Project Based Learning is a teaching strategy in which students learn through the investigation of a complex question, problem, or challenge, and units usually occur over an extended period of time. In-depth inquiry driven by a need to know, allows students to gain 21st century competencies, or the 4 C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills, as they work to problem solve and produce for a public audience. One of the keys to success of PBL is Balance.
Balance of Teacher and Student Voice:
One of the best features of PBL is the opportunity it allows for students to guide and direct the course of the project. Often times teachers find themselves doing most of the creating, instructing, and decision making during a class project, but students miss out on important learning moments and are less invested in the outcome. When designing a PBL unit, you need to balance the important content focus with areas of flexibility and open-ended exploration. Think of it as developing guideposts along an unmarked trail.
A great place to start is with a well crafted Essential Question. Essential Questions are about big ideas. They spark conversation and create more questions. Through a well facilitated discussion leading from the Essential Question, you can often guide students to co-creating a Driving Question in the direction you want them to go, allowing students to own the learning. The Driving Question gives them the ending destination, but there could be many different routes that will get them there. A good PBL unit will have a well thought out Essential and Driving Question to get students started in the correct direction, but allow for student voice and choice to pave the trail. Developing guideposts along the way, such as check-ins to update their need to knows and timelines, will help keep students moving towards their destination and keep them from getting lost in the weeds.
Balance of Skills:
A teacher becomes a master conductor of a learning orchestra during a project. Each student has their own unique talents and instruments that they bring to the concert. Taking the time to blend those talents in a productive way is critical to each group’s success. Starting out with teacher selected teams can help with balance. You can build in some self-selected group or whole group activities to help relieve any team tensions and allow students to gather new insights and perspectives as they move throughout the project. Since collaboration and communication are important skills in PBL, students need opportunities to recognize each other’s talents and know where their own strengths and abilities can benefit their team.
As you are designing the project, also look to see that your scope is large enough to offer students a variety of work options. Think about how the project will integrate tasks for those linear thinkers as well as offer challenges for those divergent thinkers. While students need practice and exposure to new skills to build their creative confidence, it’s also important that they have places where they can stretch and expand their natural talents. We may want to play every instrument, but there is usually one that draws us in and makes us shine. It’s designing a delicate balance between those solo moments and blending all of the voices that creates a successful performance at the end.
Balance of Time:
Time is usually the critical factor when planning a PBL unit. Instructional time already feels overcrowded with various curriculum demands and although PBL is an integration of subject areas, most classrooms are set up to teach subjects in isolation. In the planning phase, look for those skill based lessons that are needed to support the project and how those lessons can be integrated into those isolated subject lessons. Perhaps students will need to strengthen their nonfiction reading skills and need some different strategies for curating information. Spending time on focused skills before starting the project will help students make better use of their collaboration time. Gathering continual feedback through visual thinking strategies and quick formative assessments will help point out surprise areas where students may need more support or direct instruction. Projects nearly always take longer than you think so providing yourself a time cushion will lessen stress.
Balance of Group and Individual Work:
Finally, a good project should balance group and individual work. Whenever I would introduce an assignment or project in my classroom, I would hear the same two questions: “Can we work with someone?” and “Do we have to work with someone?” Because PBL is focused on collaboration, group work is expected and often times students are set up in team units. However, in order to honor all working styles, it’s important to include individual accountability as well as team accountability. Also, having a protocol in place for students to follow when needing adult help to problem solve group conflicts is also helpful. Students need to feel valued as team members but also feel that their individual efforts are being recognized.
Project Based Learning can feel like tight-rope walking. But with careful planning and practice, the well-orchestrated chaos can seem more like a walk in the park.
Contributed by Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach