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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

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

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

Hi Suzie,
In my ongoing effort to promote and spread PBL, I'm now teaching teachers full time, but also working with local elementary schools as part of the immersion process for my teacher candidates. The Monster Project seems to be effective at getting new teachers on board, as well as keeping the veterans around for many years. I'm attaching a link from this Sunday's newspaper that describes our elementary-to-university connection for improving teacher Ed while using projects. http://heraldnews.suntimes.com/news/schools/2425721-418/monster-project-...

Terry

Linda Delgado's picture
Linda Delgado
Doctoral Student

When learning PBL it is helpful to engage in project design and implementation with a colleague-- as two minds create more carefully constructed and planned projects. You will also find it helpful to solve the inevitable challenges that come your way when partnering with a colleague or two.

Just as the release of responsibility in a traditional lesson is fraught with peril--the moment you'll find how well you had taught a concept and how carefully you planned individual or group practice--so too is the release when students begin a project. I have found it helpful to construct project assignment sheets with quality rubrics and time lines with measurable results to be checked during work sessions. For example, students may be required to turn in a proposal that outlines who will accomplish which tasks on various check-point days. As Ms. Boss suggests it is imperative that teachers structure deliverables, provide due dates, and constantly move about monitoring progress. I have also found it helpful to hold brief class-wide conversations both pre and post work session, encouraging reflection on both what worked and what did not during the session. Students learn from each other, and it can be an excellent time to acknowledge specific student successes in clear, descriptive (rather than judgmental) language.

A significant joy in conducting Project Based Learning consists of the differentiation opportunities you'll experience as a teacher/ facilitator. While one student group may struggle with relatively simple challenges (why is one team member across the room talking with friends and how do we hold that person accountable?)to much more complex tasks (how do we construct a public service message to a targeted audience that uses specific persuasive techniques? How can we make it topical and arresting?) When working with Project-Based Learning you will get an opportunity to work with your students in the most individualized manner possible. It's a beautiful thing, and certainly ranks among the most aggravating, inspiring, and rewarding experiences of my teaching career.

Research it, try it, reflect upon it, and repeat.

Natasha Martin's picture

Yes! There are many challenges in orchestrating groupwork, and it's easy to get frustrated. However, when you have a groupwork success you see why it is worth it to keep trying. At TCI, we have based our Problem Solving Groupwork strategy on the research of Elizabeth Cohen. We provide groups with complex tasks and then build in team building, clear roles and responsibilities, and provide concrete benchmarks for formative feedback. This link will take you to a brief video overview of the strategy. At the end of the clip, you can fill out a form to get our methods book chapter on Problem Solving Groupwork emailed to you. The chapter is a great resource with lots of ideas, tips and examples that will keep you trying even if you have a groupwork disaster from time to time.:)
http://www.teachtci.com/tci-approach/teaching-strategies/problem-solving...

Tim McNamara's picture

We have had many of the same difficulties in the beginnings of introducing students to the PBL process. We are learning that it may be three steps forward, two steps back. We have not given up on the process, and we are now starting to see positive outcomes in a relatively short period of time. And, even with the complexity of projects that are totally student driven based on subjects and topics selected by them, the process has still been successful.

http://oh-institute.org/ (we are a multi-age classroom, student-centric PBL new school model)

Nani Pai's picture
Nani Pai
Grade 5 Teacher

PBL is great for kids and teachers alike. Kids are able to capture their learning in different ways because, after all, we all learn in different ways. Teachers need to be careful when scaffolding. Timing and careful observations of your class will tell you when they are ready for the next step. You want it to be successful, especially the first time you attempt PBL. The most important thing to remember is don`t give up! The rewards are many.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Like you said from Bianca's example, it's easy to get kids fired up about something, but quite another to see it through. All of us need to be able to see what the end product is, that it's do-able and worth it. Who to work with? How? What are the steps? What are the expectations? What's the timeline? And will it be fun and meaningful?

We have one set of classes not engaged with the Grow Food Project because of a teacher who has now left not giving regular check-ins and being vague about exactly what was expected and how students would be held accountable. I let the ball drop a bit too and am reminded to tweak them TOMORROW especially after the freeze which will have killed delicate lettuces.

I guess the lesson I've learned the hard way is to force myself to do the project ahead or WITH the kids myself, so I can feel the ups and downs, the problems and then chat about it with them as an equal. Plus make changes to the rubrics etc. Having a rubric. Very important. Being clear and having check-ins. Tedious but vital. We structure it in to their weekly journal writes.

Starting with a pre-written and tried-out project can help too. See the Take Action Project at http://www.takeactioncurriculum.com and blog about that and other projects in our 7th and 8th science class rooms at http://takeactionscience.wordpress.com.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

But not too much. Enough time to fail and try again. Enough time to celebrate and reflect. Plan backwards from the deadline and weave into your other curriculum demands. Rushing kills creativity and fun.

But not so much time that the enthusiasm evaporates - did that the first year of the Take Action Project, or get bored still on the same project and topic. Did that with in an ed research group for a project lasting a year. Waaaaaay too long.

Brian Hendricks's picture
Brian Hendricks
Pre-Service Teacher nearing completion of student teaching

Perhaps student teaching was not the wisest time to try my first PBL, but I wanted to try out the process with my students. For the most part I found it successful, but without the prior training on how to best complete a group PBL, some students lagged far behind in getting work completed. It was as if students who did not understand just shut down and took the time to socialize, despite multiple redirections.

I believe we all learned something during the project. I learned valuable lessons to improve my next PBL plan.

Danielle Shirilla's picture

Suzie,

My district has been chosen at one of three in Ohio to participate in the Next Generation Learning (NxGL) project. As a part of that team, we have spent 2 Waiver Days looking at the NxGL principles and trying to weave them into our current curriculum. One of the principles of NxGL is project based learning. Each grade level is currently putting together a plan to implement a PBL according to NxGL. I agree that students will become more invested in a PBL if it is authentic and cross-curricular therefore I tried to help my colleagues see things the same way. When we implement our PBLs in February, it will be interesting to see the results across the district. Stay tuned :)

Melissa Odenweller's picture

My first year teaching I had very difficult classroom behavior and it made me nervous to try new things or give students the chance to work in groups without having complete control. During my undergraduate courses they talked about the importance of Project Based Learning and I was excited to get to try that type of learning in my own classrooms. At my end of the year evaluation, my principal asked me to give her examples of different Project Based Learning activities I used that year. I could not think of very many opportunities that I had used to have my students do those types of activities. We talked about it a little bit more. We found a few times that I had started to use Project Based Learning, how I could have followed it through, and how I could use it more the following year. The following year came and I was ready to tackle Project Based Learning with my students and have it be a positive experience for the students and myself. During the school year I did a few tiny projects to teach the students how they worked in order to prepare them for the end of the year project. The biggest Project Based Learning activity that I did the following year with my first graders was a project about rainforest animals. We followed a step by step process for completing the project. The students did some of the work at school and were required to finish it at home. The students got library books on their animal of choice. I talked to the students about how to do research; the students had to research at home and school. The students took their research notes and turned it into a presentation. Everyone presented their projects. Overall, I felt that the project worked pretty well. The students really seemed to enjoy the processes and learning from one another during the presentations. A few of the difficulties I experienced was having parent support to complete the tasks that were required of the students at home. I would be interested to experience a Project Based Learning activity that was all completed in school. I know that with every activity that I do I will become more successful with it. It is definitely a great way of teaching and learning for students.

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