How to Reinvent Project Based Learning to Be More Meaningful

| March 24, 2014 | 24 Comments
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By Thom Markham

This is a crucial time for education. Every system in every country is in the process of figuring out how to reboot education to teach skills, application, and attitude in addition to recall and understanding. Helping students be able to grapple with increased problem solving and inquiry, be better critical and creative thinkers, show greater independence and engagement, and exhibit skills as presenters and collaborators is the challenge of the moment.

That’s why so many educators are using the project based learning (PBL) model. PBL has proven to be a means for setting up the kind of problem-solving challenges that engage students in deeper learning and critical inquiry. It requires students to research, collaborate, decide on the value of information and evidence, accept feedback, design solutions, and present findings in a public space—all factors that create the conditions under which high performance and mastery are most likely to emerge. The rise of PBL, in fact, is a success story for education.

However, it’s also time to reboot PBL. It continues to be misinterpreted as a single teaching strategy rather than as a set of design principles that allow us to introduce the philosophy of inquiry into education in an intelligent and grounded way. It’s plagued by misunderstandings about when it should be used, and when not, and to what extent it can fulfill the mandate of a standards-based system. Too often, it ends with enthusiastic students delivering mediocre work — and teachers aren’t sure what went wrong or right.

If PBL is to become a powerful, accepted model of instruction in the future, a vocabulary change may be in order — preferably to the term project based inquiry. It’s time to not only address the flaws in PBL, but to reinvent it in a way that leads to deeper learning, creative inquiry, and a better fit with a collaborative world in which doing and knowing are one thing. Here are thoughts about five areas in which PBL needs to move forward.

1. Put PBL on a continuum of inquiry.

Infusing inquiry into the curriculum is the goal, so that instruction starts with questions rather than broadcasting content. But PBL is only one way to do that. Good teachers use many methods to help students observe, pose questions, engage in experimentation and error, and learn to analyze and reason. So it’s not necessary to use PBL 24/7 across all subjects. Instead:

First, think skills. A coherent approach to inquiry begins with knowing that skills, not content, underlie the inquiry process. To link PBL with other parts of the school, have all teachers to sign onto the two chief skills required in PBL, teamwork and presentation. Use school-wide rubrics to assess the skills. Think of projects as the time when students really practice those skills at a high level for public consumption.

Think strategically. Plan for PBL over the course of the year, but don’t expect every teacher to do a project. For instance, step back and analyze an entire ninth-grade class. How many projects will they experience in the course of the year? Who will conduct the projects? If students participate in three or four projects every year, they will get what they need.

Use PBL for entrepreneurial inquiry. When teachers want students to go deep into an important topic, grapple with a community issue, or experience the persistence and intellectual rigor necessary to dig in to something meaningful, that’s the perfect time for PBL. Otherwise, normal inquiry gets the job done.

Differentiate subjects. Not all subjects fit PBL in the same way. Courses such as AP Calculus and Physics may use a shorter, more contained problem-based approach, or a more activity-based approach. Humanities projects may take on community issues. Both approaches are valid and use similar design principles, but have different objectives.

2. Blend surface knowledge and deeper learning.

It is impossible at this historical juncture to figure out how much students need to put into hard-wired long term memory versus how much information they simply download, pass through, and apply. Google is ruining the curriculum, no doubt about it. On the other hand, you have to know in order to think. But in the zeal to expand the constructivist side of PBL, we’re losing the knowing—the kind of facts, terms, and vocabulary of the discipline that allow a student to express knowledge coherently. This is not a matter of test preparation as much as a design issue to make sure students have a sufficient knowledge base. Some solutions:

Let go of theory. In theory, a question or challenge posed in PBL is so compelling that students will learn all essential facts necessary to answer the question. In practice, this doesn’t work. Teachers must make an intentional effort to design surface knowledge into a project. This is not so easy, because PBL focuses on authentic questions that lead to open ended problem solving. Content can get lost, and often does.

Analyze the project. Start a project design with a creative challenge and end with an authentic product, but carefully analyze the design to make sure essential facts and concepts will be taught. If students require certain facts and concepts for tests, but those facts don’t fit into the design, take a breath and just teach them. The project won’t fail because you took one day to ‘cover’ material.

Use direct instruction. Direct instruction is not the same as boring lectures—and it’s time to distinguish them. Direct instruction works quite well when dosed with questioning and small group discussions. Use it to transmit essential information efficiently and quickly during the course of a project.

3. Start with a sophisticated student-centered culture.

The greatest number of failures in PBL occurs in schools that attempt to graft PBL onto a traditional, row-centered, front of the room classroom culture. A teacher-centered system and a student-centered system are different life forms. One is focused on content delivery and a “hand it in, hand it back” approach; the other requires openness, coaching, and an “errors are fine” philosophy. Unless a teacher uses the tools of a positive culture and high performance, students don’t engage at the level necessary to persist, investigate, and hold themselves accountable for mastery. Creating this culture requires more than liking your students. Instead, it is necessary for educators to intentionally teach students to perform skillfully and learn to coach those skills at a high level. Some steps:

Reflect. Your personality and attitude, particularly listening skills and openness, will directly affect the quality of the project. System wide, remember that PBL is personality driven. If certain teachers don’t embrace PBL, but do a good job of stimulating inquiry, let them be. Everyone will be happier.

Build student capacity. Prior to projects, take time for students to reflect on their skills and attitudes, practice team building, setting norms, and examining responsibilities and aspirations. For PBL to succeed, the entire pace of instruction must be slowed.

Know the neuroscience. Every study shows the same results: Your attitude, beliefs, and hidden expectations are communicated to students—and change their brain. Take care with messaging.

4. Make collaboration as powerful in school as it is in life.

Group work and cooperative learning are giving PBL a hangover. It is time to make a fundamental shift in the direction of teamwork. In a relationship-driven world, the era of the individual scholar is coming to an end. PBL is a perfect method for helping reveal how peers will work together in the future to create and analyze content. Teachers can speed this process.

Make collaboration the foundational skill. Instead of seeing 21st-century skills as a laundry list, prioritize by making teamwork the basis for academic work, particularly in projects. Move from the loose language of “groups” to the more accountable language of teams and cohorts.

Make teams purposeful. Bring teams together for the purpose of creating better products, not just discussing and brainstorming.

Require teams to participate deeply in the design process. Have them regularly and frequently exchange design ideas, test prototypes, follow protocols, use the vocabulary of the discipline, and exhibit mature responses to feedback from peers.

Make peer review the norm. Don’t look at any student work until it has gone through a peer review process that pushes students to present their best work for your evaluation and feedback.

5. Understand that PBL cannot be done alone.

PBL is a complex form of teaching, with many moving parts and a creative element. Teachers will benefit enormously, and grow their expertise much faster, if they can discuss and refine their projects together. The opposite is true, also; if schools continue to limit collaborative time to Monday mornings between 8 am and 9 am, or something similar, PBL will fail. Inquiry simply demands more depth and conversation than the traditional system allows. Many changes are required here, but the step with the greatest leverage? Try this.

Institutionalize Critical Friends Protocols. A 25 minute protocol, in which teachers present ideas to peers and receive feedback about a project in a respectful, professional environment, is a game changer. It sets a higher bar for discourse, encourages teachers to think more deeply, and takes education away from its familiar staples of “neat” ideas and endless inputs. The protocols work well in department meetings, staff meetings, or at PD days.

Thom Markham is a psychologist, school redesign consultant, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Find many more resources on his website, www.thommarkham.com.

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