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Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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I was talking with a group of teachers who are relatively new to project-based learning. Near the end of our conversation, one of them asked a question that took me by surprise: "When do we decide to quit?"

I asked her to elaborate. "Some students just aren't getting it," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to reach the end of the project and they won't know the content."

It seems her first project wasn't going quite the way she had envisioned. Her natural instinct: retreat to the familiar territory of texts, tests, and teacher-driven instruction.

I assured her that she wasn't the first teacher to encounter challenges with PBL. In fact, fresh in my mind was a recent post by an Australian teacher recounting her project-based learning "teething problems."

PBL 'Teething Problems'

On Bianca's Blog, Bianca Hewes describes the opening days of a project with her grade 10 students. It started off brilliantly. Students appeared to be deeply engaged in discussing the driving question that she had set before them: How could education officials redesign the high-stakes English test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today's world? To get them fired up, she shared a YouTube video featuring a rant by a college student called "An Open Letter to Educators."

She then challenged students to come up with policy recommendations and make their own YouTube videos. She promised them an authentic audience, including folks with the authority to influence decisions.

What happened next? Her blog continues:

"So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep. You guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn't collaborated despite having Edmodo. They hadn't done any research. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No."

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Bianca's initial reaction was to "take my ball and go home," as she puts it. Her students told her they were more comfortable with old-school instruction, and so she gave it to them. Desks she had arranged for group work went back into neat rows. Animated student discussions came to a halt, replaced by teacher lectures and rote note-taking. Quizzes proliferated. Netbooks went into storage. It was as if they had all been "banished to the cave," Bianca writes.

It didn't take long for students to notice the difference. They worried that they weren't really learning anything this way, except how to follow orders, cram for tests, and write fast. Could they give that project another try?

They could. But this time around, their teacher would be more deliberate about teaching critical skills such as teamwork and time management. She would use formative assessment tools to check in on their progress. She would be sure to have the right scaffolding in place so that students could get comfortable as self-directed learners, and get help if they needed it.

Gradual Release -- Not Retreat

Project-based learning can pose challenges for teachers as well as students, especially when both are new to this approach. As Bianca discovered, some project management skills may need to be taught explicitly. Formative assessment has to happen early and often, and a teacher needs to be ready with support for students who are struggling. Handing over responsibility to the learner happens gradually, not all at once.

Good projects -- like real-life challenges -- also teach us about persistence. Figuring out what to do if you encounter challenges is part of the learning experience.

In an insightful new book called Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman explores what it takes for kids to "get really good at something." Researchers call this developing mastery. Cushman has discovered similar patterns and attitudes among teens who are driven to become architects or artists, rappers or rowers. Often, their expertise develops outside school. It may start with a spark that ignites their interest, but the path to mastery is long-term. A motivated teen with stick with it despite challenges, "because the hard parts connect to a result she can clearly visualize," Cushman tells us.

Supportive relationships also play a critical role for kids who are motivated to work toward mastery. And so does what Cushman calls "deliberate practice," in which kids gain new skills and knowledge through purposeful small steps.

In her interviews with these highly motivated teens, Cushman discovered that few of them expressed much excitement about the work they did at school. There was one bright spot, however. Interdisciplinary projects "stood out for them as a remarkable exception," Cushman reports. The same students who described feeling bored at school "caught fire when they were asked to take on challenging 'real world' projects as part of their academic curriculum." When they had opportunities to do projects, these students recognized a familiar-if sometimes difficult -- path toward mastery.

So, what was my short answer to that teacher who asked about giving up on a project? Please don't! But by all means, figure out why students are struggling and step in with the support they need to get back on track. And bring what you learn into your next project.

Reflective teachers like Bianca teach their students valuable lessons about learning from missteps and making mid-course adjustments. I'm willing to bet that her next project will be more successful, and that her students will gain some valuable life lessons along with a deeper understanding of important content.

Have you ever called it quits on a project? What have you learned -- the hard way -- about scaffolding student success? Please share your insights.

Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dara Brennan's picture
Dara Brennan
District Science Specialist

I also think its really important for students to see that teachers' have to adjust plans when things aren't going as they expected. It helps them see problem solving in action.

