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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Perfecting with Practice: Project-Based Teaching

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

In project learning (PL), plans that look spectacular on paper can go awry when students enter the picture. During the implementation phase, students may decide to head in directions their teacher never anticipated.

Tensions can build if teams don't understand what it means to collaborate or share responsibility for project success. Creative problem solving can start to feel like classroom chaos. This is when the art of project-based teaching makes all the difference.

What if you're new to teaching with the project approach? Do you have to learn everything the hard way?

Fortunately, veteran PL teachers are only too happy to share their wisdom. For the past several weeks, I've had the pleasure of listening to educators talk about the nitty-gritty of projects. Colleague Jane Krauss and I just wrapped up hosting a series of webinars. (If you are interested, the discussion continues here.)

Here are just a few gems from this conversation, along with links to projects that will give you some new ideas to try with your students.

Get Minds Inquiring

Inquiry is at the heart of project learning, and PL veterans are deliberate about sparking student curiosity before a project actually begins. Some teachers leave clues in plain sight, encouraging students to do preliminary detective work that will fire up their curiosity. Others use opinion polls to ignite class discussions. Kevin Gant from the New Tech Network offers this sample question to lead into a physics project: "What's the better car: Dodge Viper or Shelby Cobra?" A class survey takes just a few minutes, Gant says, but, "time spent getting the students riled up about an issue is golden."

Lay a Foundation

The project approach challenges students to think for themselves, conduct research, solve authentic problems, meet deadlines, and manage much of their own learning. Experienced teachers don't take these skills for granted. They invest time to introduce students to the project process. Terry Smith from Hannibal, Missouri, uses the popular Monster Project to "get students into project mode" by negotiating decision making in small teams.

Before Sue Boudreau, teaching in Orinda, California, unleashes students on a complex project, she starts with a low-risk activity to teach process skills. She might ask students to think about all the steps associated with a familiar task, such as getting a meal ready for dinner guests. Then she has them work backwards from the dinner bell to figure out the project flow. Currently, Boudreau's middle school students are using their project skills to take on real-world science challenges through the Take Action Project.

Look to the Discipline for Cues

Where are the boundaries when students are pursuing open-ended questions? Neil Stephenson from Calgary, Alberta, suggests looking to the discipline you're teaching to help students focus their efforts. "I'm trying to find places where I can bring the reality of the discipline into the classroom. What does it mean for kids to become mathematicians and not just teach them math? What does it mean to teach them to do science and not learn about science? There's a subtle but powerful shift there," he suggests, "and the right way to teach comes out of the disciplines." Stephenson's award-winning Cigar Box Project demonstrates what happens "when kids actually become historians and interpret events from the past."

Develop Confidence

Project learning typically culminates with students sharing the results of their effort, often at a public event. How do you build students' presentation skills, as well as the confidence to exercise their voice? Anthony Armstrong, teaching in Tiburon, Calif., goes about this deliberately. He challenges his eighth graders with an activity he calls the "30-second blowhard." They discover that staying on topic for half a minute can be a challenge, especially when you're expected to make a cogent argument. And that's not all.

Armstrong asks each student to summarize the key points made by the previous speaker. That builds listening skills. Gradually, as students gain confidence and competence, the 30-second challenge expands to a couple minutes.

Build Some Buzz

When PL really takes hold, the benefits can extend in all sorts of unexpected directions. We call this the project spiral. Where can spirals go? Imagine a project that brings in collaborators from other schools -- or other countries. Picture community members connecting with students to solve real-world challenges. Think about the advantages when PL teachers form virtual communities to continue fine-tuning their practice.

These benefits won't happen in a vacuum, however. George Mayo from Silver Spring, Maryland, reminds us of the value of building buzz by getting student projects out into the world. He's an advocate of blogs as a tool for getting students to publicly reflect on their learning and invite reactions. Mayo also organizes a project called the Longfellow Ten, in which students from across the country create "absurd stop-motion films" to illustrate academic concepts. In his own community, Mayo organizes an annual film festival where students showcase their best filmmaking efforts -- and evidence of their expanding visual literacy -- with family and friends.

