, I have collected useful resources on multiple cooperative learning activities, including on Project-Based Learning. You might want to explore The Best Sites For Cooperative Learning Ideas.

Response From Suzie Boss

Suzie Boss is an education writer and consultant who focuses on project-based learning and social change. She is the author of Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World and co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She is a regular contributor to Edutopia and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and is on the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education:

What are some do’s and don’ts for project-based learning?

This is a question well worth considering, given the groundswell of interest in project-based learning that’s occurring across the country--and beyond. In the U.S., many teachers and school leaders are taking a fresh look at PBL as a strategy to help students meet the Common Core State Standards.

The new standards call on students to--among other things--think critically, read carefully, apply math to analyze and solve real-world problems, make well-founded arguments, and use technology to communicate effectively. It’s a tall order, but these are typical outcomes of well-designed project experiences that put inquiry at the center. Good projects not only help students take learning deeper when it comes to academics but also develop the so-called “soft skills” needed for college and future careers.

Such benefits aren’t automatic. PBL veterans will acknowledge that it takes practice to get comfortable with a learning environment that’s more student-centered and less teacher-directed. Students, too, have to learn new strategies for investigating open-ended questions instead of delivering “right” answers.

Here are ten teacher-tested tips to help you get on the right track with PBL.

What to do for better PBL:

Do make it real: Real-world issues are more likely to grab student interest. Keep learning real by encouraging students to use the same tools and techniques that experts use to conduct investigations and solve problems outside the classroom. In a social studies project, for instance, students might gather oral histories and present their work in a museum-style exhibition. They can operate as scientists or engineers by investigating water quality in a local stream or designing solar ovens to be used in the developing world.

Do recycle good ideas: Take advantage of PBL libraries to find project ideas that are ripe for recycling. (For example, check out the High Tech High project showcase or Envision Schools Project Exchange, or use the Project Search feature on the website of the Buck Institute for Education. Listen for project ideas that teachers are discussing in the blogosphere or on networks like #pblchat. Adjust ready-made project ideas, as needed, to meet your learning goals, adapt to local context, or accommodate student needs.

Do build student ownership: PBL works best when students care about what they’re learning. Build ownership by asking for student feedback on project ideas (and be willing to revise based on what you hear). Give students a choice about what they want to produce or demonstrate to show what they have learned. Once they get more comfortable with PBL, invite them to propose their own project ideas.

Do leave time for improvement: Although projects have clear starting and ending points, they don’t always follow a straight line. Allow time in the messy middle for students to improve their work through iterative cycles of feedback and revision. It’s one more way that projects mirror how work gets done outside of school. Make sure students know how to give and receive critical feedback. Encourage them to learn from setbacks and get back on track if their project takes a detour. Watch Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning demonstrate the power of critique in this video, “Critique and Feedback: The Story of Austin’s Butterfly:"

Critique and Feedback: The Story of Austin’s Butterfly from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

Do emphasize teams, not groups: Collaboration is increasingly important in the world beyond the classroom. To build students’ collaborative chops, encourage genuine teamwork in projects. Make sure students know what it means to be accountable to their team members and why good teams have to tap everyone’s talents. Teach them how to come to consensus around team decisions they all can support. Remind them, with real-life examples, that effective teams accomplish better results than individuals can do alone.

Do share results: Students rise to the occasion when they know their work is going to reach an authentic audience (i.e., someone other than the teacher). Having students present and perhaps even defend their work publicly builds their confidence and competence as communicators. Project exhibitions also offer occasions to let parents and other community members see what students are accomplishing through PBL.

What to avoid in PBL:

Don’t make projects an afterthought to learning: In high-quality PBL, the project is the centerpiece of the curriculum, not something fun to do after the serious learning is over.

Don’t get stuck in a silo: Look beyond your classroom or content area to find interdisciplinary opportunities. Ask for feedback on project ideas from colleagues who teach different grade levels or subject areas, or who live in a different community. Invite experts to offer advice that will make your projects more authentic.

Don’t let go of what you know about good teaching: Although teaching and learning dynamics will change when you shift from traditional instruction to PBL, you don’t have to start from scratch. Incorporate tried-and-true practices into projects. Instead of giving lectures to the whole class, for instance, you might offer just-in-time mini-lessons to smaller groups of students. Instead of planning field trips or guest speakers as stand-alone activities, connect these events to project research. Think about the many ways you know how to check in on student progress and use these as formative assessments during projects. Preserve routines like morning meetings that build a positive climate for learning.

Don’t forget to reflect: Reflection is important for students and teachers alike in PBL. Encourage student reflection throughout the project. Try alternating written reflections (on blogs or journals, for example) with short conversations or podcasts in which students talk about their progress or challenges. At the end of the project, make time to debrief with students after they have presented their work. Use final reflections to encourage students to set goals for their next project. Teachers, too, benefit from making reflection part of their PBL process. Capture your thoughts at the end of the project about what worked well, what was challenging (for you or for students), and how you might improve the project the next time around. Even better, share your reflections with colleagues so that others can benefit from your insights and expertise in PBL.

Responses From Readers

Jeremy Aldrich:

Do - Show an example (or several) at the beginning of the project. Define your rubric based on the standards you are trying to teach or measure with the project. Chunk the project into class meeting-sized blocks to keep students on task. Allow some areas for students to self-evaluate with peer and teacher feedback, especially if it is something subjective and not objective. Consider using the 1-2-3-4 scoring system for each domain of your rubric (1=No, 2=Yes,but..., 3=Yes, 4=Yes,and...). Allow and encourage students to revise their project based on feedback.

Don’t - Give a week to complete the project without checking on progress along the way. Make a rubric with more than a few domains to score. Give several class periods to working on the project but only a few minutes to present them.

Anna Kinsella:

Do... design projects that give students voice and choice; allow students to “drive” how the project unfolds; integrate individual and group components; do make sure a group is truly necessary; check-in with groups regularly; make time for reflection; support students in reading and writting

Don’t... keep your rubric a secret; equate advanced work and additional work; assume students know how to collaborate; provide content information students haven’t asked for; problem-solve for students; pre-teach all content before a project is launched.

Theresa Shafer:

Do: Build bridges from your students to the community. With students find authentic problems to solve in your own neighborhood, then work with community partners to solve them.

Don’t: Send students out into the community without first working together on professional dress, shaking hands, public speaking/writing, and collaboration.

Shara and Jody:

Do: give an open-ended prompt that is simple. If you want kids to give you individualized products based on their own creativity, make sure you don’t stifle that creativity by being too specific. Your learning objective (or theme) is probably short and succinct; just share your learning objective with your students, and tell them to demonstrate their learning in whatever form seems the best to them.

Do: Give them a scoring guide, but keep the rubric open-ended so that the students can all use it to guide their projects, regardless of what form they decide their project will take. An example would be that the projects should be thoughtful, meaningful, visually, and beautiful, as opposed to a detailed explanation of “must include three of these, four of these,” etc.

Do: allow for collaboration- among students and between students and the community/public.

Don’t: show an example. When we have shown students examples, it shapes their product. If you’re really committed to to PBL and want students to be able to think beyond the norm, you don’t want to provide something that will shape the parameters of their thinking. You want them to think beyond any parameters.

Don’t: close your mind to new ways of thinking. And don’t let your students think only in terms of what’s been done already.

Finally, Do: be open to the new and the unimagined; Project Based Learning is a way for students and teachers to work together to imagine the future of education.

Thanks to Suzie and to many readers for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

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