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Over the past decade, the No Child Left Behind Act and Common Core have created a new era of student and teacher accountability. Teachers have been asked to improve student achievement and test scores across all demographic groups and income levels. According to Striving for Student Success: A Model of Shared Accountability (PDF), "[i]n the current school reform atmosphere, in which individual schools and teachers are being judged by their own students' outcomes, this notion of 'shared accountability' is rare." I challenge you to think about accountability and ownership as two important skills that we need to teach and instill in our students, not through standardized testing but through project-based learning.

Inspire Passion in Learning

In an effective PBL classroom, instruction shifts away from the teacher to student accountability and ownership. Students become autonomous, explore concepts they are interested in, and truly become passionate experts in their field of study. For example, I recently introduced a new PBL unit into my sociology class. Groups of students were asked to identify a problem in education and create a potential solution to that problem. Some research topics they identified were student tracking, drug abuse, bullying, class size, teacher tenure, and block scheduling. Students were asked to interview three experts in their topic of choice. Some went above and beyond this assignment, and some even interviewed our district superintendent.

Teach Skills Alongside Content

Students then selected a challenge in which they would share their knowledge with the world. Some of the options were writing a blog post for Edutopia, writing a position paper to be presented to the Board of Education, facilitating a debate, or creating a documentary video about their problem and solution. Through all of these options, I had to develop my students' abilities to not only self-manage but also set achievable and attainable goals. Like any skill, critical thinking, collaboration, and accountability need to be taught, modeled, and encouraged in any classroom.

The Right Questions

As a teacher, I put a lot of time into thoughtful planning of a clear driving question and used multiple scaffolds and task-specific workshops to guide learning. For example, one workshop given by our library media specialist taught students how to properly evaluate a source. I taught them how to construct interview questions and conduct a successful interview, which are skills for both this project and the real world. All of my workshops were carefully planned and tailored to my students' interests with the driving question in mind. According to the Buck Institute for Education's Pervasive Management of Project Based Learning (PDF), "effective PBL thrives in a classroom culture that values learning over performance, and supports students' self-management, self-direction, and self-assessment."

As a progress-monitoring strategy, I had my students complete a daily check-in form. I was able to gauge what they accomplished, where they were going next, and what areas needed more support or guidance from me. For example, one group asked about using iMovie, so I ran a small-group tutorial on how to create a documentary. As students worked on their group project, I constantly circulated throughout the room checking in with each group and providing the necessary help. These daily informal evaluations supported my students in establishing and monitoring their own goals.

Benchmarks and Reflection

Another helpful strategy essential in a PBL classroom is establishing clear and attainable benchmarks. Specific benchmarks and due-dates for each step of the process encourage full participation as well as promoting accountability. For example, each group needed to accomplish a goal of the day, such as researching their topic and writing their own essential question, writing interview questions, asking the interviews, a rough draft of the assignment, and the final due date of the assignment. These benchmark "mini" due dates are an essential part of the PBL process. When PBL is successful, students learn to self-manage and self-direct their own learning as well as collaborate with peers.

One essential element in a successful PBL classroom is student reflection. I provided my students with clear guidelines and rubrics on how they would assessed. My rubrics were adapted from the BIE website. At the end of the project, students completed a self-evaluation in which they assessed their individual contribution, group collaboration, and the final project before submission. I had each group present their problems and solutions to the entire class. I had audience members elicit feedback, suggestions, and comments about the problems and solutions. The presentations were engaging and interesting because each student was able to share his or her opinions about the specific problem and solution in education. The day following the presentations, students revisited their work using the feedback from their peers and from me.

Set High Expectations

This project was designed with the real world in mind. By setting the bar high, students' position papers would be presented to the school board, or their blog post would be submitted to Edutopia for serious consideration. PBL creates a clear mindset that learning extends far beyond our four walls! Setting high expectations increases students' motivation and professionalism, and helps them develop the metacognitive skills necessary to evaluate their own learning.

My students were able to learn more about our educational system and propose solutions to improve it. They were able to make inferences about their learning and create solutions to real-world problems. For example, one group researched the positives and negatives of teacher tenure and suggested a five-year contract after which teachers need to demonstrate their mastery of teaching. Another group suggested that in order to prevent drug abuse, more should be done to educate youth about the repercussions of drug overdose. They suggested having a yearly assembly at which they hear from "real" families directly affected by drug abuse.

As you can see, teaching with the PBL approach is much more than "covering content." We're teaching our students the skills needed to flourish in our ever-changing world.

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Alexander Deeb's picture
Alexander Deeb
EdTech Entrepreneur

Excellent post, Melissa! I enjoyed reading it.

Your post very well covered how PBL affects your students in a positive way, and that's great. How do you think PBL affects you as a teacher? Do you spend more/less time preparing lessons? Do you believe that PBL is more difficult to implement in schools with more limited resources?

Melissa Seideman's picture

Thanks for your kind words. I think PBL makes me a better teacher. It encourages me to think outside of the box and it takes my content to a much greater depth. I spend way more time preparing lessons before we start the project but as we are "doing" the project it is less day to day work. A lot more frontloaded work. I think it would be effective with a school with limited resources. There are so many community organizers and guest speakers that could come in to make PBL an effective strategy.

David T. Hauser's picture
David T. Hauser
High School Literature & Composition Teacher

Great post. Would you consider posting a follow up in which you describe the "front end" planning process?

Melissa Seideman's picture

Yes- the front end took sometime to think of the project. Outline specific benchmarks my students had to encounter. Get the approval from my principal. Design the rubrics as well as the initial hook I used to talk to them about the problems in our education system.

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