Establish the Right Context

Connie Weber teaches at an independent school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that removes many of the typical barriers to the project approach. She enjoys small class sizes, gifted students, strong parental support, and even an on-campus nature center. But when we asked her about the key conditions for project success, she described a learning environment that could be replicated almost anywhere -- with the right care and attention. What's essential, she says, "is establishing the learning atmosphere, how the class feels." Instead of generating rules with her students, she invites them to "generate tendencies, [and] positive ways to be together."

Students warm right up to this request. Weber explains, "They suggest that they want each other to be nice, honest, respectful, patient; to have integrity and perseverance; to be safe to make mistakes and safe to share their views." She adds one more quality to the list: "It's important to play."

What does this feel like in practice? At the start of a project, Weber describes this moment:

"For the teacher, there's this giant letting go. Now, that requires some effort. I can see it in my mind -- it's me walking away, turning my back, going somewhere else, not allowing myself to hover. It's me communicating, 'I'm at your service,' and, 'May the force be with you.' It's me utterly and totally handing over the reins, come what may. The project is theirs."

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These are just a few of the insights shared during several weeks of inspiring conversations. And the good talk continues. Links to webinar recordings are posted in Classroom 2.0.

Thanks to Project Foundry for hosting this series, and to LearnCentral for providing the virtual meeting room through the site, Elluminate. Most of all, thanks to all the excellent teachers who have so generously shared their wisdom.

If you've been teaching with projects for a while, how have you fine-tuned your approach? If you're new to PL, what advice are you searching for? Please share your ideas -- and keep this conversation going.

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Comments (46)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

George:

I think you are absolutely right. For faculty to stay engaged in professional development they need to feel as though the experience has a direct connection to their classroom life. I think the work of Richard and Becky DuFour on professional learning communities is rooted in the comment or observation you make. We have launched professional learning communities in our Juior High and High School at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. The work is being developed by Bo Adams and Jill Gough. We have PLCs in English, science, math, and social sciences. The teachers in these disciplines meet regularly and work on their teaching-aspects of their teaching that come from their classrooms and the curriculum they teach. They learn from one another, they structure and determine the program. In the math PLC, the faculty started by working on how to effectively integrate the TI Nspire graphing calculator into the JHS math program. They worked with science teachers to see how the calculator could tie together the graphing work being done in 8th grade science with the math that students were learning. They used the PD time to develop these ideas. The PD is engaging, ongoing, site-specific, and organized by the faculty. There is productive work coming from the PLC and it is tied to student achievement goals as well. For me, this type of PD is the most powerful and lasting.

By the way, I just finished Sir Ken Robinson's book, The Element, a must read for educators.

More later.

Bob Ryshke

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

Pat:

What a great story! It is so interesting to hear what your students are able to do. When students energy is engaged in something that is meaningful and relevant to them, they have the power to transform. Your examples illustrate that so well. I think you would totally enjoy reading Sir Ken Robinson's book, The Element. So much of his work fits well with what you have realized with your students. They were in their Element. I won't be able to summarize his story for you, except to say that what you have felt and experienced from your students engagement is what he writes about in a very captivating way. The standardized approach to education through NCLB is not the answer for how to turn students on to learning. We need to invest in the ways your school has discovered. The challenge will be how to push back against NCLB while also using what we need to or have to. Some standardization is valuable, but not to the extent that it subverts our creative potential. There is much work to be done.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Bob Ryshke

Pat Ferryman's picture

I no longer have the honor of working with that principal he finally retired at 75 and I move to ABQ. The move did bring on new adventures and the opportunity to study the TIMMS study. If you can find the video on that is is wonderful. The Japanese teachers meet as a department and plan the lessons. We call it lesson study in this country and I teach tomorrow for my 3rd leson study. We meet as a department pick a topic and plan the lessons together. 6heads are better than one and I get to share with them my hands on activities in the classroom. I have learned to love Knex circus. We do time and distance, circumference, diameter, ratio, area, and so much more. My students have to joy of building on Fridays for the next weeks lessons. They have done math no one ever thought they could as I teach strictly special needs students now. I don't know what you teach but I love to share the programs and brain storm ideas on how to teach the boring stuff in a new fun way. I am actually doing my doctorate on differentiated instruction in a standards based classroom. There in for me lies the joy of teaching.
Pat

