Teaching in a Project Based world is not easy. Our practice is full of challenges in our daily life – in our classrooms, in the structures of our schools, and sometimes life just gets in the way. Even after engaging in a traditional PBL training, we as teachers can be overwhelmed with balancing the idea of PBL and how to implement projects effectively.
Here are some quick shifts in thinking to help you implement your next project all centered around the importance and essential “Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills.”
Authenticity can be a driver of project design and is one way to engage students around content. However, it can also be the barrier of a great project. Many of us start our design with the question, “What is a real world problem I want my students to solve?” This can be intimidating your first time out of the gate and over time can lose sustainability.
Sometimes an authentic project becomes inauthentic or unsustainable the following year due to time or already completed work, such as:
How do we create a new garden at our school? (and now the garden is built)
How do we increase voter registration? (b/c elections don’t happen every year)
Both of these examples of Driving Questions are focused on outputs (product) of the project. Both have taken time to design, develop and gather authentic resources and people.
Shift the thinking and the focus.
Start your planning with the learning outcomes you want students to have during the scope of the project. Then transition your practice and reflect and plan, how can students apply this learning to a real world problem?
Step 1: What are the learning outcomes you want in the project?
Step 2: How might students gain a deeper level of understanding and feedback from professionals in other industries?
Step 3: In what ways might students connect with an expert (during the project launch, to provide feedback during the course of the project, or to provide feedback to students on their learning and application of their learning via an authentic product)? Leverage students to seek out experts and ask questions such as:
- When can they come in to provide feedback on their work during the course of the project?
- What is the current problem they are currently working on?
- What is a question that focuses their work?
Step 4: I know I am not an engineer, a geologist, a doctor, etc. If experts are unavailable to connect with my students, how can I use those professional experts to give content feedback on the authenticity of my project design or student learning?
Authenticity is an extremely powerful motivator and source of engagement in a Project Based Learning classroom. Likewise showing students that their learning can be shown in different and in authentic ways is just as engaging. Begin to reframe your focus and reflect on this question: How can I have my students show and demonstrate their academic knowledge in various authentic way(s) in our ______ (school, community, world)? This reframing will help shift your focus on the learning and allow you to be more flexible in providing authentic problems for your students to solve.
Assess Student Learning
Assessment is important. It is always a question in the Need to Knows and a practice we can always improve. I want to know what every learner knows at any stage of the project and ensure that every learner is accountable for the learning outcomes. Assessment needs to be more than just giving students grades and for system accountability.
Grading and Assessment is always one of the first questions on our Need to Know list as we work with teachers. We know that there is a culture of grades being used as “carrots” to motivate students. We also know that parents and communities look at “grades” to determine a school’s success. Are all grades created equal? If two content level teachers or grade level teachers give a “B” grade to students in their class, does that “B” mean the same in each class? I would argue it doesn’t.
Grades should NOT be a measure of students self worth, but sadly that is what is happening. Grades and assessment should show students they have a gap in their knowledge and that it is our job as teachers to fill that gap. Helping students, parents and stakeholders to understand this mental shift helps build the culture of feedback and assessment in a positive way. Here are some shifts to help in that transition.
Shift the thinking. Replace the word “assessment” (or grades) with “feedback.” This has been a hinge point and one of the most powerful, yet easiest steps to improve the learning in projects. This inherently changes our practice and the purpose of our roles as educators.
|I have student grades due this week.||I need to provide timely feedback for students this week.|
|Students will take a test/assessment this week on their core content and skills.||Students will receive (written or oral) feedback this week on their core content and skills.|
|“I am handing back your test scores on your activity from yesterday”||“I am handing back feedback on your activity from yesterday to support you in your next steps of the project.”|
|I need help building a better assessment for my students.||I need help providing high quality feedback for my students.|
How might this shift change your interactions in the classroom with students, parents and stakeholders in the community? How might this change the conversations with your colleagues in the staff room?
We can shift the mentality and culture of grades as being an letter (or number) that students equate self value, to building a culture of learning. Grades and assessments should show students they have a gap in their knowledge and they will only understand that if that conversation begins with you in the classroom.
We all want our planning to be easier and we all want more time. I can’t give you more time, but you can be more efficient. Start with the learning you want students to demonstrate, then brainstorm multiple ways in which students can demonstrate the knowledge authentically. With the increased clarity in your class, create a culture of learning, that grades and assessments are about highlighting gaps in knowledge. Then provide high quality instruction and scaffolds via workshops and differentiation to fill those gaps in knowledge.