Designing project-based learning (PBL) assignments opens up several decisions. The challenge that students will face, the assessments that measure their learning, the amount of voice and choice to offer, the calendar and length of the challenge—these are just some of the many facets of an effective PBL project.
As we design a project, we may have trouble really focusing it. It might be too big and get out of control in implementation or perhaps too small and not a true PBL experience in which inquiry abounds. These problems often come from lack of clarity in goals or from a struggle to capture and hone the purpose of the project. In my planning with teachers and in my own experience as a PBL practitioner, I find there is an essential component that centers a project and allows the rest of the essential design elements to fall into place. This component is the verb.
Why Focus on Verbs?
Verbs are powerful. As an English teacher, I would always have a lesson on powerful verbs. We would try to take verbs like to go and to say and come up with more powerful and specific verbs like to swoop or to exclaim to work on word choice and powerful writing. In fact, we had a ceremony where we buried “dead” verbs that we would no longer use in our writing. While silly, it helped students focus on their writing. Now, take this to a teacher level and and apply it to PBL.
Projects are supposed to focus on authentic problems and challenges, whether real or scenario-based. Verbs focus on action and doing. When we focus on verbs, we focus on not only what students will learn, but what they will do with that learning—the application of that knowledge.
Verbs can help us hone our purpose for the project. What do I hope that students get out of this project? What action are students taking? What change are they making? What are we discovering? All of these reflective questions can be folded into this: “What is the verb of the project?”
Weak Verbs, Powerful Verbs
A weak verb can make or break a project, or cause you to run into pitfalls. For example, the verb to tell runs the risk of students simply regurgitating knowledge. On the other hand, it could lead students to tell creative stories full of imagery and imagination. Similarly, the verb to teach could lead a student to simply stand and lecture, or it could lead them to design an innovative lesson. The problem with weak verbs is that they don’t, by themselves, push students to richer learning outcomes. Instead of tell, why not persuade? Instead of teach, why not advocate?
Here is an example of how finding the right verb can transform a project. A teacher needed students to learn about religions around the world in her social studies class. She wanted to make sure it was a project where students couldn’t copy and paste the content. At the outset, her project was too googleable—students could complete the work without any critical thinking or creativity, simply by using a search engine. She then thought about what students would do with this knowledge. What was the one verb that would capture the purpose? Was it to share? No. Was it to build awareness? No. Finally she landed on the verb to debunk—specifically, debunking stereotypes about world religions. She wanted students to choose what they would debunk as well as what product they might use to do so.
Through reflection and by picking the right verb, she came to the overall purpose of the project. Once she had the verb picked for her project, the driving question came naturally: “How can we debunk stereotypes that the general public has about world religions?” It was an easy plug and play. This is especially useful, as many teachers new to PBL struggle with the driving question. By focusing on the verb, you inevitably create a piece of the driving question for the project.
Teachers should pick verbs that are appropriate to their students and contexts. There are many lists of powerful verbs out there on the internet—like this one, for example—and they can serve as inspiration to make your project not only more challenging, but also focused on having students do something with the knowledge and content.
Can Students Choose the Verbs?
Students can be involved in the process of creating or cocreating the verb for a project. It all depends on your comfort level of working with students to create questions. You might present students with a topic as well as a list of verbs and ask them what the best verb for that topic would be. That might work with class projects or individual passion-based projects. In addition, you might have students create questions from verbs that fit under a larger driving question, so students might choose a path within the project to explore with verbs that are focused on action. You can support students with your own version of the Tubric, a tactile tool used to create questions.
When you design projects, consider using verbs as a focal point. They can help not only focus the project, but create action and ensure application of knowledge, as well as lead to a powerful driving question.