What’s the Best Way to Practice Project Based Learning?

| July 19, 2012 | 23 Comments
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By Peter Skillen

Project Based Learning can mean different things to different people, and can be practiced in a variety of ways. For educators who want to dive in, the good news is that a rich trove of resources are available.

In order to create your own definition and practice, here are some parameters to consider. This diagram, enhanced by the critical eye of Brenda Sherry, can help you figure out what’s important to you and your students.

We like to think with the frame of continua rather than dichotomies simply because things are rarely on or off, black or white, ones or zeroes. Flipping from one end to the other may not be the best solution, though. You may choose to slide more in one direction, the student’s experience, the purpose, type of project, and so on.

You could likely add other dimensions to consider as you build your own understandings and beliefs.

TRUST

Who is in control? Who is initiating the project? Whose passion is being honored with the project? Who is setting the goals, timelines, and motivation? Are you scaffolding the students’ success through templates, calendars, checklists, rubrics or are you unwittingly stealing their locus of control and micromanaging them.

QUESTIONING

Who is asking the question to be investigated in the project? The student or the teacher? Is the question a ‘deep, driving question’? Is it a ‘fat’ question or a ‘skinny’ one?

COLLABORATION

If the projects are collaborative in nature, you may wish to consider the amount of interdependence that students have with one another.  Are they merely gluing their parts together to make a whole or do their conversations and co-creations lead to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?

CONTENT

Is the content a rich, deep problem space or is it a more narrowly focused content area?  Are there natural links to other domains that provide a context or is the content deconstructed to remove seemingly distracting and disparate information?

KNOWLEDGE

Are the students involved in constructing new meanings and understandings or are they simply retelling in their own words information they have found during their research? Have you built in mechanisms (blogs, wiki, vokis, public journal writing, etc.) so that student thinking is made visible, transparent and discussable or is most student process hidden and unavailable to others?

PURPOSE

How authentic is the problem under investigation? Are students ‘being’ scientists, historians or geographers and so on, or are they ‘studying’ science, history and geography? How much is the project based in the real world of the student? Is it purposeful for them?

RESOURCES FOR PROJECT-BASED LEARNING

 

Chart: Effective PBL Continua by Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This post originally appeared on Voices from the Learning Revolution.

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  • Lisa Bostwick

    Now that is some excellent “Variables Thinking.”  Great article!

    • Barry Garelick

      What’s so great about it?  Learning content via direct and explicit instruction has worked for centuries.  There is a difference between novices and experts. If your really want to give kids authentic work, why not give them Shroedinger’s equation?  They can’t handle it?  Why not?  Just have them look it up on Google. That’s student centered and they learn how to learn.  Shall I go on?

      • Brenda Sherry

        Hi Barry,

        I think it’s wonderful that as a student teacher you are beginning to question these big ideas. 

        If you check out Peter’s background, you’ll see that he worked with Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter at OISE on the study of novice and expert behaviors back when doing his graduate work.  Here’s one of his posts on that topic:  http://theconstructionzone.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/scaffolding-for-deep-understanding/

        I’m giggling as I interpret your response here because Peter and I lead a workshop about ‘Myths’ and that one that you mention about Google is the first one we often debunk with teachers!  Check out this page:  http://theconstructionzone.wordpress.com/myth-busting/

        Where we have found the sliders to be really helpful, is to demonstrate to teachers that they shouldn’t hold fast to any one approach or methodology without considering their learners, the subject matter, the level of expertise (of both student and teacher) and the need for direct instruction where appropriate.  Peter uses them to approach the issue that R. Craigen mentions here:
        “Now, none of this forces the conclusion that projects are a bad thing.
         In fact, I think they’re a good thing in class, used in moderation,
        with the amount of “teacher control” — i.e., guidance — customized to
        the level of mastery of the students.”

        The sliders are to help teachers in their own learning about how to implement a project-based unit (not often intended to 100 percent of your teaching time) and to consider the necessary variables. 

        I’m an elementary teacher, so I usually focus cross-curricularly on my PBL units.  When you plan a PBL unit…is it just mathematics? 

