Let's have an honest conversation on the issue of coverage. Whenever I work with teachers, I always hear the genuine concern about coverage of material. And it's true -- most teachers, based on structures beyond their control, are forced to cover a lot of material in the year.
AP teachers must cover world history and chemistry content to prepare students for the AP tests, a series of exams that call not only for knowing a lot of content, but also its application. Non-AP teachers also face the same issue of covering many standards in a short year. I work with teachers to build great PBL projects that focus on deeper learning, and I always hear, "I have so much content to cover this year that I don't have time to do a PBL project." Again, this concern comes from a real place. I've experienced it both as a student in the classroom and teacher in AP and PBL classrooms. However, I have a few responses for this common concern.
Starting the Conversation
"How’s the coverage going for you?!?"
The typical story here is this. We have a lot of material to cover, either because the pacing guide calls for it, or because we mapped out our year to cover that material. We prepare our students for an exam that will occur in a week or two. We are successful in preparing them for that exam through a variety of lessons, lectures and instructional activities. Most students pass the test, but after the weekend or even weeks later, they can't remember the content. They are then forced to relearn or review content later. Sometimes we must take up class time to do this. In general, coverage doesn't ensure that the learning "sticks" and may even take away from time that we need to teach other content and skills.
"Do you really cover everything?!?"
Most teachers who cling to the excuse of coverage aren't actually covering everything. Because students have different individual needs and the character of a classroom changes every year, teachers differentiate and make adjustments to meet those needs. This means that some standards or learning objectives may not be given the content they need. I was guilty of this when I taught world history. I just didn't have time to do it all. However, teachers still make good choices here. They look at the standardized or AP tests and pick the content they'll hit during that year to make sure students are prepared. If Gothic literature or specific texts are frequently on the AP literature exam, I make sure to pick those texts. Let's just honor that fact that we make good choices for our students and yet may not cover everything we want to or need to cover.
I admit these questions are somewhat crass and could be perceived as rude. However, I am simply trying to elicit an honest conversation on coverage of material. My personal opinion is that we use this excuse of coverage as a crutch when we, as good teachers, are actually not as committed to it as we think.
Covering Your Bases with PBL
If you are concerned about coverage of material as you build your PBL projects, consider these few ideas to alleviate your fears. They will help you focus on "uncoverage" and steer you more effectively toward deeper learning.
1. Pick the Major or "Meaty" Content and Skills
Some of our standards are easily taught and assessed in a limited time frame, while other standards and learning objectives require a length of time. This is either because of what the pacing guide dictates or because our teaching experience has told us so. The "meatier" content and skills are a great place to aim for deeper learning. They take time because that's often part of deeper learning, so why not use a PBL project?
2. PBL Projects Uncover Multiple Standards
In addition to "meaty" standards, teachers have targeted multiple standards for a PBL project. A PBL project can have a single-disciplined or multi-disciplined focus. There is space for teaching and assessing multiple standards. In addition, you can use a PBL project to "spiral" in standards you may have already targeted for continued practice and assessment.
3. PBL Projects Require Critical Thinking
It we want the knowledge to "stick," then we must have students think critically with it. When designing a good PBL project, we make sure that it simply isn't regurgitation of knowledge. If I see a PBL project going this way, then it might be a design flaw. It could be a problem with the driving question, the rubric or a number of other factors. Design with critical thinking in mind, and make sure the PBL project demands it.
There are of course other reasons that PBL projects work, and there is research to support it. I think we need to stop using the excuse of "coverage," first because it may not even be an honest excuse, and second because it isn't working. Let's do what's best for our students and focus on "uncoverage" by creating PBL projects and units that focus on deeper learning of the content, where students remember the material, think critically with it, and apply it in new contexts.
What are your strategies to reframe the conversation of coverage to "uncoverage?"