Tuesday, June 25, 2013

(A few) Secrets of Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning is riding a surging wave of popularity that may be a pushback to the achievement culture that's been created by high stakes accountability testing. During President Obama's recent visit to Manor New Tech High in Texas he celebrated the power of their PBL approach. Spend much time in Twitter's #edchat thread and you'll get a heavy dose of #PBL.  Regardless of the reason I'm excited to see this movement take hold and am enjoying the opportunity to work with schools around the country on refining their PBL practice. But not all PBL is created equal. They may have Essential ElementsSix A's or a variation of characteristics as starting points but truly great project based learning environments feature more.

Culture Shift

via @khkamps BIE PBL World
While it is true that effective project based learning can occur in small pockets the cultural shift that occurs when educators shift their overall instructional approach to one of facilitation is truly powerful. No longer is the teacher the giver of knowledge or the controller of behavior. Instead of the underlying tension of compliance, student behavior is shaped by a cycle of inquiry that is academically engaging. Additionally when teachers embrace a culture of sharing and refining their work using tools like Critical Friends Protocol they take the power of accountability into their own hands and place administrators in positions where they can facilitate and support outstanding teaching. Highly evolved PBL schools have less of the traditional routines of a "normal" school day and more of the norms and expectations of productive workplaces. As schools and teachers begin their PBL journey it's absolutely understandable (and often recommended) when they take baby steps into the process with just a project or two a year. Actually when I work with schools I see it as part of my job to scale back teacher implementation in some cases. I would much rather have teachers do a limited project successfully than a more ambitious one and have it be a trainwreck. With that initial experience under their belt it's the evolution to highly functioning PBL teachers and students that makes for a school culture focused on deep teaching and learning.


Great project based learning is designed with student engagement in mind. Many a frustrated parent and teacher have complained of the short attention span of children but when students are engaged they have very little trouble focusing. Try tearing a kid away from an activity they truly love and this becomes quite apparent. As the Gallup Student Poll shows the decline in student engagement drops significantly as students become "educated". From the active excitement of elementary students to the displeasure of middle school to the outright anger of high school students we need to be asking this question: Why would we not design instruction in a way that engages students? The pitfall here is that we often design activities and lessons that we as teachers think should be engaging and then become frustrated when our students don't find it so interesting. I love supply and demand curves but my students, well not so much. What if we helped our students identify and problem-solve instances of cognitive dissonance? What if we allowed them to demonstrate their learning in ways that they enjoy? While this is a tough nut to crack I'm a firm believer that when we solve the engagement riddle the rest of the problems that we often face as teachers go away.

                               Great Questions

The art of great questioning is just that, an art. In the truest sense of craftsmanship refining this skill takes tremendous practice and sometimes leaves students frustrated. As teachers it's tempting to provide answers, and quite often students will plead for just that, but the power of leading student thinking through questioning fosters the type of critical thinking we're after. Outstanding PBL starts with a Driving Question that elicits interest and generates a multitude of student questions but it shouldn't stop there. As teachers and students evolve along the PBL continuum questioning becomes an integral part of daily activity. As they find answers new questions are generated, leading to new answers as the cycle of inquiry helps create self-evolving learners. Great inquiry is founded in divergent and open-ended questions with rich language that requires unpacking. Finding the "sweet spot" of productive struggle is sort of like Maslow's ideal of self-actualization, it's more of a journey than a destination.
Highly evolved teaching is a craft and an art where students and their work is our canvas. Releasing control and the focus from teacher to student is a liberating but scary step. As we refine our PBL practice there are more "secrets" to be revealed along the way. What kinds of hidden gems have you found in your journey?