        Brenda

         

    • Peter Skillen

      Lisa,
      Thank you for the kind words. If you were to offer suggestions that might improve it for teachers, what would they be?
      Regards,
      Peter

      • 21bostwick

        Thanks Peter sorry for delay.

        what I loved about this article was the continua.
        I have lead a “Creativity” workshop at CAIS conferences.
        here are the continua I use:

        One Answer – Many Answers

        Fixed – Flexible

        Teacher’s … – Student’s …

        Individual – Collaborative

        Censored – Uncensored

        Objective – Subjective

        Some overlap, but perhaps something new to chew on.
        All the best for a great school year,

        Lisa

  • Wednaud Ronelus

    The tenets are great! I would probably include technology integration as parameter. In this digital age, it’s a must.

    • Peter Skillen

      Oh yeah…
      LOL
      Of course! Guess I am just always writing these things in ‘technology using’ contexts!
      But, Brenda and I will add that!
      Thank you!
      Peter

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7EDQ3X7D4MBSSIZKTPC4BEJDKE x

    Please do keep in mind that some children have brain-based organizational issues. They aren’t disorganized and having trouble starting projects without linear instructions because they’re lazy or badly parented. They struggle because they need more guidance and more skills. My son had to be taught hand-over-hand to use two hands in conjunction with each other, and learned to speak by having his facial muscles cued by the hands of an SLP. As a middle schooler, he struggles with abstract, complex “student-driven” projects despite being gifted, responsible, and motivated. 

    • Peter Skillen

      I agree with you totally. This is one of the reasons we developed this chart. We really want teachers to feel comfortable moving into PBL with supports that say ‘know your kids and their needs. Don’t think that you have to be totally open ended and unstructured.’

      We don’t, place a value judgement, on either end of the scale. Know your kids, your subject matter, and yourself.

      This helps, we hope, teachers to differentiate based on many dimensions.

      Your comments are respected and appreciated.

  • R. Craigen

    Pardon me for being cynical, but this piece invites it.   The “continua” diagram says it all, really.  For one, while “continua” is plural, it strikes me that there is only one continuum represented there.  You might as well put GOOD in large letters on the right and BAD on the left.  These are far from generic categories, but there is a clear judgement implied.  What you have done with the various sliders is parsed different aspects of what you regard as good instruction versus bad, and treated them as if they were separate things.   Then you can say, “Look!  It cannot be a mere coincidence — our form of instruction conforms to all the right ends of each of these completely independent continua.  Amazing!”

    I am amused by the little judgements and biases you build — again, with no actual justification — right into the “continua”.  For example, on the “Questioning” slider you indicate “Low Level” for “Teacher Generated”, versus “High Level” for “Student Generated”.  Taken at face value you are saying that teachers generally are only able to generate superficial inquiry in a classroom discussion, whereas students … students mind you! … can take the discussion to a much deeper level.  

    Well, I’m sorry to say that this does not jibe with my classroom experience.

