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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

Comments (46)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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

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. I have particularly enjoyed the webinars offered through Classoom 2.0. There are also some good resources available through Georgia Tech on problem-based learning. They have a program devoted to the development of resources for PBL instruction. While not the same as project-based learning, it is a closely related cousin. Thanks for a very information posting.

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching
The Westminster Schools

Hobart Harmon's picture

Does anyone know where I can find examples of project based learning (PBL) simulations? Perhaps our advancements of technology applications in education will allow teachers to first have students complete a web based simulation, or only experience a simulation type PBL if access to a local stream, for example, is not feasible. I am particularly interested in web based PBL simulations that focus on growing the green economy in rural areas of America.
Hobart Harmon

Hobart Harmon's picture

Does anyone know where I can find examples of web based, project based learning(PBL)simulations? I am particularly interested in PBL simulations that connect math and science content to growing the green economy. Many of our students need to see how learning math and sciecne can prepare them for "green" careers." Perhaps with all the advancements in applications of technology in public schools today, and certainly by technology savy high school students, that simulations would be valuable as a PBL learning experience. Perhaps there are research findngs on the value of web based simulations as PBL activities? Maybe web based simulations are a good first step in preparing students to go to the field to take a water sample from a stream, if they live near one, or the school can afford such learning experiences for students in these tight budget times. Perhaps PBL simulations can provide students with a virtual hands-on learning experience.
Hobart Harmon

George Mayo's picture
George Mayo
Middle School Visual Literacy Teacher in Maryland.

Hi Suzie,

Thanks to both you and Jane for organizing the PBL webinar series. One thing I thought about throughout the webinars was the power of this type of professional development for teachers. One common complaint of teachers regarding professional development is the lack of personal relevance. Often, teachers must sit through professional development meetings where someone else has decided for them what they need to know. I like being able to take part in conversations online in topics that I find personally relevant as a teacher. Topics that I am generally interested in and want to learn more about. It was great being able to listen to these other teachers talk abut their teaching philosophies, and the ways they engage kids in large projects. When I have the time, I find these online professional development conversations very helpful.

Thanks for mentioning our collaborative stop-motion project, The Longfellow Ten, in your post!!

Pat Ferryman's picture

When the geodesic dome green house came in on a flat bed truck in dozens of boxes I asked the principal who is going to be in charge of that? He said just wait. Pretty soon the students determined that we weren't going to tell them what to do and they began to step up and take charge. One of the biggest problem children on our campus took charge and began to make assignments. It was an amazing thing to watch. 20 at risk students began to work together and built the green house.
In the mean time a families hogan burned down in Sweetwater and another group of 20 volunteered to go build the family a new hogan. Teachers began to see what they could do and before the end of that term we had 6 projects developed and students were standing in line to get into our school. Formerly a private BIA funded facility for at risk kids, we were now getting phone calls from all over the state of NM from students and parents wanting to be involved in our educational plan.
The mock trial involved the entire community of Ship Rock and lawyers and judges as well as CSI and morg personnel got involved from Farmington. We became a cohesive team of teachers and students. I never worked so hard in my life as I did building the straw bale fence compound. I was convinced and still am that the best way to teach is to shut up and listen. Those students took over and we became facilitators. The students were having so much fun and were so engaged in their lessons that discipline at our school dropped by 90%.The students who had been trained in government and street law for the mock trial set up a new discipline system on our campus and when they did get a case the princapal backed their decisions up and the mock trial project became a real project.The drugs, the discipline, the problems on our campus were in the hands of the student court and for what ever reason they were not kept very busy with hearing. No one wanted to get sent home. It became their school in so many wonderful ways. I truly regret that NCLB has forced so many schools to work within a program. I truly believe the best learning took place on that campus.

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