PeytonJHScience's picture

I'm reminded of a book I'm reading - "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. In it, she explains the fixed and growth mindsets. I can see how those students with the growth mindsets will be more likely to put forth more effort to dig in and learn and develop mastery of the material; they are motivated. I think the same is true of teachers. Those with the growth mindset are not going to give up when the going gets tough; they are going to try to find a way to make PBIL work.

karla's picture

In the statement, "I'm afraid we're going to reach the end of the project and they won't know the content". I think it is possible for us all to feel that way to some degree at some point in our PBIL. Even though we are working with the knowledge of what our finished project will be, we still need to be able to be flexible. Flexible in that as an educator, what is planned may not always go accordingly. Being able to keep the project authentic and our students on task will require planning after we have planned and checkpoints for the students to gauge their progress. We must be able to allow students discuss and reevaluate their research, data, and final projects. I think adding in the checklists, rubrics, and checkpoints will keep the students on tasks and remind them of the end product and the content they are learn in the process. In addition, the support for both students and educators must remain in place and be accessible to all.

Rachel E's picture
Rachel E
HS Science teacher

I currently teach advanced students in my Physics class, and this year when I introduced collaborative learning groups and a format that all but eliminated 'lecture' in the class. Initially they were receptive, but I have noticed that when the going gets tough this group of very capable students gets 'whining' for their comfortable 'lecture' to guide them through. I admit that I have questions their ability to figure it out on their own with my prodding questions to provide direction, but I have come to accept that it is not their lack of ability, but rather lack of confidence in their abilities combined with their desire to follow the path of least resistance that causes them to clammer for the information to be gleaned and served before them. Though it is difficult to break them from the cycle of learning that they have found to be so successful, I beleive that the benefits for them will reach far past my class and throughout the professional paths that they will follow.

MSK's picture
Chemistry Teacher, Pennsylvania

As a high school chemistry teacher I have come across similar situation when students are assigned to work in groups for labs, projects or other team activities. I agree that students whine a lot when they are pushed out of their comfort zone. But, with that we help students prepare to face future real world situations. Also I have noticed some students are scared to make mistakes thinking others would make a big deal out of it, particularly outside the classroom. The blogger has a very good point on how to keep going without quitting. Gradual release is the answer. In this way student won't see that their life has turned upside down overnight.

Mary Godfrey's picture
Mary Godfrey
Magnet Coordinator- NASA PBIL participant

So many times I have felt like "taking my ball and going home." I have gone back to those days of packing up all the "fun" learning and going back to the traditional classroom. I'm just as bored as the students. I like that you focused on going back and teaching them what they needed to be successful. I need to be better at teaching strategies.

Patricia Boswell's picture

I have often felt like taking my ball and going home when lessons do not go as planned. But I just get a cup of coffee, and ask a student or a group how we can meet an objective and students very often have ideas that can make the process or group work go much better.
It is nice to know that there is a large group of us out there trying to help students work to their potentials using this teaching strategy.

Elizabeth's picture

The article has some great ideas to help when the project seems to have taken a nose dive. What came to my mind as I was reading it is that perhaps like many things in life there is a time to take a break. Some of these PBIL projects can seem to to become so intense and students have a lot of things going on besides the project. Perhaps another suggestion is to take a break and do something totally different and come back to it fresh. The break doesn't have to be noonsupportive to the project but maybe just not have an obvious link to the PBIL.

Phil M's picture
Phil M
4th Grade Teacher, Long Island, NY

I am taking a PBIL course presently and just finished reading your posting that it is important for students to see that plans are flexible documents, and while the original blogger was working with an older population, and I work with 4th graders, it makes no difference. Teachers need to accommodate and adjust to the learners in the classroom. Although we as teachers have good intentions and feel that we are following the correct path to after unleashing our driving question, ultimately, the students need to be engaged early on. As evidenced here, they can make or break a lesson or even a unit.

Elizabeth Cooke's picture

I learned that I should never assume students are adept at working in groups even with only partners. In fact some students become intimidated and do not want to interact. It is important to model for the students the learning behavior that I want.

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