We all know that teaching is a difficult job. Becoming a good teacher with student-centered, inquiry driven PBL curriculum is uniquely difficult. In my nine years as a teacher and five years as instructional coach I have learned some basic ‘teacher moves’ that consistently help teachers improve as a teacher using PBL.
1. Prepare your “go-to” questions: Be prepared to ask initial questions, follow-up questions, and questions that get students defending their thinking. If we want to develop student critical thinking, communication, and analysis we as teachers need to stop talking, ask more questions and listen. This needs to become a new habit so prepare some simple questions that you can use over and over. As students begin to expect them you will notice a shift in the depth of responses. Questions that worked for me were:
2. Go old-school: Technology, laptops, and tablets are powerful tools for collecting formative assessment data but don’t forget the reliable clipboard, roster, and pencil. I found this was frequently easier than balancing my laptop and trying to type while looking at and listening to students. Prepare a clipboard for each class, with the class roster listed by student group. This allows you to easily and quickly capture formative assessment evidence as you meet with groups, individuals, and whole class observations. Create columns that indicate what you are looking for and assessing - specific content, collaboration evidence, aspects of written or oral communication, etc. - and use plus, check, minus signs for indicators of proficiency. You can then use this data as purely formative, or maybe they become part of a project’s collaboration score. You also have evidence to support any communication with students’ families and support services.
3. Create routines of kindness: In our larger social culture of bullying, trolling, and put-downs the act of being kind needs to be intentionally practiced. If we want students to take risks with their learning then they need to feel that the environment is safe. I developed a weekly ‘Circle-O-Kindness’ where the class would gather in a circle on the floor and everyone took turns saying something kind about someone else. This could be some way that a classmate helped them, some way that they noticed a classmate helping someone else, or a random act of kindness that they personally committed that week. Even high school students began to appreciate and look forward to it, reminding me on the day it was scheduled. I learned so much about the students that I would not have known otherwise, and it feels really good!
4. Trust your students (and their brains!): The adolescent teen brain is going through the physical stage of strengthening synaptic connections and pruning others away. This synaptic strengthening is a part of learning. The more that you can activate and have students practice the types of thinking you want them to learn, the more those synaptic pathways are strengthened. The more that the reason for the learning is relevant to their own experience in some way, the easier it becomes for students to show their interest, which then reinforces the natural tendency of human curiosity and learning. I found that the more I trusted my students the more they would engage with their own learning which then reinforced my trust in them!
5. Be clear (as possible) with your intentions: As a teacher, the more clarity you have about what you actually want students to learn the better you can guide their learning and ask better questions. If you want them to think critically about the content and apply it in different authentic situations then you must ask them to do that and design that into the unit or project plan. This is not about writing learning targets on the board, or in the digital daily agenda. This is about you as teacher intentionally creating opportunities for your students to learn, practice, and get feedback on the skills and knowledge you want them to learn. I find this helps teachers be more reflective of their work and be open to improving their own teaching.
These are not the magic spells that will make your PBL unit unfold smoothly with amazing deeper learning for students! However the more these are practiced along with Gold Standard projects your PBL teaching will improve. What has helped your PBL teaching improve? Let me know on Twitter @istevenson75
Previously posted on bie.org
The Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practice of “Build the Culture” focusing on student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, and attention to high quality work is crucial. However, in my instructional coaching and professional development work I hear teachers across the country say, “But doing that takes time away from all the content I have to cover!"
I usually respond with an inquiry approach by asking, "How does building the culture align with your standards?" In the back of my mind I am looking to drop bread crumbs that lead teachers to the realization that the Common Core Standards (and most other state standards) and the NextGen Science standards INCLUDE culture building!
First: The CCSS ELA Speaking & Listening standards include engaging "effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners.” From Kindergarten where the goal is to "follow agreed upon rules for discussion" to the 11-12 grade goal of working "with peers to promote civil democratic discussions and decision making." You now have standards aligned to culture building where one of the learning goals is to improve team spirit and open-ended inquiry. The focus and time taken in learning and practicing those skills is now justified.
Second: The CCSS Math standards from K - High School include a math practice of making "sense of problems and persever[ance] in solving them," "reason abstractly and quantitatively," and "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” Those are clear descriptors of a PBL culture where growth, open-ended inquiry, and attention to quality are valued. So be empowered to spend part of your precious time building those skills, and your problem and project based learning plans become even more tightly aligned to standards.
