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School Leader at Young Audiences Charter School

Quieting PBL Naysayers

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I was recently asked a number of questions from PBL skeptics. Here are the questions and my bulleted "yaysayer" responses:

Will discipline and classroom management be a problem with PBL?

• With good and appropriate preplanning, discipline shouldn’t be an issue!
• If the project is truly engaging, behavioral issues shouldn’t arise!
• PBL requires flexibility and tolerance on the part of the teacher – some chaos is actually a good thing!
• PBL provides opportunities for all students to shine! “Shining” students tend to be well behaved.
• With PBL, you address many things (social skills for example) that will improve discipline down the road!
• The classroom management demands for PBL are different – trial and error discovery takes time…
• Talk to colleagues with project-based teaching and learning experience and find out what strategies they use.

How can we cover basic skills while doing projects?

• Well-designed projects should address basic skills throughout! From reading and writing across the curriculum to research and editing skills, try to use the lesson standards to address individual and class needs.
• Try to incorporate peer, teacher and parent mentoring into project work!
• Projects give these basic skills a “real world” context! From editing a piece for the local paper to using math to save an endangered species, skill development should be enhanced through PBL.
• Basic skills should be built into the “backplanning” process!
• PBL is part of, not in place of, regular instruction!

What is the difference between a thematic unit and PBL?

• A thematic unit is one of many ways to organize content. PBL is a way to give this content a real-world application.
• PBL usually works extremely well within the framework of a thematic unit.
• Good projects revolve around a timeless concept – this concept may or may not lend itself to a particular thematic unit.
• PBL is a way to bring greater depth to thematic units.
• Some thematic unit activities can be transformed into a worthwhile project. They key is “backplanning!”

How will parents respond to PBL?

• If it’s not what they did in school, chances are they will be skeptical at first.
• It is important to let parents know what PBL is and how it will benefit their children.
• Make sure that parents fully understand the goals and objectives of each project. Provide them with timelines, project descriptions and rubrics well in advance.
• Communicate learner expectations often.
• Encourage parents to take an interest in and support project work at home.

How can I do PBL and prepare for the test at the same time?

• “Backplan” toward predetermined, test specific standards.
• Adapt projects and instruction to meet specific test related criteria.
• Projects often motivate children to learn without the usual pressure associated with high-stakes testing.
• PBL allows children to apply knowledge in a meaningful way. Applied knowledge tends to stick better and longer than the “regurgitated” kind.
• A good, well-chosen project is often the best way to prepare for standardized tests.

How long should a project last?

• As long as it takes.
• As long as the children are interested.
• Remember, what interests us doesn’t always interest them – make sure that the children are a part of the project panning process.
• Use the project rubrics, self-evaluations and reflections, interviews, and other evaluation methods to determine if the children have reached a depth of understanding that is acceptable.
• Projects can last a few days to several months depending on teacher and student needs and interest. As the instructional leader, you need to determine the appropriate length for each project.

Does a project have to be interdisciplinary?

• Yes and no – while a project may be designed around and focus on a particular discipline, the others usually can and should play a role.
• Most, if not all projects should involve original writing and reading for improved understanding.
• Interdisciplinary is “real world.” PBL requires students to apply knowledge to a real-world context.
• PBL emphasizes depth over breadth of understanding (avoiding a mile wide and an inch deep type of learning). This depth of understanding often requires more than one discipline.
• Six different teachers doing six different projects at the same time is too much for any child (or adult) to manage. By combining disciplines, stress is avoided and quality is enhanced.

social studies teacher from MN

Project based learning has

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Project based learning has proven over and over that students can easily reacall information. I think it is evident that you recall only 15% of what you hear. To me, that does not seem like a good percentage. Studies show that you can recall up to 90% of what you see. I would take those odds.

I think the authenticity of

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I think the authenticity of PBL makes it well worth the time and effort. The snag comes with misconception #1. Many teachers think that as long as their students make something, that qualifies as PBL. With that said, I don't believe that we can always blame this on the teacher however. There could be many reasons for this erroneous approach to PBL: Lack of training in the proper execution of PBL, lack of support from administrators, school-wide emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing, or lack of time in the school day to properly engage in PBL. You have to have the time to do this correctly. I think that lack of quality in PBL artifacts and learning outcomes is especially notable at the lower grade levels. Make a macaroni necklace and voila- PBL! Teacher training and idea collaboration is probably the most important key. Many teachers would likely embrace this form of learning if they only knew where and how to begin.

Why create products from project-based learning?