Pat Ferryman's picture

Check out the Fractal foundation in ABQ. The fractals that students design are actully entered in a nation wide competition and the winners are painted on the sides of buildings in town and at the fair grounds. We recently broke the guiness book of records for the largest Serpinski's (sp) triangle with thousands of students contributing theirs to the event.

John Faig's picture
John Faig
Computer teacher & technology coordinator

I am doing grad research on an emerging area. There is little research about using PBL in an online course. If you teach an online course that uses a PBL pedagogy, please tweet me (username=johnfaig)

Jane Krauss's picture
Jane Krauss
Teacher, curriculum and program developer, author, PBL facilitator, techie

[quote]I enjoyed the summary that Susie Boss outlined regarding project-based teaching. The approach she took to weave examples and resources into each section was very well done. Many of the resources she provided are excellent for the teacher who is in the initial stages of using project-based learning. [/quote]

It's amazing what you can learn from teachers who do great work and are willing to share not only their successes but also the stumbles and pitfalls that cause them improve their craft. Suzie did a beautiful job sharing the highlights of our PBL ~ Better with Practice conversations. Join the 101 members in the group!

Jane Krauss's picture
Jane Krauss
Teacher, curriculum and program developer, author, PBL facilitator, techie

[quote]I enjoyed the summary that Susie Boss outlined regarding project-based teaching. The approach she took to weave examples and resources into each section was very well done. Many of the resources she provided are excellent for the teacher who is in the initial stages of using project-based learning. [/quote]

It's amazing what you can learn from teachers who do great work and are willing to share not only their successes but also the stumbles and pitfalls that cause them improve their craft. Suzie did a beautiful job sharing the highlights of our PBL ~ Better with Practice conversations. Join the 101 members in the group!

Jessica's picture

I have been working with 4-H Youth Development Programs creating curriculum packages for youth for over 3 years now. The program, in and of itself, is project based. However, I was never sure of how true the program was being to the best practices as defined in a more traditional setting. Reading this entry has reassured me that the program I am participating in is working to address the needs of our youth through true project-based learning approaches. However, as I believe is apparent throughout this entry, it takes teachers not simply handing students a project (and calling it project-based learning), but rather a deliberate process of sparking student interest, cultivating the critical thinking processes, and carefully guiding youth through the process of making the knowledge authentic within their personal context. I believe this is the one area that our program needs to be more vigilant in addressing as we work to provide professional development to our volunteers and staff.

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
Blogger 2014

[quote]...it takes teachers not simply handing students a project (and calling it project-based learning), but rather a deliberate process of sparking student interest, cultivating the critical thinking processes, and carefully guiding youth through the process of making the knowledge authentic within their personal context.[/quote]
Hi Jessica,
Great to hear that 4H is incorporating best practices from project learning. We're seeing this more and more in extended learning settings, including after-school and informal education programs. It makes good sense, of course, given how well projects engage students and connect them with real-world learning. But as you wisely point out, you can't just call something a "project" and expect great results. Sounds like you're taking a wise approach by planning professional development for staff and volunteers.
Is your program being implemented nationwide? Where can inquiring minds learn more?
Thanks,
Suzie

Pat Ferryman's picture

With older students I think the best thing I can do once the project is laid out for the students to take charge is go get coffee. If I am there they look to me for guidance. If I am not then they look to each other.
We had the projects laid out for the students to sign up for something that interested them. That meant we had to have a variety. There was one on a tour guide of the Navajo Nation, One straw bale construction, a mock trial, and I forget the rest. But, the variety allowed the students to sign up for something that interested them.
PAt

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