Third: The NextGen Science standards also include building a culture of inquiry and attention to detail. The Science and Engineering Practices of “planning and carrying out investigations to answer prior questions or test solutions to problems” in K-2 extend through grades 11-12 with “formulating, refining, and evaluating empirically testable questions and design problems using models and simulations.” Intentionally building this culture into projects creates the opportunity for students to learn and practice the skills, and you are on your way to becoming a Gold Standard PBL teacher!
Four: Just about all teacher evaluation systems include language around planning and designing lessons and units that are standards-aligned, and promote engaged student learning. As you intentionally scoop these culture-building standards into your project and capture evidence of student learning you are building your own evidence of professional growth.
As you backwards plan your projects using these CCSS and NextGen standards, be sure to check for understanding along the way. Use self and peer reflection along with collaboration rubrics as the formative assessment checkpoints. Use different student-led discussion protocols as the instructional strategy for student learning and practice.
My experience has shown that students appreciate the chance to learn about the WHY behind PBL and that HOW they learn makes a big difference. Administrators appreciate seeing that your planning aligns to standards. Parents appreciate knowing that learning how to communicate will help their child succeed in school and life. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have time with all the content I have to cover” try to remember that culture building IS part of your content!
So, just like when I hear teachers say "I don't have time to teach that along with my content" I ask you—how do you build a classroom culture that aligns with student learning?
First published on:
I listen to a table of 10th grade World Studies students take turns explaining how women are affected by the lack of access to education in underdeveloped countries. One girl, listening intently, speaks up and asks “Why aren’t they allowed to go to school when our research shows that education actually raises the incomes of families?” The rest of her group pauses and looks at me. I repeat her question and reply, “I wonder if that has a simple answer? Go add that to the project wall questions. The rest of you make a list of other questions that this initial research brings up.”
Moving from good to great Project Based Learning involves being aware of the specific, intentional “teachermoves” you make that drive student inquiry, engagement, and excitement for learning. One “move” I made that enhanced my PBL teaching was developing the classroom project wall into an active teaching tool,
rather than a bulletin board. The project wall is the visual space in the classroom that helps manage information, project questions, calendars, standards, assessments, and resources that guide student learning during the project.
Your project wall can support your use of each of the Gold Standard PBL Project Based Teaching Practices :
1. Design and Plan: One of the ironies of PBL done well is that the best projects arise not from spontaneous decision-making but from detailed planning. A powerful project wall will be the classroom hub that shows the results of your planning. The more that crucial elements of a good project - the driving question, list of student-generated “Need to Know” questions, resources, and the schedule of formative and summative assessments - are visible to students, the better they become at taking control of their learning. And the better you become at facilitating, rather than controlling, their learning. BIE’s Assessment Map and Student Learning Guide are simple, powerful, (and free) planning tools.
2. Align to Standards: The well-planned project must clearly align student learning to targeted content standards and skills. The project wall is a place to keep those standards and skills front and center. A PBL teacher I respect has a wall where students group their inquiry questions in categories under the standards. This is a powerful, visual learning strategy that helps her students become meta-cognitive about what they are learning - how their own curiosity and inquiry is linked to key content and skills. It also provides a conversation point for parents and administrators, showing how your PBL teaching is aligned to standards.
3. Build the Culture: Make sure the classroom norms, which have been co-crafted with your students, are front and center in the project wall. These norms and the student-generated questions reinforce the value of student voice and choice. Keeping the project calendar visible and updated allows students to know what needs to be done. The project wall becomes a resource that you can direct students towards in order to answer their own questions. Here are more great tips on building a culture of collaboration, critique, and questioning in your PBL teaching.
4. Manage Activities: The great PBL teacher is always dancing back and forth between individual and team work time, and whole group and small group instruction. The project wall helps to manage this dance with visual information needed for each of these aspects: schedules, assessment checkpoints, deadlines and class norms.
5. Scaffold Student Learning: Similar to managing activities the project wall can support the scaffolding of student learning. The visible list of questions, aligned standards and skills, and flexible calendar ensures that you are providing students with opportunities to practice, apply, and reflect on their learning. As your formative assessment shows that students need more or less scaffolding, you can adjust the project calendar and keep students aware through the public information on the project wall.