    I teach University mathematics, and a lot of my class time is spent begging students to ask questions.  The most common questions have to do with whether or not something will be on the exam, and occasionally the most superficial sort of exploration, like, “what is this used for?”  Whereas, understanding the material and what it’s connected to I can inject strategic questions that take the discussion far deeper, like “Why do you think Hamilton spent so many years trying to multiply triples, when in retrospect we see that the natural thing to try was quadruples?  What was missing in the mathematics of the day, that held him back?”  It would be lovely to have students asking penetrating questions like that all day long, but it’s a rare term when I get one or two like that, and generally only from honours classes.  If the discussion is to go deep, I know from experience that I MUST TAKE IT THERE!
    As Mr Garelick points out, you manage to casually indict — with no actual evidence — the most effective method of instruction for novices:  delivered content by explicit instruction. “Studies show”, I’m sure you’re thinking.  I’d like to know what studies, what controls are applied, and how they are randomized.  John Sweller of UNSW asserts “There is a huge body of evidence from around the globe demonstrating the advantages of explicitly showing learners how to solve problems as opposed to having them discover how to solve the same problems.”  http://soundmath.wetpaint.com/page/Explicit+Instruction+or+ReformThis assertion is amply supported by numerous studies, as summarized in this piece on “minimal guidance instruction” by Kirschner, Sweller et al: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdfwhich makes the interesting point that minimal guidance (that is, discovery or inquiry learning) can be highly effective, even more effective, than direct instruction, WHEN TEACHING EXPERTS.  But not when teaching NOVICES.  As you can verify … again … from direct classroom experience.  Which is why my honours students are so much better at generating stimulating questions for in-class discussion, but it is a colossal disaster to expect this on a regular basis from struggling “average” students in  the service courses I teach.  Good inquiry requires significant content knowledge, familiarity and significant mastery of the basics.Now, none of this forces the conclusion that projects are a bad thing.  In fact, I think they’re a good thing in class, used in moderation, with the amount of “teacher control” — i.e., guidance — customized to the level of mastery of the students.  (Which puts to the lie most of what appears to be implied by your sliders.)  And project-based instructions requires a larger skill set on the part of the teacher than direct instruction.  In our area when they moved toward “student-centered learning”  I asked why there wasn’t direct instruction in (for example) long division, and was told “because students don’t understand it”.  When I said this was nonsense, if taught correctly there is no reason it should not be understood.  The reply was that “teachers also don’t understand it, so how can they teach students to understand it?” Now my take on this was that, having identified the problem, let’s fix it:  Instruct teachers properly.  But … no!  A much better solution (they say) is to go to child-centered instruction.  Yep, acknowledging that teachers are inadequately trained for direct instruction they have decided to migrate to a child-centered system that is far more demanding on the teacher’s skill set.Which … just … might … explain why, 10 years into this educational experiment, math scores for students in this region have dropped precipitously over the last 3 PISA assessments, a result confirmed by parallel internal assessments across Canadian provinces.For teachers with the right skill set project-based learning can be a great tool in the kit.  But it is a fool’s errand to send unprepared teachers down that path when what they may well need is better grounding in their subject-matter knowledge. 

    • R. Craigen

      I don’t know why those two links got mangled, in the comment engine.  Let’s try them again, with carriage returns between them:

      http://soundmath.wetpaint.com/page/Explicit+Instruction+or+Reform

      http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

    • Peter Skillen

      Hello there,
      Your comment has caused me to consider some elements that are causing misinterpretation of the intent!  ;-)
      1. You say, “You might as well put GOOD in large letters on the right and BAD on the left.  These are far from generic categories, but there is a clear judgement implied.” Indeed, the intent was exactly the opposite. What I often hear is that PBL has to be ‘this’ or ‘that’. What I want teachers to understand is that depending on their own educational philosophies, needs and student requirements, they can think about these ideas as being variable – not dichotomous – not simply at one end or the other.
      2. You say, ” Taken at face value you are saying that teachers generally are only able to generate superficial inquiry in a classroom discussion, whereas students … students mind you! … can take the discussion to a much deeper level. ” OOPS. I can see how you might read the graphic that way. I will change that. I had intended for you to think about those two things separately. ‘Teacher generated’ vs ‘student generated’ as one dimension. ‘Low level’ (skinny) questions vs ‘high level’ (fat, driving’) questions as another dimension. I did not mean to infer that they are connected — teacher with low level and student with high level. 
      3. You say, “you manage to casually indict — with no actual evidence — the most effective method of instruction for novices:  delivered content by explicit instruction.” Actually, I don’t say this anywhere. I am an advocate of direct instruction embedded within a constructivist environment and have said so in many places publicly – and received much criticism from my purist constructivist friends! :-)

      I also didn’t embed a lot of literature links in the post because I have been told that a lot of my writing in posts is too academic and more like a paper – so I refrained from getting in too deep. Guess I paid the price with you. :-)

      From reading the rest of your reply, I actually think that you and I agree in more places than you might realize. If you are interested, I would invite you to check out more at http://theconstructionzone.wordpress.com/blog

      Looking forward to further chats. Socrates would have agreed that much conversation is necessary to come to, and to build, new understandings.

      Sincerely,
      peter

      • Anonymous

        Mr. Skillen,

        Perhaps there are areas where you have some areas of agreement with Dr. Craigen, but they aren’t many, and they are subject to interpretation, much like your sliding scale.  Yes, Dr. Craigen enjoys challenging his students with questions to get them to think and this is sometimes referred to as “guided inquiry”.  So in that sense, the traditional explicit/direct instruction model can incorporate aspects of inquiry learning. 

