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Structure in Project-Based Learning: The Freedom to Learn Requires Planning

| Bob Lenz

When a colleague at another urban high school commented to me that because his students needed more structure, he no longer employs project-based learning, I replied that his decision presumes that PBL is unstructured. My experience as a teacher, an instructional coach, and a school leader has taught me that effective PBL is highly structured -- structured to facilitate student learning -- whereas traditional instruction is often structured to support teacher-directed instruction and student compliance.

To many educators, the model of teacher as coach implies lack of structure. However, all my coaches in high school, college, and postcollegiate athletics have been highly structured in their approach to their work: They have taught me strategies and techniques in a direct manner. They have put me through drills and critiqued my performance in practice with little empathy for my feelings. They have inspired me to go further than I thought I could physically and mentally.

When it came time to perform in a game or match, however, my team and I were on our own: We needed to apply what we had learned in real game situations. After each performance, the coach asked us to review our performance; he or she gave us feedback, too. Both coach and player used this reflection to adjust our practice and refine our game plan. Often, it meant relearning a skill or tactic. Other times, we needed to fill a gap in our knowledge, and we needed to learn something new.

The best coaches map backward from a vision of outstanding performance in their sport. Coaches assess their athletes' skills and knowledge and make a plan for the season that will get their team ready for peak performance. Paradoxically, coaching should imply tons of structure, and so should PBL.

At Envision Schools, highly structured projects begin with our design tools. We coach teachers to identify the standards (content, academic dispositions, and twenty-first-century leadership skills) and plan their assessment first. Like a good coach, it is important for you as a good teacher to first envision the performance you plan for your students to achieve. Given the outcomes for student learning, teachers need to determine what prerequisite skills and knowledge are required to complete the project.

Logically, teachers will have to assess what kids already know and can do and then make a plan to teach what they need to learn. Each piece of building toward the performance will require thoughtful structures -- how large the groups will be, what roles and responsibilities each group member will have, what collaboration skills students need to learn to be successful, what the teachers will teach directly and what students will learn through inquiry, and how both types of learning will be assessed.

Envision Schools teachers map clear benchmarks with deadlines for each task or product and post these on their Web sites. The benchmarks help the learners climb the learning scaffold toward a high-quality product and/or performance. People often think a PBL classroom will be very noisy and out of control. In an effective learning environment, there is a healthy buzz, but students are moving around and talking with each other for a purpose and are clearly in control of their behavior.

And at last, it is game day, and the students exhibit their product and their learning to an authentic audience. The teachers can only observe and support their students now: The outcome is up to the learner. Like a good coach, the good teacher will debrief students' performance with them, assess the outcomes, and adjust plans for the next project.

Does this analogy alter your perception of what project-based learning is all about? Does it match the model you or your school have adopted in implementing PBL? Share your thoughts.

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Comments (9)

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mohammad ali-movahedian (not verified)

DEAR I think it is better to

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DEAR
I think it is better to have practical projects in your WEB SITE as well as beside the latest information on PBL.
thank and best regards

christine (not verified)

PBL & differentiated instruction

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Although PBLs do take a tremendous amount of planning time from the onset, I generally notice it is much easier for me to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all my students from the special needs student to the gifted child. My students know what the learning objectives are and most often different collaborative groups are reaching the objectives by going down a different road. PBL definitely takes a lot of time on my part, but the students are better off for it.

Christine (not verified)

Planning for student success

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It often takes our grade level team weeks to plan a PBL unit and we often do not know exactly how we will get to the end, but that's the fun part of the ride. That's where the students tend to take over their learning. To some, it may seem unstructured, but if enough time is put into the planning piece of PBL, it is only unstructured to the person standing on the outside looking in. If that person were to really watch and listen to the students, I think a different view would be taken.
It is the student's journey - I am there to guide and facilitate. I have found that this is so much harder to do than a teacher directed lesson. That's why we are all so exhausted at the end of the school day.

carol (not verified)

PBL

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I think that PBLs are great ways for students to learn, although they take time for the teacher to prepare them. The PBL is also a great way to utilize and meet the needs of students various learning and intelligent modes styles. Students have the opportunity to learn by various input which makes more pathways in the brain.

Anonymous (not verified)

Project-Based Learning

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I am also wondering if you would place inquiry-based learning in the same category as project based and problem based learning. In our school, we engage in inquiry based learning. This type of teaching and learning also requires a great deal of planning. For example, our kindergarten classes have chosen the inquiry question – What is Important? Through this question, teachers use areas of the curriculum for students to answer the question. Reading, writing tasks within the social studies program of studies are carefully planned so students can demonstrate their understanding of curricular outcomes under the umbrella of answering this big question.
We also try to make the learning as authentic as possible. We assess students to determine prior knowledge, what supports they might need and we offer multiple ways that students can choose to demonstrate their understanding and answer the question. This is an exciting method of delivering instruction and students are very motivated to learn. Some of the answers students give are usually higher than our teachers expect.

Tabitha (not verified)

Project-based learning

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Project-based learning will take more planning then just planning a lesson for the whole class usually does. This is were teachers need to collaborate and plan on a project-based assignment for the good of their students. You can not just give a student one activity and say that it is project-based. It has to be structured on what the teacher or teachers want the outcomes to be or the overall objectives for that concept. It takes planning backwards in order to get the outcomes the teacher or teacher are looking for from their students. This can be time consuming for the teacher or teachers who are planning to use project-based curriculum.

Suzie Boss (not verified)

Planning for Student Success

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Effective PBL requires considerable teacher planning, especially on the front end--before students ever engage. That's when the teacher (or better yet, teaching team) maps out the learning journey ahead. You may not know exactly how students will get there (that's the "unstructured" part your colleague describes). But you know where you want your students to wind up, and why it's a trip worth taking.

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Project-based Learning & project-based learning

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People often use the terms project-based learning and problem-based learning interchangeably, although there is a difference. This article on problem-based and project-based learning identifies the key differences.

altab (not verified)

What is the difference

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What is the difference between project based learning and problem based learning?

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