6. Assess Student Learning: High quality formative assessment is crucial to scaffold student learning towards the summative products of any good project. Along with the public flexible calendar of checkpoints and deadlines, your project wall should also make all assessment rubrics public and accessible. The project wall should make it clear what assessments are individual or team based. The assessments need to be linked to the list of student questions, and identify which of the 4 C’s (communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity) are being assessed.
7. Engage and Coach: A comprehensive project wall will boost your PBL teaching and support student engagement only as much as you include it as an intentional, frequent teaching tool. I always knew my students were more engaged with a project when I saw them, on their own, referring to the wall with their team mates. The more I asked them about which of the Need to Know questions they were learning, had them continuously update the list of questions, referred them to the calendar, rubrics, and class norms, the more students became self-reflective and supported each other in learning.
How will you boost the power of your teaching with a project wall?
See some great examples of project walls from Katherine Smith Elementary School .
previously posted on BIE.org
One of my last posts described Using a Project Wall to support Gold Standard Project Based Teaching. One part of a project wall is the Need to Know list. Since then I have coached many teachers on how the Need to Know (NTK) is a physical list in the classroom and an integral process that enhances student learning. It does this through making student inquiry visible and central in an authentic PBL unit, as well as provide evidence for developing your Gold Standard Project Based Teaching.
Design and Plan, Align to Standards: As you develop your PBL unit and the driving question or problem statement you will make a list of all the content standards and skills you want students to learn through the project. Turn that list into questions and keep them close as you implement the project. Use it to guide the class creation of the Need to Know list—if students don’t ask about a particular piece of content or skill, you can lead them to see that it’s important. Refer back to it throughout the project and reflect on how you have formatively assessed student learning. Have they had opportunities to learn and deepen those content standards and skills? If not, how could the project be revised for next year?
By keeping a record of standards alignment and formative assessment work, you’re collecting evidence of your own teaching practice—no matter what evaluation system your school or district uses, they all ask for evidence!
Build the Culture: Launch your project with specific protocols that get students creating the lists of what they will need to know and learn based on the driving question and problem statement. Here a couple of great ones: NTK Process and Question Formulation Technique. A crucial teacher move here is NOT providing answers! The answers come through the project. The teacher role is to ask more questions, follow up questions, and "What else?". You want to build the culture where questions and curiosity are the norm.
Teaching inquiry, creating and posing questions, and making conjectures about solutions are now part of speaking and listening standards, mathematical practice standards, science and engineering practice standards, and all decent College and Career Ready standards. Take pictures of the NTK lists in your room to build evidence for your teaching practice in terms of classroom routines that build a culture of student engagement.
Manage Activities, Scaffold Student Learning: For the NTK list to become central to student learning you must make it an active part of your teaching. Use it as an exit ticket - "How did what you learned today help answer one of the NTK questions?". Use it as a hook into the next learning activity, whether student work-time or more teacher led - "Your goal today is to answer the NTK question ___ ."
Crucial to the NTK process is having students physically handling the list itself. Have each student team consolidate all the different class sections’ lists into one summary list that all sections will start with. As a differentiation scaffold for ELL or students that need more practice, have them work to make a neatly printed poster of all the questions. Let them know that when the poster is done they will need to explain why they think the questions are important.
I have seen teachers cut NTK posters into strips and move each strip from the NEED to the KNOW side of a project wall when a formative assessment is done; or, put red, yellow, green dots next to items on the poster list. You can give teams envelopes with strips of the cut up questions and have them rearrange them in some sort of priority order; and of course with some sort of justification explanation! I have seen giant classroom “chalk talk” posters that grow and expand as the project progresses.
All of this is more evidence of your teaching practice that help students learn the content and skill of inquiry. Be sure to take pictures and keep samples of student work that shows mastery and growth.
Assess Student Learning: It should be pretty obvious now how the NTK list is integral to your formative and summative assessment. Be sure to create an Assessment Map in your planning, and try to return to it, making annotations as you go to the NTK list. This will make the project better next year. And again, provide evidence of your teaching and professional learning!