        However, there is still the issue of treating novices like experts.  To wit: “How authentic is the problem under investigation? Are students ‘being’ scientists, historians or geographers and so on, or are they ‘studying’ science, history and geography? How much is the project based in the real world of the student? Is it purposeful for them?”

        Novices do not think like experts and that’s why the training and problems for novices are different than they are for experts.  To a five or six year old, learning the decoding of phonemes is how they learn to read and is “authentic” for that stage of their development.  Similarly, students of first year algebra are given problems that give them the experience of translating words into mathematical symbols.  This is done by types of word problems that lend themselves to generalize to a great number of non-routine and novel problems.  There is a presumption made that students turn off if the problem is irrelvant.  More accurately, students turn off when they do not have the knowledge or skills with which to solve the problem.  Providing students with these skills enables them to use the skills as tools.  Generally, students who are able to use the tools are not all THAT concerned with whether the problem is “relevant”.  And also, the usefulness and purpose of algebra is evident from many of the types of problems that one sees in a standard algebra course.

        Project-based learning frequently is treated in a “just in time” learning approach.  The acquisition and mastery of logically sequenced skills and procedures that then build upon themselves is looked upon with disdain by the edu-community which views such approach as “drill and kill”.  Rather than subject students to the “tedium” of learning skills and procedures which can then be used as tools, they view it as much better to give students a project which requires them to use the tools–many of which they have not learned or mastered yet.  Thus, the project serves as the motivation to learn what should have been learned and mastered previously.  Sort of like throwing someone in the deep end of a swimming pool and shouting out instructions from the side on how to do the breast stroke.  “Just in time” learning can be useful when introducing the skill by providing the motivation to learn it.  But the way project-based learning works is more like the swimming example.

    • HistoryTeacherMan

      1. Continua is plural, and correctly used in the diagram because it includes a “Trust Continuum,” “Collaboration Continuum,” etc. There are six categories each with its own continuum represented by the black line; therefore, “Continua to Consider” as a title is grammatically correct.

      2. It is not biased to indicate that student-generated questions are higher level than teacher-generated questions. The author is not implying that students ask “better” question than teachers, but if you can encourage the learner to generate his/her own questions and come up with answers, rather than giving him/her a list of questions to answer, then that does present them with a greater challenge. However, as an effective teacher, one must teach and model for a child what denotes a higher-level question. This is where the importance of the teacher comes in…but it’s like the “Give a man a fish” story. If we are constantly giving our student questions, then we limit them to think only how we want them to think. Instead, if we teach them how to effectively question, then they are better equipped for higher education and working in the “real world” where those that are most successful aren’t simply the ones that have the best answers, but also ask the best questions.

      3. “Which is why my honours students are so much better at generating stimulating questions for in-class discussion, but it is a colossal disaster to expect this on a regular basis from struggling “average” students in  the service courses I teach.”

      Shame on you for even writing this. This is not a failure of your students, but a failure of your own expectations and ability to teach your students how to properly think and question and analyze, etc. Just as any science teacher begins by teaching students the Scientific Method, effective educators teach their students HOW to think. “Struggling” learners struggle in school not because they are “average” or inherently different than your “honors” students. They struggle because they lack the skills and knowledge necessary to engage in analytical and critical thinking. But, this can be taught, just as reading and writing can be taught.

      Instead of claiming this article is bogus because of your own shortcomings in your classroom experience, perhaps you should think about what you can do as an educator to help your students succeed in PBL, rather than labeling the low performers as “unable” to succeed.

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  • Charles Kerchner

    Readers interested in project based learning may want to take a glance at my case study of High Tech High in San Diego County.  It is available under Creative Commons copyright at http://www.mindworkers.com
     

    • Peter Skillen

      Charles, thank you. I will read that. High Tech High certainly has an excellent reputation for this kind of work.
      Sincerely,
      Peter

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  • Sharon

    This comment is very late but I thought readers of this article would be interested in learning about the project-based learning nonprofit the Lowell Milken Center. There are dozens of videos on its website that are great to inspire students to create historically relevant projects along with templates and facilitators to work with teachers and students on new projects. The website is http://www.lowellmilkencenter.org. I hope this is helpful!

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