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Project-Based Learning: A Case for Not Giving Up

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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I was talking with a group of teachers who are relatively new to project-based learning. Near the end of our conversation, one of them asked a question that took me by surprise: "When do we decide to quit?"

I asked her to elaborate. "Some students just aren't getting it," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to reach the end of the project and they won't know the content."

It seems her first project wasn't going quite the way she had envisioned. Her natural instinct: retreat to the familiar territory of texts, tests, and teacher-driven instruction.

I assured her that she wasn't the first teacher to encounter challenges with PBL. In fact, fresh in my mind was a recent post by an Australian teacher recounting her project-based learning "teething problems."

PBL 'Teething Problems'

On Bianca's Blog, Bianca Hewes describes the opening days of a project with her grade 10 students. It started off brilliantly. Students appeared to be deeply engaged in discussing the driving question that she had set before them: How could education officials redesign the high-stakes English test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today's world? To get them fired up, she shared a YouTube video featuring a rant by a college student called "An Open Letter to Educators."

She then challenged students to come up with policy recommendations and make their own YouTube videos. She promised them an authentic audience, including folks with the authority to influence decisions.

What happened next? Her blog continues:

"So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep. You guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn't collaborated despite having Edmodo. They hadn't done any research. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No."

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Bianca's initial reaction was to "take my ball and go home," as she puts it. Her students told her they were more comfortable with old-school instruction, and so she gave it to them. Desks she had arranged for group work went back into neat rows. Animated student discussions came to a halt, replaced by teacher lectures and rote note-taking. Quizzes proliferated. Netbooks went into storage. It was as if they had all been "banished to the cave," Bianca writes.

It didn't take long for students to notice the difference. They worried that they weren't really learning anything this way, except how to follow orders, cram for tests, and write fast. Could they give that project another try?

They could. But this time around, their teacher would be more deliberate about teaching critical skills such as teamwork and time management. She would use formative assessment tools to check in on their progress. She would be sure to have the right scaffolding in place so that students could get comfortable as self-directed learners, and get help if they needed it.

Gradual Release -- Not Retreat

Project-based learning can pose challenges for teachers as well as students, especially when both are new to this approach. As Bianca discovered, some project management skills may need to be taught explicitly. Formative assessment has to happen early and often, and a teacher needs to be ready with support for students who are struggling. Handing over responsibility to the learner happens gradually, not all at once.

Good projects -- like real-life challenges -- also teach us about persistence. Figuring out what to do if you encounter challenges is part of the learning experience.

In an insightful new book called Fires in the Mind, Kathleen Cushman explores what it takes for kids to "get really good at something." Researchers call this developing mastery. Cushman has discovered similar patterns and attitudes among teens who are driven to become architects or artists, rappers or rowers. Often, their expertise develops outside school. It may start with a spark that ignites their interest, but the path to mastery is long-term. A motivated teen with stick with it despite challenges, "because the hard parts connect to a result she can clearly visualize," Cushman tells us.

Supportive relationships also play a critical role for kids who are motivated to work toward mastery. And so does what Cushman calls "deliberate practice," in which kids gain new skills and knowledge through purposeful small steps.

In her interviews with these highly motivated teens, Cushman discovered that few of them expressed much excitement about the work they did at school. There was one bright spot, however. Interdisciplinary projects "stood out for them as a remarkable exception," Cushman reports. The same students who described feeling bored at school "caught fire when they were asked to take on challenging 'real world' projects as part of their academic curriculum." When they had opportunities to do projects, these students recognized a familiar-if sometimes difficult -- path toward mastery.

So, what was my short answer to that teacher who asked about giving up on a project? Please don't! But by all means, figure out why students are struggling and step in with the support they need to get back on track. And bring what you learn into your next project.

Reflective teachers like Bianca teach their students valuable lessons about learning from missteps and making mid-course adjustments. I'm willing to bet that her next project will be more successful, and that her students will gain some valuable life lessons along with a deeper understanding of important content.

Have you ever called it quits on a project? What have you learned -- the hard way -- about scaffolding student success? Please share your insights.