Engage and Coach: Active use of the physical list in the classroom is a powerful tool for facilitating student learning. Any good sports coach has tools of the trade (whistles, clipboards, stopwatches, play books, game film to watch, etc.). The NTK list is one of your tools.Gather teams around the list on your project wall for quick ‘huddles’ to focus their work time. Ask students questions related to the NTK questions in your
individual and group check-ins. Make early project teams based on which questions students choose to learn about as a way to leverage the power of student choice into engaged learning; of course, this has to result in some sort of jigsaw so that ALL students learn the basics all the content. Keep a copy of the list on your own clipboard with annotations of student learning.
Once more: all of this is evidence of your Project Based Teaching! You may need to point this out to the administrators as they do their evaluation observation cycles. Work on these strategies with your instructional coach and have them collect the evidence for you. The more you use the NTK list in your teaching, you will be amazed to see students start to refer to it, and what you hear them asking!
Previously posted on:
How do we create new habits for teacher collaboration and more engaged student learning? Cross-curricular projects!
Collaboration makes so much sense as a teacher! So much sense that we try to get students to learn how to do it well. Unfortunately, as teachers, we find it difficult to do ourselves. We have all been trapped by master schedules and no common planning time. If we want it we have to actively search for and think “outside the box” for ways to make common-planning time happen. Here are some ideas:
I am not suggesting you take on more work but to work differently. Once you identify the new collaborative planning time - use it! Have focused conversations on ideas for cross-curricular projects or units. This is counter-intuitive but it does NOT put more work on your plate just different work. The conversation needs to start with the content standards of both classes and finding natural connections between content and skills. Lets look at a Biology / ELA cross curricular project and some specific content standards from each class.
You can combine the four goals! We will get into awesome project ideas in a moment, but at the very least have students write a 5 paragraph essay about the ethics of bio-engineering in plant or animal organisms. Or try a more complete student-centered cross-curricular PBL project where students create a visual multi-media response to the Driving Question: "How close is science and society from actually having a “Dr. Frankenstein?" I imagine students could be pretty intrigued by that.
For this project idea students would still need to learn all the specific Life Science concepts, facts, and processes with cells and living systems. If you have a good lab that engages students and includes a written lab report then have the report written in the ELA class time. Writers workshop strategies, and revisions can teach the CCSS ELA standards. The Science teacher can assess the science content learning through more precisely written lab reports. The Science teacher is happier because the reports are not as bad as they have been in years past. The English teacher is happy because s/he did not have to “teach” the topic of the writing. The students are happy because they didn’t have to write a different paper about a completely different topic in English class! The Science class could then have a quiz on the information learned through the lab.
In the ELA class students read recent articles from Scientific American, National Geographic, and other popular science magazines. You should be able to easily find some great resources with bizarre scientific research about medical transplants after amputation or loss of limbs, connecting artificial limbs to brain neuron cells, and the morality of human cloning. Be sure to include key sections from, or the whole book, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. (Abridged versions for lower level readers can be found easily!). Use any student-centered discussion strategy to get kids talking about the readings and the science content.
In ELA students then write the script, screenplay, and story board of their multi-media response to the DQ. It needs to accurately contain and use certain science concepts. This part will be assessed by the science teacher. The writing gets assessed in ELA. The finished product after being presented to doctors, science researchers, religious leaders, and parents in one or both classes can be assessed by the students using their own rubric (and the teachers after school with appropriate snacks and beverage!).
Students are more engaged, both teachers feel like they had less grading and students actually learned more, most everyone had some fun, and the community partners are amazed with the ability of “your” students! Just through teacher cross-curricular collaboration!
It takes a commitment to work through and create new habits, but go for it! Open your classroom door. Invite others in. Look for cross-curricular opportunities. Trust your colleagues' work. Limit staff meeting “nuts and bolts”. What collaboration structures have worked for you?
A major component of PBL is that students learn how to take responsibility for their own learning. Shifting that responsibility away from the teacher to the student is one of the most challenging aspects of PBL. Our jobs are to help students learn and it is so easy to step in and give information, answers, and explanations. We do this out of care and concern. However it also does our students a disservice. They learn to rely on us for the answer, next steps, and information.
Project management is a dance between teacher guidance and student ownership. Sometimes it is well choreographed, sometimes we are make it up on the spot, and sometimes our feet get tangled and we fall to the floor. A powerful tool to help choreograph your project management is a well developed Project Wall. See excellent examples from K. Smith Elementary School in San Jose, that helped inspire this blog post!
