Teaching Opinion

Response: The Best Advice On Doing Project-Based Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 14, 2013 9 min read
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Last week’s question was:

What’s your best advice on doing project-based learning?

This post is a Part Two to last year’s popular one by Suzie Boss (and readers!) on Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning. Suzie agreed to share additional ideas this year, as did many readers. You might also be interested in resources I’ve collected at 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 (PBL) and social change. She is the author of four books about PBL and innovative learning strategies, including Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World and Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry, co-authored by Jane Krauss. 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:

(More) Do’s and Don’ts for Better Project-Based Learning

The start of the new school year offers an opportunity to get off to a strong start with project-based learning. As we discussed in an earlier post, many schools are adopting PBL as a strategy to help students meet the higher expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Others are shifting to the project approach to get students more engaged. By connecting classroom activities with real-world problem solving, you bring relevance to the learning experience. Students will be less inclined to ask, “When will we need to know this?”, and more apt to dig in to an inquiry experience that matters to them.

Here are six do’s and don’ts to help you build a strong foundation for PBL in the coming academic year.

Do find out about students’ interests and talents.

What matters to students in their life outside of school? Take time, early in the year, to survey them about their interests, concerns, and passions. Maybe they spent the summer volunteering at an animal shelter, mastering a challenging video game, helping to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, producing their own videos or music recordings, counseling younger campers, or tending a garden. Find out about the talents they might bring to project teams, from leadership or problem-solving abilities to cultural insights. Use an online survey tool to ask about their out-of-school interests and capabilities, or have students interview each other as an icebreaker activity. Then use this information as you design projects, looking for opportunities to connect academic content with issues that students care about.

Do encourage curiosity.

The project-based classroom is a place for asking good questions. If students are new to PBL, they may be accustomed to more passive learning. So fire up their curiosity, even before you launch into a project. Share perplexing photos that inspire questions. (To see examples from math teachers, follow the hashtag #anyqs on Twitter, started by math educator Dan Meyer)

Use the daily news as a springboard for inquiry. Ask students: Is there more to this story? Is this information trustworthy? What do you think will happen next? How could we find out? When you’re ready to launch a project, start with a compelling--and brief--entry event that gets students asking more questions. At Birkdale Intermediate, a school in New Zealand that puts PBL at the center of instruction, movie-style posters go up in the hallways to advertise upcoming projects, creating a sense of anticipation about the learning ahead.

Do promote collaboration.

From engineering to moviemaking to marketing, projects that unfold in the world outside the classroom typically involve collaboration. Most real-world challenges are too complex for any one person to tackle alone. In the PBL classroom, be deliberate about building a collaborative culture. Start the new year with low-stakes team-building activities. Have students write their own agreements or slogans about how they will work together as teammates. One PBL colleague makes the case for collaboration by having students interview adults from diverse fields about the role of teamwork in their careers. Be prepared to explain why you have designed a particular project to be a team effort. Why will collaboration yield better results than any one student could accomplish alone? (If you don’t have a good answer, chances are it’s not a good team project!) Find more examples of team-building activities in this Edutopia post.

Do recruit project advisers.

PBL sets the stage for investigating the world beyond the classroom. During projects, your students may need to interview subject-area experts, seek input from focus groups, test prototypes with potential users, or present their work to public audiences. Recruit project advisers who can fill these roles themselves or introduce you to others from their network who may be willing to volunteer. Parents are likely participants on a project advisory team. So are other community members who have a stake in students’ success. Recruit project allies from your local Chamber of Commerce, service organizations, or professional groups. Post specific requests for help from STEM experts on the National Lab Network site.

Use your personal learning network to reach out to more experts. One teacher, for instance, uses Twitter to help her students find the answers they need. When they have a question that requires expert insight, they ask her to “tweet it out” to her global network.

Don’t expect to know every tool yourself.

Will your project involve technology tools that are new to you? Don’t expect to know how to use every tool yourself. Find out which students are knowledgeable in the use of different tools, such as video editing, podcasting, or blogging, and have them provide tech tutoring for their peers. Distribute their expertise when you assign project teams so that every team has a go-to tech expert.

Don’t be shy about sharing project successes.

Through PBL, students often accomplish important, meaningful results. Their efforts may protect a local landmark, bring attention to an overlooked community issue, or improve habitat for an endangered species. Don’t be shy about sharing these successes on your school or class website, Facebook page, or other outlet. One PBL veteran makes a point of inviting the media to project showcase events. Reporters’ questions provide real-world reflection prompts, causing students to think about what they have learned through projects and why their learning matters.

Responses From Readers

Paul Curtis from The New Tech Network:

My best advice on doing project based learning is ... Give yourself permission to make mistakes. So much about the traditional role of being a teacher requires adults to be “experts” in their subject and not make mistakes. While no one likes to look stupid, making and learning from mistakes is what constitutes a healthy growth mindset. If you are new to PBL, you are relearning everything from instructional design to classroom management. And if you happen to be in a technology enabled environment, you’ll just have to accept that you’ll never keep up with the pace of change. PBL classrooms are inherently less structured and it’s easy for students and teachers to trip up. Don’t treat it as a permanent failure. Rather, reflect on what happened and what you can do differently next time, let the students know what you learned, and then rejoice that you just became a better teacher and role model.

John Bennett:

Best Advice: Don’t be concerned about information; facilitate your students’ developing skills associated with effective learning and effective problem solving, relax, and enjoy the efforts with your students.

Anna Kinsella:

Look for a real problem to solve! There’s a difference between “doing projects” and doing project-based learning. A key difference is often that in PBL, students are doing genuine problem-solving that mimics the work of professionals (or actually is work for professionals!). A key question to ask during planning, is “What problem will students be solving?.”

Theresa Shafer:

Include student voice & choice! Ask them to find a problem to solve in their own communities. Bring the community in, send the students out for real engagement. Join us for #PBLChat each week on Twitter at 8pm ET.

K McKaig:

Allow yourself to be a learner with your students. The best PBL I ever facilitated, I opened myself up to learn alongside my class. This vulnerability increases your enjoyment in the process and allows you to grow in understanding after each project you implement.

Alix Horton, New Tech Network:

First, it’s important to think about why your content matters. Immediate, real-world application is important, of course, but it’s also crucial to think about why the content is essential to the discipline and how professionals in the discipline/related fields use that knowledge. Thinking about why your content matters will help you craft a product or problem that will require students to develop deep understanding of those standards. Once you’ve crafted a problem or product and an engaging way to introduce that project, you’ll want to think about how you can support students and structure the “messy middle” of the project. Sometimes we have wonderful beginnings and endings in PBL, but we don’t think about how we can structure the middle of the project using benchmarks and scaffolding centered around student inquiry and student generated next steps.

Quite a few readers sent their comments via Twitter, and I’ve collected them with Storify:

Thanks to Suzie and to readers for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

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Look for the next “question of the week” in a few days...

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