It might feel counterintuitive, but in many ways the spring of 2020 was an opportune time to launch into a rigorous project. While the nation’s school system was confronting an unprecedented disruption at mid-year, students were well-prepared to apply the knowledge they had already gained to a hard problem of their choice. Well-designed projects allowed them to work independently at home in a way that was engaging and provided continuity of learning.
What about this year? Projects are still a good way to motivate students during challenging circumstances, but we need to take care so that learning actually takes place. How can we use what we know about the science of learning to design projects that truly work?
A starting point: While some see PBL as part of a vision to remake the American school, it’s not always an efficient way to impart core knowledge and skills. Direct instruction, which involves a lot of radar pings and low-stakes testing to determine how students are doing—followed by more instruction and practice based on any knowledge gaps you find—is more effective in that regard. I know this is tipping over a sacred cow, so take a look at this academic paper, this article, and this blog.
Psychology professor David Daniel’s insights can help us navigate the terrain between learning core skills, and beginning challenging new projects. Daniel says that the goal of learning should be to create knowledge that is durable, usable, and flexible: durable far beyond the length of your course; known well enough to be actually usable by students; and flexible enough that they can use it in new contexts. Once core concepts are engrained, that’s when projects can really shine—it can be where durability, usability, and flexibility are built, where true learning takes place.
PREPARE STUDENTS FOR YOUR (REMOTE) PROJECT
Project-based learning exposes gaps in student learning, so use this checklist before starting a PBL unit, especially at home:
1. Get them thinking about their prior thinking: Find out what prior knowledge, skills, stories and interests students have before starting a project. Do not assume they know the required materials—find out. Use surveys and formative assessments. Show images, video clips, or quotes that prompt discussions.
2. Build core knowledge and skills: For any gaps in knowledge, use direct instruction—concrete examples, stories, and analogies. Set typical questions and walk students through model answers. Deliver material in a small chunk size with frequent, in-lesson formative assessments to check understanding as you go.
3. Keep consolidating: Use retrieval practice, spaced practice, and self-explanation in the days and weeks after material is first learned to help store key knowledge and skills in long term memory—which reduces cognitive load when students start the project. All practice should be low- or no-stakes.
4. Practice academic independence: Move students from guided practice (in-person Zoom call or videoed lesson), to independent practice monitored by you (students working independently while still on Zoom with you, or working asynchronously but able to email you with questions), to truly independent practice (submitting a short low- or no-stakes assignment to you before the next class).
5. Do a final check for knowledge: Determine if students are ready for the project with a final, short formative assessment. For example, you can create a five-question, short-answer quiz of key facts and skills that students need to know for the project (not multiple choice). The results might reveal that some students need a quick practice assignment before they start the project; others might need 10-15 minutes of targeted reteaching to fill in gaps.
CONNECT PROJECTS TO PURPOSE
Increasingly, research shows that a clear sense of purpose and relevance increases student motivation, pushing them to dig deep to complete a challenging project.
1. Find the right time: Read the room—online, you can ask students to fill out a quick form or participate in a poll—and ask your class whether they are ready to start exploring the kinds of big questions that projects involve. Students might be exhausted from thinking deeply about these issues and need a break from them, and school can provide that too.
2. Make connections: If you’re ready to start, there are plenty of big issues facing the world right now: a global pandemic, enduring issues of race and equity, and climate change, to name just a few. Have your students find connections between the things they’ve learned in your class and these real-world issues.
3. Practice empathy: It’s rule number one in the world of new product development: Solving problems means understanding intimately the people who might benefit from the solution. Keep in mind that not all problems worth solving are global in scope. Look for issues that need to be addressed in your local community, and explore ways that your students can talk to community members, over Zoom or phone during the pandemic, about how the problem affects them.
4. Include elements of choice: Let students choose the problem they address, within constraints. Setting Goldilocks constraints is crucial—not too tight, not too loose. Refrain from too much choice, or choice too often, as this can freeze learning.
MAKE PROJECTS HIGHLY COLLABORATIVE (AND SOCIALLY ENGAGING)
One way to boost student engagement is to take advantage of the inherently collaborative, social problem solving at the heart of project-based learning.
1. Prepare your collaborative tech tools: First, to make sure students are productive, take the time to teach your students how to use the tech tools you’ve settled on. Then, use breakout rooms on video chats, group texting, discussion forums on your LMS, and online whiteboards such as MURAL and Padlet to provide the means for students to collaborate on their projects.
2. Support executive functioning: Projects require lots of independent work and place a heavy demand on executive functioning skills. Be sure to set up very clear objectives and scaffold skills like planning, choosing strategies, self-monitoring progress, making adjustments, and determining when you are done.
3. Let them be kids: Allow your kids to simply be kids at times, and enjoy each others’ company. Don’t underestimate the importance of building in social interaction into your class to make this year sustainable.
4. Have a way to bring them back: Make sure you have an agreed-upon way to bring everyone back to attention if students are starting to stray. Establishing rituals and routines helps you let students have the freedom to explore.
5. Establish roles and goals: Cracking the “one person does all the work” problem is hard. Setting clear roles for group members can help, and assessing students based on their discrete, defined contributions can create clearer accountability. Rotate roles throughout the year, though, to prevent students from limiting themselves.
KEEP EQUITY CONCERNS FRONT-OF-MIND
Projects should not be a measure of whether your parents have a 3D printer in the basement, a Masters in Fine Arts, or a team of highly skilled tutors at their disposal. This is especially important during distance learning, where students have vastly different home experiences.
1. Audit your thinking: Before you start your project, make sure that there’s equity in prior knowledge—does everyone know what they need to in order to succeed? If not, teach it. Also evaluate your project plan to determine if it makes unfair assumptions about access to resources. You might ask students directly if they have access to all the materials they need, and adjust your project if they don’t.
2. Make time in class: If all of the project work is after school hours, some students will inevitably have more time and resources. Put class time aside for projects so it’s the students doing the work, not the parents—and so that working students, or those with other family responsibilities, are not unfairly disadvantaged.
3. Provide real-time feedback: The research shows that clear, encouraging, specific feedback during learning is highly beneficial—and students must get a chance to act on the feedback they receive or it is wasted.
4. Incentivize revisions: If you are giving a final grade, make acting on your feedback—iterating on and improving their work—part of the student’s grade.
MAKE PROJECTS TRANSFORMATIVE
In every school, there are some transformative projects that endure long after students graduate. Ask an alumni of St. Andrew’s, where we teach, who they interviewed for their junior year Oral History Project, which often ends with a 60+ page bound product, and they can almost all recall their interviewee and details of their story. Ask the same student who was the “Great Compromiser” in American history and they are less likely to recall that answer (even though our history teachers examine Henry Clay in great detail).
Great projects can define a year and transform a life. They develop attitude and character as well as knowledge. They are the crucial step in building durable, usable, and flexible learning. They can be effective summative assessments or demonstrations of mastery. They are the things we remember ten years after we graduate. We should not be thinking about “if” we should elevate our PBL into an equitable school experience that helps all students’ learn, but “how” and “when.” And to make PBL equitable and to make PBL great, the “how” must be informed by the science of learning.