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Summer Is Prime Time for PBL Remodeling

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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A low angle shot of a young teen boy leaning against a large wooden clock, more than twice his size, using a wrench.

If this was the year you decided to give project-based learning (PBL) a try, you might need to catch your breath. Guiding students through a project experience can be demanding, especially when you're also building your own toolkit of PBL strategies.

So go ahead and take a well-deserved breather. But don't put away those project artifacts and journals just yet.

After the student experience is a wrap, invest time to reflect on your own learning as a PBL designer and facilitator. What were the bright spots of the project? Have you asked students for feedback? What will they remember most about their learning experience? What seemed hardest for them? Were they engaged all the way through? If not, can you pinpoint when and why their interest waned? Were you able to scaffold the experience so that all learners could be successful? What would you change if you were to do this project again?

Questions like these can set the stage for productive project remodeling. You might want to tackle a remodel on your own this summer or, better yet, team up with colleagues. With deliberate adjustments in your project plan, you can iterate on your design and guide students toward even better outcomes next time around.

Newcomers to PBL aren't the only ones who invest in project remodeling. Veteran PBL teachers often challenge themselves and their students to take bigger risks, think more critically, and learn more deeply in their next projects. Here are two resources to inspire you as you tackle project remodeling this summer.

Artful Teaching

Raleigh Werberger is no newcomer to PBL. Currently dean of students at Darrow School in New York, he designed successful interdisciplinary projects as a high school teacher in Hawaii. (Read his blog post, "Using Entrepreneurship to Transform Student Work," about a previous project.)

That doesn't mean he has all the answers about how to create experiences that put students in the driver's seat of their own learning. His PBL reflections caused him to ask tough questions: What's the right line between teacher direction and student freedom? Is it OK for students to swerve toward new questions -- unanticipated by the teacher -- that grab their curiosity? How open is too open?

In true PBL style, Werberger designed a project to help him discover the answers with his students. He and his ninth-grade students at Darrow School spent an entire school year on an interdisciplinary project about fast food. They didn't just study fast food as a way to understand global economics, agricultural practices, marketing, or health. They recreated their own version of the McDonald's Happy Meal by hand-raising livestock, growing crops, making paper for packaging, and serving lunch to a community gathering while curating the whole learning experience with an artist's sensibility.

Werberger has documented the project in a provocative book, From Project-Based Learning to Artistic Thinking: Lessons Learned from Creating an Un-Happy Meal.

To be honest, few teachers -- or schools -- are going to be in a position to tackle such an ambitious, immersive, open-ended project. But the questions Werberger explores, and the documentation he shares -- from his own journal and his students' blogs -- are worth careful consideration by anyone interested in maximizing the opportunities of PBL and its close cousin, design thinking.

Teachers wondering how to facilitate student-driven learning will find a good role model. For example, Werberger writes, "I cast myself as a learner first, and we all worked together on the problem of how not just to make this food, but how to give it meaning, and then how to tell you about it."

A key design decision was to have students approach the project as artists. Werberger didn't want to treat art as an add-on to the project, but rather to have students "consider art as a form of thinking. Artists ask, 'How does this affect me? How can I explain what I see to others?' The work that is created is an attempt to explore these questions, not to answer them."

Although the Un-Happy Meal Project takes open-ended learning to an extreme, students are not just set adrift. From project launch to their final exhibition, we can see the teacher artfully guiding and scaffolding the learning experience. Werberger describes in detail how he built a classroom culture of peer critique. He shares the prompts he used to get students to assess their own growth. Even when students are working on disparate tasks, they move to familiar rhythms because of established classroom routines. As he explains:

This formula -- the introduction of a thinking routine to stimulate observations and questions at the beginning of each new topic, the formulation of an inquiry-based investigation from those observations and questions, and the subsequent rounds of writing, critique, and rewriting -- essentially became the working formula for the rest of the school year.

Teachers diving into project remodeling would be wise to consider Werberger's questions for thinking about final products: Will students love what they have created? Where will this go when it's done? Will it make the world a better or more beautiful place?

Most Likely to Inspire

Since its release last year, the documentary Most Likely to Succeed has been provoking conversations across the country about project-based learning and the Deeper Learning movement. The film looks broadly at the problems facing American education, then offers High Tech High in San Diego, California, and its wall-to-wall use of PBL for instruction as a promising solution.

Writer-director Greg Whiteley doesn't sugarcoat the PBL experience. We hear from doubting parents and watch a student struggling to be a productive team member. We also get to see experienced PBL teachers in action, nudging their students out of passivity and into real-world problem solving. Many communities are combining movie nights with facilitated discussions to engage the public in thinking about education change.

As a resource to help with your own project remodeling, think about the teaching and learning strategies you notice in the film, such as Socratic seminars, authentic deadlines, and an emphasis on public exhibitions. Do you see ideas you might want to borrow to improve your next project?

Finally, if you want to know more about the Deeper Learning Network (of which High Tech High is a member), take a look at a recent research summary, Deeper Learning: Improving Student Outcomes for College, Career, and Civic Life (PDF).

Among the Deeper Learning questions to consider: How will your next project help students learn to think more analytically and creatively to design solutions to complex problems? How might you remodel a project to help students get better at monitoring and directing their own learning?

Please share your project remodeling ideas in the comments.

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