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Troubleshooting PBL

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Teachers know that no lesson plan is impeccable. The plan that led to profound discussion and whole-class engagement can later (even that same day!) fall flat, due to personalities, group dynamics, the time of day, or who knows what else. Yet teachers find ways to adapt, read the group, change their approach, and modify their plans in order to make lessons work in different contexts.

Checking the Temperature of the Room

There are a lot of misconceptions about project-based learning and how to best structure classes, units, and lessons within PBL environments. The good news is that there are many different PBL strategies that lead to success for students. The bad news, also known as reality, is that even the most thoughtful, carefully planned project can take a turn for the worse, requiring teachers to reflect and modify. PBL can reveal the profound nature of deep learning experiences, (check out Suzie Boss' posts for some great examples), but it can also expose what feels like an infinite number of ways for the learning to derail.

It's important for teachers to be observers, frequently checking what George Lakey taught me to think of as the temperature of the room. This means recognizing times when student engagement is lagging, when the work being produced is low quality, or when a project worked for some students but was not accessible to all. Rather than seeing these moments as failures, teachers can respond with reflection and action. These are the times when we learn and strengthen our practice.

When I feel frustrated with the project that I designed, with my students, or with the climate in my classroom, I step back to ask questions, reflect, and consider revamping my approach. These questions remind me of my goals and the potential for transformational school learning:

  1. Am I giving students opportunities to do work that matters?
  2. Do students have meaningful choices?
  3. Am I providing opportunities for students to be creative?
  4. Have I provided models for the work and clearly explained my expectations?
  5. Are larger projects chunked into pieces, and have students who missed checkpoints gotten the help that they need?
  6. Are students sharing work-in-process with the class in order to inspire others and help those who are struggling?
  7. Do students have access to quality resources that can push their ideas forward?
  8. Are students getting feedback from me and from their peers during the process?
  9. Can students' work be shared with a wider audience?
  10. Do students feel that their work is valued and celebrated?

A Classroom Example

Some of my students are beginning the process of creating education vision statements in the form of digital stories. They've already written about meaningful learning experiences, and together we read and discussed different ideas about schooling and unschooling. Next week I will set them loose. Here's that sequence of events:

  1. As a class, we will brainstorm questions for investigation.
  2. Students will research and create annotated bibliographies.
  3. I will share resources that I've collected, showing them sample digital stories.
  4. They will write scripts for their own stories and begin production.
  5. We will link each of the videos from a website that we'll build, and then share the final products widely.

Each of these steps will require extensive consultation, tinkering, and revision. There will without a doubt be conflicts, frustrations, and missteps. My plans will need to change, and I will surely encounter obstacles that I'm not anticipating. I'll persist and work to convey my faith in my students' abilities and their potential to produce high-quality products.

Despite the inevitable messiness of PBL, the project will succeed. Students will be doing work that matters to them, work that deserves to be out in the world. They will be motivated to share ideas and passions in creative ways, knowing that their voices will be heard.

P.S. Check out our collection of Education Vision Digital Stories.

What are your PBL troubleshooting strategies?

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman's picture
Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman
Adjunct Professor of Education

Hi Joshua. I love your list of questions for educators to explore. My favorite is examining if students are sharing work-in-process. I wonder if you can share more about this? What are some ways to help teachers help students do this.

I have been trying to revamp my use of student-centered learning and can definitely use your ideas presented here. I have outlined a few challenges (and possible ways around them) in s recent ASCD post. You may find if useful...

Thank you for providing a detailed look at PBL.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you for your comments Jennifer and thanks for sharing the link to your post.

One of the ways I have students share work in process is by starting class with a check-in. These check-ins can happen out loud for the whole group or can involve talking to a certain number of people as students mill around the room.

Depending on the situation, students can share an idea they are developing, a source they found, analysis they wrote, or some other relevant part of their work. These snippets help me understand students' progress and allow students to hear from their peers in order to move their own work forward.

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