Practical PBL: Four Tips for Better Implementation
Embarking on your first project-based learning unit is an exhilarating time full of big ideas and even bigger hopes about how this new avenue for teaching and learning will change your students' lives. As you begin to think about the intersection between the reality of your classroom and the promise of PBL, remember that PBL presents an authentic problem to the teacher, too!
One of the hallmarks of high-quality PBL is an emphasis on collaboration and shared responsibility. This is not easy for teachers to do when we are confronted with the reality of students' time commitments and differing levels of interest in the project. Such challenges present the teacher with an opportunity to think differently about how to motivate and engage her students. To solve this problem you will need to muster all of your creativity, all of your knowledge of students, and everyone you can find who is willing to talk about managing this classroom environment towards equity and high-quality learning. As part of your learning from others, here are some solutions that have worked in my classroom.
1) Choice is Critical
No one likes to be put in a high-stakes situation where they were never given any choices about who they'll work with or what role they'll play. But simply leaving the door wide open for students isn't guaranteed to push them toward the kind of growth we know they have in them. The good news is that this is not a zero sum game. I've given my students opportunities for input on their team, and they always get to choose the role they will play in the challenge. By accepting their guidance, I give them power over their situation in a way that powerfully affects the outcome.
2) Coaching Teams to Success
When you ask students to tell you about their best teaming experiences, they almost always cite an athletic team (if that is a part of their lives), and they do that for a reason -- on those teams, everyone matters. Great coaches draw out that interdependence and create opportunities for the group to celebrate success and bond with each other so that, when the game is on the line, team members trust each other. I work to bring that same atmosphere into the classroom, and that kind of relationship-building starts on day one. Once the challenge is underway, my role in class changes as I become their collaboration coach. I'm there to help them learn to clearly communicate their expectations to their peers, and also to help them recover when they don't live up to their commitments. These ongoing discussions and coaching sessions pull students out of hiding and give them backup to reengage with their peers and recommit to the task at hand.
3) Relationships Matter
After my first year of PBL work, I needed help and was lucky enough to meet an expert in my area who would look over my course. Her first comment was that my groups of four were too large for high-quality teaming. She advised living by the Rule of Three -- a three-member team means each team has three relationships being negotiated. I made that change in my classroom and found that teams of three became units able to function at a higher level more quickly, and they really needed each member present to make it work. Three students gave them enough variety of experience and ideas to sharpen their creativity and enable outside-the-box thinking. Also, it was easier for me to devise tasks and deliverables that gave each member something meaningful to contribute.
4) Know the Goal Before You Go
I use PBL to teach an AP class. At the beginning of my journey, it was hard to find a way to incentivize a process of learning that gave students the skills and relationships they needed for awesome projects. After the first year, I met with colleagues to develop a rubric that could help students understand from the beginning how we would assess their teamwork in a distinctly different way from how we assessed their academic progress. That tool opened up new opportunities for data-based conversations about progress that not only empowered students to demand more from each other, but also gave them the language to define their strengths and areas for improvement.