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5 PBL Best Practices for Redefining the Teacher's Role

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Girl adding blue food coloring to her volcano project

Deep learning is messy and complicated. My most fulfilling teaching days are filled with overlapping student voices, surprise, and opportunity. As I circulate around the room, I speak with young people who are grappling with challenges, generating and then revising ideas, and finding their way through the multiple stages of project creation. Depending on the day, my students may be sprawled out on the floor in groups, sitting individually and staring down their work on a screen, in quiet spaces editing video or audio, or out in the world interviewing, filming, or researching.

Project-based learning transforms the roles of students and teachers in ways that benefit all. This de-centering of the classroom and of knowledge helps students develop a sense of agency as learners and as people. If teachers maintain traditional notions of students as information recipients, teaching and learning become a pointless game where, instead of connection and engagement, the main challenge for students is to read the teacher's mind while producing a product in which they don't feel invested.

The Coalition of Essential Schools developed the metaphor of students as workers, with teachers as mentors or coaches. My time as a project-based teacher has helped me to examine this metaphor and expand upon it. Because my goal is to design learning that challenges students intellectually and creatively, I think of my students as creators, and I shift between multiple roles as I frame the learning, design inquiry-based units, help students generate ideas, provide models of work, consult with students, give feedback on rough work, and structure experiences so that there's an audience for student work.

In the interest of redefining the roles of students and teachers, I offer the following glimpses into aspects of teacher practice in successful PBL settings.

1. Framing the Learning

In his book Facilitating Group Learning, George Lakey writes about the importance of framing the learning in order to increase participation. Successful units of study use essential questions to initiate inquiry. During the units, I plan learning activities around specific resources. A focus on topics where there are problems, tension, or struggle encourages students to begin developing ideas and questions of their own that they then pursue through projects they create. The initial framing helps those who need guidance to develop project ideas, and also benefits those who will create work that goes beyond my initial vision.

2. Idea Development

When I introduce a project, I use specific models to demonstrate form and spark students' thinking and imaginations. Recently when I was asking students to write text and create multimedia that complemented each other, I showed them this powerful article about Dasani, a homeless girl in New York City. Once students have a sense of the form and the concept I am proposing, we spend time generating topics for their projects. Often I will have students first make a list of their own or work in small groups. Then the ideas are shared out loud as I collect them in a doc that everyone can access. This process allows me to informally comment on ideas as they are proposed, sharing thoughts about strengths and areas for improvement. The combination of modeling, brainstorming, and my feedback provides students with a wide range of possibilities and clear visions for success.

3. Consultation and Revision

Grading thousands of projects has taught me that feedback given after a project is completed has much less of an impact than conferences and consultations that take place during the project's stages of creation. Many days I spend class time imitating some kind of strange animal as I scurry between tables, stopping to squat or hunch over as I conference with groups and individuals. At times these conferences are short and I have a clear question to ask ("What is your main argument?" or "What question are you investigating?"), while at other times I am checking progress, reading drafts, hearing proposals, or doing a general check-in.

4. Peer Feedback and Self Evaluations

If I were the only one responding to student work, many learning opportunities would be missed. By evaluating their own work, giving feedback, and receiving feedback from others, students develop metacognitive skills and insights about their work. For a recent project, students were required to self-evaluate their work and get feedback from a peer using this form before conferencing with me.

5. Presentation

At times my students create work for public audiences or our school community, and at other times their work is shared with and evaluated by their classmates alone. Student work is transformed when it's created for a larger audience. In a world history unit, students create a proposal for a museum exhibit that would convey their conclusions about colonialism to a wider audience. Students are told that they're speaking to a museum board of directors -- the audience asks rigorous questions and fills out an evaluation form for each presentation as they prepare to vote on which exhibit should be funded by the museum. Providing students with this kind of real-life context for their work helps them understand that their work has broader application and meaning. It also motivates them to be thorough and polished in their presentations.

Learning how to read the world and discovering the power of one’s own voice are life-changing experiences. Designing learning that allows for inquiry, creativity, and choice allows educators to leave the front of the room and be side by side with students as they transform themselves through their work.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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Angie Pintos's picture

Hi! I'm a teacher-to-be and I'm very interested in PBL. My peers and I, when we were in our last year of high school, decided almost on our own (Fabiana, the teacher in charge of Development Technologies, a business-focused subject, helped us all through the project) to organize two parties for young children, both at different school periods and held at the school. With Fabiana's help, we even divided ourselves in "areas" like Finances, Human Resources, etc. and, as we were highly responsible in the project, the school principal and the secondary school headmistress gave us full approval. Needless to say, both parties were a HUGE success and my peers and me got a lot of money, that we divided equally between all of us, to be used in the end-of-school trip.

After reading your blog here, and having studied many pedagogical subjects, I wonder how do you plan PBL? How do you write your syllabuses, if any?

Thanks very much for sharing your experience! :)

Angie

freewind582003's picture

Hi!
I'm a math and science inclusion teacher most of the day and we practice PBL. Our students show high levels of engagements and it really help them apply key concepts to real world applications.
In our geometry class, the students are assigned to make a real model of a Native American hogan applying all geometry concepts such as angle measures, perimeter, arc length, area , slope, distance etc. and using recycled materials ( sticks, box board, boxes, plastic bottles etc) to build a model hogan.
Another project is designing an environment friendly park that also include the total cost of the park. These projects are graded using rubrics.
In our physical science class, students are currently creating a roller coaster with at least one loop. They started by planning the design and again, recycled materials shall be used.They need to apply the lessons learned about kinetic and potential energy and use their creativity how they will make the roller coaster park appealing. I am really amazed seeing their creativity, patience, cooperation and excitement doing these projects.

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