You probably already have some sort of project wall - hooray! But a little Reflection and Revision goes a long way. Smooth project management relies on the smooth flow of information. Providing as much information as possible gives students the opportunity to get the information themselves, what I like to call the “Self-Service classroom”. Is your wall supporting the flow of information as much as possible? Use the 8 Elements of PBL and the Project Wall Rubric as your guide.
1. Signficant Content: Does your wall clearly indicate what content the students will learn? It should. The list of significant content should flow naturally from the Need to Know conversation at the launch of the project. This is also a flexible list, you can add to it as you review your Need to Knows throughout the project. Students indicating that they are learning MORE than you thought - how awesome is that!? This is also the place to translate the teacher-talk of standards into manageable student-talk. If it is a high school class go ahead and use the standards language, it is excellent practice of academic vocabulary.
2. 21st Century Skills: Does your wall clearly indicate what skills the students will be learning and practicing? It should. Students need reminders of what the heck they are doing and why. This is especially true for students new to the PBL process. Include pictures, examples, conversation/question stems, and rubrics that remind the student of what the skill is, help them learn the skill, and know if they are doing it well.
3. The Driving Question: This is a no-brainer! It is driving the whole project so it must be large and in-charge! There are countless times when I point to the DQ, or run over to the wall and ask students “how does what you just did help you answer the DQ?”. This helps keep the student inquiry and work time flowing in appropriate directions, which is the main goal of project management. If you refer to the DQ and make reference to its physical presence in the room, your students WILL start referring to it themselves. I love it when during a Socratic Seminar or 3-Way Debate I see students glancing to the project wall and the DQ! I know I have done my job well.
4. Need to Know (NTK): Is the student voice of what they need to learn visible? The NTK goes hand-in-hand with the DQ. It not a static, unchanging list to be forgotten during the heart of the project. The NTK list needs to be constantly revisited, revised, and growing. The list should be reviewed for each scaffold activity that the class moves into and out of. This checkpoint reinforces the purpose of their time and helps keep the teenage brain more focused. Use it for powerful formative assessment - students need to explain how their learning aligns with the NTK’s and helped answer the DQ.
5. Voice and Choice: Mmm. This element is not so obvious to have on a project wall. Here are some suggestions. On the NTK list you could indicate what student added that element to the list. List the teams and the specific project focus, topic, and product that each team is taking on. Have a ‘parking-lot’ where students can write questions on sticky notes (you can use these as discussion starters, or respond to the student/team appropriately). Seeing themselves on the board in a public way helps to build the relationship of trust. And it indicates that you value what they have to say. The more that students feel their voice is valued the more they are willing to take ownership of their own learning.
6.In-depth Inquiry: Does your wall show the progression of inquiry and learning in the project? To support the cycle of inquiry valuable information applicable to the project needs to be visible. Calendars and rubrics support the independent thinking and planning inherent in effective student project management. Have a pre-made poster with directions for various student-centered learning strategies and hang the appropriate one with any accompanying sentence starters and question stems (see facinghistory.org/teaching-strategies for a list of excellent learning strategies). Also make sure you post as many resources - paper and digital - as possible, be sure to include sources that students find as well.
7. Revision and Reflection: Where does your wall show evidence of revision? This element can be supported through your continual referral to the Driving Question and NTK list. The NTK list should be a living document with items getting crossed out as students learn answers to specific questions, and items getting added as their answers lead to more questions. In the “Spotlight on Awesomeness” section in my Project Walls I post student work that clearly shows heavy revision marks, and the student’s reflection of how the revision made their work better. It tends to get messy, but that is ok, have you seen a teenager’s room? They can live with messy!
8. Authentic public audience: Can a visitor to your room get an in-depth understanding of the project without even talking to you, or students? They should be able to know what the project products will be, when and how they are being presented. Progression of student learning should be visible. And best of all, they should be able to ask any student in the room to explain something on the wall, and get clear accurate answers. The wall puts YOUR hard work on display so use it for your own teacher assessment process - it contains evidence of a supportive learning environment, differentiated learning opportunities, and your ability to plan rigorous “units” for student learning of content and skills.
Wow! Don’t get overwhelmed if your wall does not have all of this. Just like with your students, you want to see improvement in your own work as time goes by. Pick one item that you will add to your wall in your next project. As your students get more experienced in project work, much of your work changes, and keeping the project wall current is one part of that.