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I am glad John Larner pointed out five myths about project based learning. I do have concerns about the first one, however. PBL may have to generate "products" in order to show that students have met standards. At Mount Abraham High School in Vermont, students define complex problems in the community and then set a pathways toward solutions by showing they have mastered essential skill. Our students can earn their diploma by doing personalized projects and explaining how their products (essays, films, machines, photos, plays, etc)reflect school standards and qualify them to graduate -- without going to classes. Advisors help them link their products to graduation standards. The products go into a portfolio. The projects then generate grades and credits in English, science, social studies or electives. I don't think we could explain how projects become a pathway to graduation without students exhibiting the products. Any Mount Abe student can enroll in Pathways to earn graduation credits, but in the age of "standards" and "accountability" we are using student products to avoid "seat time" in classes as the determining factor in accumulating graduation credit.

Thanks for focusing on myths. I hope we can debunk a few more as the accountability movement decays further. When students can show their competence by completing projects in any area of personal concerns, the current reliance on test scores will look invalid by comparison to real problem-solving in the real world.

Curriculum Developer K-12

Curriculum and PBL

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As a teacher and director of district curriculum development I've struggled with the balancing the need for PBL authentic learning opportunities with the need to ensure that students are provided all the skills and knowledge required of them by the state. Ensuring that all of the required knowledge and skills are incorporated into a PBL curriculum is next to impossible given the reality of the scope of a school year. I used PBL for many years and there is no question about project-based learning being engaging and the results long term. But an entire curriculum of PBL simply cannot address all that students are required to learn. There is a place for balance - with PBL projects carefully woven into the fabric of the school year. It just can't be the only approach.

Teacher, Founder of Stepping Stones Together ,and Educational Entrepreneur

Project based learning is not

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Project based learning is not only motivational and a way to engage students to transfer learning to long term memory but the way we learn best. We learn 80% of what we do and only 50% or less of what we hear. Which way would you rather have your child learn?

Erika Burton, Ph.D.
Stepping Stones Together, Founder
Empowering parental involvement in early literacy skills

Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

PBL Thinking

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To what has already been said, I would add PBL thinking which includes the competencies needed to learn, competencies that are deliberately practiced in PBL situations. By PBL thinking, I am referring to a state of mind in the classroom, an approach from a project point of view that permeates the atmosphere of the classroom. When students have adjusted to a non-traditional classroom situation (flexible)and start to function as natural collaborators and problem solvers. Indeed, each new day can have elements of project mentality whether or not a major project has been defined. Competencies that have to be fostered IMHO are for example technical skills, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and global awareness. Practice the competencies in PBL situations (engagement is increased) and desired content knowledge can be part of the context. The competencies,should be monitored with as much attention as teachers monitor grades on tests of understanding for a more complete picture of student achievement. Why is the sky blue? Apply competency practice in a PBL atmosphere and many solutions will emerge.

Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

PBL Does Work

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PBL at any level does work. To be most effective, the teacher needs to do the proper planning as noted to insure alignment with standards and the associated learning objectives. Anticipated resource needs (certainly doesn't have to end with a prototype - again as noted). Two points noted in the piece warrant repeating: (1) teacher control must be limited to staying on task and NOT providing a roadmap of efforts to be made; and (2) effective inquiry or problem-solving procedures must be used - including the often ignored reflection and documentation / communication activities.

Related to the comment added, "Why is the sky blue?" could be a good PBL effort (no prototype either by the way), even in the lower grades. Aside: Particularly elementary teachers believe they have to know the "right" answer before beginning a PBL activity; (1) there could be more than one "right answer" and (2) they don't have to know the answer(s) as students are motivated when they perceive the teacher is a learner as well.

Implementing PBL is a

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Implementing PBL is a challenging task, requiring focus, creativity and innovation. Recognizing the need to learn content and incorporate problem solving, communication, creativity and innovation in the process requires thought and planning. The results are worth the effort. The classroom becomes a place that engages students in the learning process.

Internet and Society

Truths about PBL abuse

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Let's get past talking about whether we need to use projects. Back in the 50s and 60s chemistry labs *were* projects. They worked, and we have been yelling and screaming to get them back to no avail. BUT - When compared with high performing countries, project-based learning in US middle schools was found to be missing essential components in a high percentage of classrooms (prereading, discussion, and reflection). Why? Because projects were (mis)used for classroom management rather than authentic learning by teachers that had less-than-optimal training in the subject they were teaching.

What it comes down to is authentic professional development as Puerto Rico proved, and we continue to ignore. Whether project learning is a secret sauce is still under discussion though form work that uses controls and my own experience, it appears to work well. How many elementary school teachers can answer a child that asks "Why is the sky blue?" and how many middle school teachers can offer the proper explanation with a simple experimental proof and historic background?

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