When we think of project-based learning (PBL), one of the seminal images is that of groups of students (or individuals) presenting—to the class, to adults, to large rooms full of experts.
It seems almost universally expected that students will present their work if they’re engaged in any experiential learning process, just as it’s assumed that students will communicate, collaborate, problem-solve, etc. And it’s tempting to go big right from the start with a complex project covering a lot of content, working in teams, culminating in a product to be presented to their classmates, the school, their parents, or the community. Go big or go home, right?
Well, before you jump into the deep end of the PBL pool, let’s consider how you’re going to make sure your students won’t sink like rocks. Sophisticated, complex projects may be exciting, but getting your students ready to do that complicated work is a whole other set of work—the really important work—that will ensure their success in the long term.
We often assume that students already have skills and dispositions (I won’t call them soft skills because they’re actually really hard) like these, which are necessary to do PBL successfully:
- Critical thinking
- Creative thinking
But when we think about the reality of most kids’ lives (especially over the last few years), it’s hard to think of any opportunities they’ve had to practice these skills to any degree, let alone to the level of proficiency required for the PBL unit you may be envisioning. Your vision is at the top of the ladder, and they’re still on the ground. So let’s talk about how we get them climbing.
A Low-Stakes Start
For many students, communication is a good place to start. You may want to begin with a conversation about what effective communication looks like and sounds like (T-charts are great for creating quick references that everyone can see) and practice. Make public speaking less public and more frequent.
Practice in low-stakes, quick ways to begin with: “Take a quick look at our T-chart for communication—this is what we’re practicing. Now turn to your partner (preassigned, of course, so no one is left out), and tell them one incredibly boring fact about yourself. My example is ‘I really like mayonnaise, but Miracle Whip is nasty.’ You have 30 seconds each, and I’ll tell you when to switch. The younger of the two of you goes first, so start off with your birthdays. Go!”
After that minute has passed, take a couple more to talk about what you saw and heard related to the T-chart. What were some good examples you observed? How might our T-chart need adjusting?
A Constant Focus on Communication
As you move into the lesson for the day, keep that T-chart front and center. That skill—communication—needs to keep its arm around everything else you’re doing. At the end of class, ask students to take a minute to write about their communication that day. What did they do well? What’s a goal for tomorrow? Then, at the start of class tomorrow, give those reflections back, and ask students to take a look at that goal.
As you move into more formal presentations, repeat the process—what does an effective speaker look and sound like during a presentation? Before asking students to present anything—to their classmates, to you, to any group larger than their classmates or you—ask yourself, “Has anyone ever taught them how to speak in public?” Learning how to speak in public is a skill—you have to teach it before you can expect students to do it for any purpose (sort of like learning how to read before you read to learn).
Name the elephant in the room: Public speaking is scary for a lot of people, and it gets a bad rap, which makes it even scarier. Be clear that you’re not going to ask more of them than they can do and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that everyone is successful (this is a good time to revisit your class norms or agreements).
Start small. They’ve already had a lot of experience speaking informally to a partner or small group. Now have them prepare something—a response to an academic question, instructions on how to do something related to your subject area in under a minute, one aspect of the curriculum that they’ve selected, anything that you and they know they can succeed at—and present that to their partner, then to a small group.
The choice to sit or stand at these levels will depend on your measure of their comfort. If you think some students will refuse to stand up and speak, start by having everyone do it sitting down, and then have them make the exact same presentation to the same group standing up. Next, if you think they’re ready, have them make it to a different partner and/or a different group.
A Growing Audience
Over time and with experience, students will gain confidence and skill. Then, and only then, are they ready to make that same presentation to the whole class. (You’re teaching a valuable lesson about practice here, too.)
The more public the presentation, the more risk you’re asking students to undertake. Bringing in outside experts, other classes, even parents, may simply be too much to ask of beginners, and forcing them into a situation that pushes them beyond their zones of proximal development not only is miseducative but will do serious damage to students’ trust in you as their teacher. Even if they succeed this time, they may not take a risk for you again.
By having your students focus on a single skill or disposition and practice it intentionally, in the context of your content, you’re helping them gain the building blocks for successful PBL.