Start using your project wall as a powerful management tool that is dynamic, raises student ownership of learning, and helps the flow of information which is at the heart of smooth project management. How has the project wall helped your students and project management? Please share below or on twitter at @istevenson75
BIG thanks to The K.Smith School for sharing their hard work, and Patrick Shaw at OCM BOCES for the awesome Project Wall Rubric!
Envision this - student teams finish a brief discussion on the project Need to Knows and share out their next steps. The class notetaker adds them to the digital list displayed on the whiteboard. Teams have another 10 minutes to discuss and decide which items on the new Need to Know they will investigate. During team meetings (see previous blog) the teacher reviews plans for the rest of the week. Some teams split up new research topics, while others research the same topics and then compare research notes. One team decides to split the phone calling for interviews and writing possible interview questions. Another team still needs to finish their initial research and decide to stay for after school tutorial. All teams have different due dates during the week and know that additional research and interview planning must be done by Friday, so that interviews can be scheduled, finished, and written up by the end of the following week. The class period ends with the teacher’s class roster full of notes indicating when each student will have their next part done, excitement about interviews getting scheduled, and awareness of the content research quiz on Friday.
“In your dreams!” you might say. I say “In your reality!”
Consistent and carefully scaffolded use of task lists make this engaged inquiry process come true. The best teachers have strong systems to keep track of the many different tasks and deadlines necessary in a smooth running classroom. But those systems were not born fully formed in their first few years of teaching. They required constant reflection, revision, courage to throw out what doesn’t work, and celebration of what does.
Good project management is essentially good information management. All schools have some sort of “daily planner use” expectation for students. But the powerful use of task lists is different than just writing in an assignment due date in a square on a calendar. Task lists are powerful project management tools when they are used for collaborative decision making, critical thinking of process steps, personal accountability with deadlines.
Today I want to look at collaborative decision making. Whether you use a task list form that has tasks already identified or is blank and waiting for student decisions (more on these in the next blog) the power in its use comes from the conversation that students must have to make it meaningful. It is too easy for students to just say “you do this, you do this, I’ll do this, done!”. The conversation must include reasons why the decisions are made. Students new to PBL need question stems such as:
The teen brain lives in the moment so the ability to look “down the road” a few days is not natural for them. Providing the language of what to think about and how to ask is teaching the 21st Century Skill of Critical Thinking. The consistent use of task lists gives students multiple opportunities to practice the skill. These types of questions also force the practice of collaborative decision making. This is where they have to weigh the pros and cons of different possibilities and decide together what will be best so that the goal is obtained. Older students who are more experienced with the PBL process may not need such explicit scaffolding. Or maybe you provide some groups with the structured task lists and some without depending on their need for differentiation.
Whatever the skill levels present in your class you must keep the ever present high expectations of students being able to answer these questions in the Team Meetings. To do that, you must be consistent with your expectations, follow through and turn the meeting into something valuable - formative or even summative assessment.
Have copies of “Collaborative task list rubrics” ready to mark and return in the team meetings. I also make a notes of the rubric “score” on my class roster lists. If the 21st C. Skill learning focus in the project is “Collaborative Decision Making” I try to get in two task list checks during a project. The two formative scores may be combined into a minimally weighted summative assessment score in the 21st Century Skills column in the grade book.
Your use of Task Lists to deepen critical thinking and collaborative decision making through including question stems is a simple and powerful way to enhance your PBL teaching and project management. You provide guided examples of the skill, allow time for independent team practice, give timely formative assessment feedback for improvement, and the summative assessment of the skill can be seen in deeper and more focused student products.
You are also gathering important evidence to show your own mastery of the teaching profession. You actually know the engagement of all students with their learning, you are creating a learning environment that supports deep student learning, and you are able to provide differentiated instruction.
Future posts will explore how Task lists are powerful project management tools when they reinforce critical thinking of process steps, and personal accountability with deadlines. How have you used task lists to support your project management? I would love to hear!
11th grade US History students high-fiving, fist bumping after a US Constitution assessment? Yep. Shouting “We owned that!” after a high-stakes history presentation? Yep. We have all seen the smiles, confidence, and pride that fills students after a PBL presentation where the audience was left with their jaws on the floor and no ideas for questions. I have seen that same pride in the Special Education student who earned his first “A” in English with the script he wrote for the Psychology movie that explains Tourettes Syndrome. Students earned it, but don’t forget all the work that it took the teacher to get them there. The hours spent in the classroom, and outside of it, managing the learning and behaviors of 30 different kids like a herd of wild cats.
