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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

5 Tips for Getting Started With PBL in Math Classes

Pointers for middle and high school math teachers who have concerns about incorporating project-based learning in their classes.

October 15, 2019
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

When the new school year began in Oklahoma City, Telannia Norfar’s math students realized right away that they were in for a different kind of learning experience. On day one, Norfar challenged them with a problem worth solving: Design the “ultimate classroom” that will meet the needs of all learners. This was not a quick icebreaker. Instead, Norfar used the project to introduce strategies for asking good questions, analyzing errors, understanding systems, and communicating in the language of mathematics.

“I want them to love the process of figuring something out—to become great learners,” says the veteran teacher. Norfar regularly engages her students in real-world projects that lead to deep understanding of math concepts, like when her pre-calculus students acted as financial planners for authentic clients.

5 Strategies to Consider

Although project-based learning (PBL) has gained traction in school systems across the country, some math teachers are still reluctant to embrace this instructional approach. That’s why Norfar has collaborated with Chris Fancher, a middle school teacher and instructional coach, to write Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom: Grades 6-10

The coauthors are both members of the PBLWorks National Faculty (as am I) and frequently facilitate professional development. Here are five of their classroom-tested strategies.

1. Address math myths: Some teachers worry that PBL will take away time needed to practice math skills. Others insist that they need to “front-load” concepts before students can apply them, or worry about students encountering concepts out of the order outlined in their math curriculum.

Fancher and Norfar rely on research from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), among other sources, to overcome common concerns about PBL. For example, developing what NCTM calls procedural fluency does not require having students labor over worksheets. Fancher explains, “It’s better to have students do four or five rich problems and explain how they solved them.” Getting students to reveal their thinking is part of creating the right culture for PBL to be successful. “It has to be safe to take risks and get it wrong,” he says. “Too often in math, students are told, ‘No. That’s wrong.’” Instead, he’ll respond to a student’s answer by saying, “That’s a different solution than I would have gotten. How did you get that?”

2. Start smart: Teachers can grow their confidence with PBL by choosing project opportunities strategically. Norfar looks to her standards to find project opportunities, but cautions, “You can’t do projects about everything you teach. That’s OK. Some standards lack the depth for the inquiry that PBL requires.” If a concept can be taught quickly, don’t build a three-week project around it.

To find math project ideas, the authors suggest:

  • Consider the word problems in your textbooks. Could they be the launching point for richer investigations that connect to students’ interests?
  • Look at your school community for problems awaiting mathematical solutions. For example, how can a student organization plan a more effective fund-raiser? How can school data be presented in a way that’s understandable to public audiences? 
  • Talk to people who use math in their daily lives and careers. How could their experiences connect to your content?
  • Brainstorm with colleagues who teach other content areas. What’s coming up in science or art that connects to math?

3. Consider tasks vs. projects: Before launching into a full-blown project, try a shorter task that still requires inquiry. Like projects, inquiry tasks are designed to address meaningful content. Enough time is allowed for students to have rich conversations, wrestle with problem-solving, and get feedback to improve their work. Fancher and Norfar outline several inquiry tasks in their book, each requiring three to five class periods and focusing on specific standards. 

4. Leverage effective strategies: Walk into Fancher’s or Norfar’s classroom and you’re likely to see students working in teams, journaling, interviewing experts, or taking part in Socratic seminars to discuss math concepts in depth. These teaching practices get students asking questions instead of waiting for the teacher’s direction. They encourage curiosity, promote reflection, and get students talking and thinking about math.

All these activities require teacher guidance. Fancher, for instance, intentionally teaches collaboration strategies by sharing sentence stems to scaffold student discussions. Project management is another learned skill he scaffolds for his middle-school students.

Having students keep journals or write reflections about their learning is another strategy that shows up during math projects. Some math teachers “may think this is a time waster,” Norfar admits, “but writing actually helps students solidify their thinking.” She ensures that all the building blocks of literacy—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—also come into play during math projects. 

5. Build confidence: Developing the tools and strategies to be successful with PBL in math takes time—for students and teachers alike. Just as math students need to persist to become successful problem solvers, teachers need to be willing to critique and improve their projects. 

“Don’t stop doing PBL if your project doesn’t go the way you dreamed,” Norfar cautions. Instead, reflect on what worked well and what didn’t, and consider how you can improve the project next time around. “PBL isn’t a cure-all,” she adds, “but it’s too powerful to give up on.”

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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