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Comments (41) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

tempest's picture

I really see the benefits of PBIL but giving up the control due to the accountability issue for standards based content is difficult. I am evolving!!!

John Kraljic's picture
John Kraljic
High School Engineering Technology, Falmouth, Maine

I would encourage everyone to read "Fires in the Mind" and more importantly try some of the activities with your students. As teachers we assume students can work together in groups and will automatically have the same passion for Problem Based Learning that we have; all of these things need to be taught or better yet, developed cooperatively with students. We also need to model what we expect from students and share in the excitement for the activity.

KenB's picture
3rd Grade Teacher

Sorry Bianca. I think back to my pre-teacher education and the first thing that always comes to mind is that a teacher needs to know his or her students' capabilities. I think that this is especially true when entering the realm of PBL. This sounds like a case of "biting off more than we can chew." I think that planning is the essential key to success in teaching a PBL. If "milestones" within a lesson are not being met than an inquiry lesson provides flexibility in readddressing the learning. Bloom points out that not all learners can adapt to certain teaching and learning styles and this needs to be addressed in planning a PBL. I think that if select students struggle with learning in a PB format that other methods, still involving inquiry can be integrated to assist those students needing differentiation.

Connie Hinely's picture
Connie Hinely
4th Grade Teacher, Savannah, Georgia

I have been trying to do a better job this year using project-based learning. This has been very challenging to me. Often I do feel like pulling the plug and asking students to revert back to text book studies. I have a dear friend who teaches with me. Fortunately she pops up just when I need that reassurance that this is a slow walk not a marathon. I must model perseverance if I expect this work ethic in my students. Feeling pressured by the standardized tests, I want to be certain students are learning at high levels. Using PBL will allow for this if I become able to manage, assess, and guide each of my students. This is very difficult; however, I know the end results will pay off if I do not get discouraged. With every challenge comes growing pains. I tell my students that the best way to learn is to fail, and then retry. This applies to educators also.

Julie Bautista's picture
Julie Bautista
Seventh grade science teacher from Guam

I do agree that we do not give up and try again if it does not work. Keep working on it. Oftentimes, we are not successful in the first try but never give up. Keep reading, take classes, watch video, talk to someone who has done it and then work on it again. Whatever we do, we are helping our students be more successful with their education and your contribution matters. You make a difference to our students no matter what.

Stacy's picture

NASA PBIL Participant

PBIL is a great way to get students involved in the curriculum and excited about learning. I too have gotten frustrated during the PBIL process and have wanted to give up, especially when a project that I have invested so much time into hasn't gone the way I expected. With that being said, if you stick with it, PBIL is a valuable experience to the students involved and truly does teach them much more than lecturing.

Joan Labay-Marquez's picture

Failure Is Not an Option.....
I can certainly understand and empathize with this situation; and sometimes fear of failure is difficult to overcome. I think the longer I do PBIL the more confident I will become and the less fearful I will be that things didn't turn out the way I had written them in my plan. It' going to be an exciting journey

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I will only argue that if the teacher (really mentor, certainly facilitator) is worried that things didn't go well or that mistakes / errors / failures happened, that teacher doesn't understand the power of PBL. IF those things DON'T OCCUR, the students are not being challenged enough or understand the importance of learning from those mistakes, etc.

PBILStudentLB's picture

It is easy to give up on a project and revert to our old ways. Most of us, if not all, have been guilty of this. I agree that self-reflection will help any teacher continue with PBIL. The PBIL experience is about persistance for both the teacher and students. I know that I will not get everything right the first time, but hope that by the second or third PBIL unit that I will have become accustomed to facilitating a PBIL that promotes learning.

kathleen fredette's picture
kathleen fredette
7th grade Science/Pre Alg Gifted/Honors

Something I struggle with is pre-judging some of my struggling students...making decisions about what a student can or can't do because they are (frankly) a 'low performing' student. I was really so amazed by some of my almost non-reading students (7th grade reading at about a 2nd grade level) who produced some amazing products and the true self esteem that grew from that project. And how much they got into it!! It really taught me a lesson about myself and my students.

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