My best moments of PBL project management are when I am able to let go of expectations for what engaged student learning looks like. If I try to control the learning environment too much the students lose ownership of the learning. It becomes too much like “school”, where students spend the majority of the time listening to the teacher.
The best PBL management involves high expectations for student learning AND open expectations for what good teaching and engaged learning looks like. PBL has some specific management techniques that allow the controlled chaos of a project to be meaningful and productive: team meetings, team rep meetings, and a self-service classroom.
1. Team meetings: Meet with each team for at least 10 -15 minutes at key points during the project. This will take a couple of days if you have 6 - 8 teams in a class, but the time investment is worth it. I have a space in my room away from the rest of the class with comfortable table and chairs to have these team check-ins. This shift of space implies a shift of focus. It reminds me that my most powerful work is done through listening. And for students it shifts focus to the purpose of their time - learning.
I am able to hear the unique learning and challenges that students are having and respond to those immediately (or at least the next day). I also review upcoming project expectations. This creates effective differentiation in the moment, rather than having to plan a differentiated lesson. The teaching is very powerful because it responds to the needs that the students are having right then. Be sure to take any notes about where the teams are in the project, resources they need, or comments about their lack of progress. This is key formative assessment information that can be part of a Work Ethic or Collaboration grade. Also, be sure to follow through on what you say you will do to support the students. Trust building is a part of all good project management.
The rest of the class needs to be clear on what the expectations are while you are meeting with each team. Also realize that the energy level, movement, and student ability to focus will change through out the rest of the class time. Don’t respond to every chat, movement, laughter, or phone that you see. Let your students know that you trust them with this time because you trust that they will learn. And if they don’t - they might get called out in a presentation with some really hard questions, or at least in their next team meeting with you!
2. Team Rep meetings: This is almost the opposite of the Team meeting, where you meet with only 1 person from each team. If the class has 7 teams then you meet with the 7 team reps all at the same time. This is a powerful PBL management tool for several reasons. First, you only need to get the attention of a handful of students, explain the expectations for the next chunk of class time, and have them go back to their teams and explain what to do. Which in a PBL class might be to prep their comments/responses for the upcoming fishbowl, or silently read a piece of text and highlight sections they have questions/wonders about, or prepare their reflection and task lists for the team meetings that will begin in 10 minutes. Secondly, the team rep meetings support the culture of high expectation and trust in the class. You expect the team reps to explain the info to their team, and hold them accountable if they don’t. If the team is still not functioning on the next check-in, have them explain why not so you can address how to best help them.
This is also powerful teaching because it allows you to watch and assess how different teams are doing in their collaborative learning. I keep a clip board and notes about how quickly each group gets into the task at hand, which ones need praise for meeting the on-task expectation, and which ones might need some redirecting conversation. Allow enough time for students to get into the task and then assess (get the whole class attention and ask) which groups have a “burning desire” (as I call it in my class!) to talk with or ask me questions, and go to them first. This allows you to go to the area of greatest need and respond to it first. Sounds like powerful differentiation as well, doesn’t it?
3. Make your class space as self-service as possible: Take time at the beginning of the year to set the culture that the students can take care of themselves and get what they need for their learning. As students get better (trained) at knowing how to act appropriately in the class space, your teaching is more powerful. You can pay attention to the important things like responding to questions, having deep conversations with individuals or teams, or even giving a short lecture because the students have asked for that information in the Need to Know.
If students see a handout in a specific place as they enter the class they know to get it and start checking it. They know to go to the daily agenda on Edmodo (or whatever LMS you might use). Many times I do not start with a whole class attention getting and check-in. If the expectations are clear, a self-service culture exists, and students are starting on task, there is no need to interrupt them and explain what they have already started! And you can get right into the powerful teaching of team meetings, team rep meetings, or giving that favorite lecture of yours which students have said they want to hear.
Project Based Learning is a unique approach to learning that involves some new tricks and changed behavior of teachers. If you are willing to keep trying just like you expect of your students, your project management skills and toolbox will grow. What successes have you had?