I want to do PBL, but how do I get started?
In fact, since Erin and I published Hacking Project Based Learning, this is the question we have heard most frequently. So, here are two painless PBL entry points.
1. Teacher Choice
Two natural starting points for PBL could theoretically be (1) working to establish a culture of inquiry and creativity in your classroom, or (2) determining what you want students to know, understand, and be able to do, and then working backwards from there. However, even though these two pieces should (ideally) be in place prior to students officially engaging in a PBL unit, teachers can pretty much start anywhere when getting their feet wet with PBL. Just because a process is somewhat linear doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be initially learned and implemented in such a way.
As Erin and I declare in Hacking Project Based Learning:
“The more we have familiarized ourselves with PBL, the more we have come to realize it is a series of best practices joined together.”
Some of these practices include: rethinking learning spaces, explicitly teaching collaboration skills, facilitating student self-assessment, providing effective feedback, and student reflection and publishing. And, every one of these practices (and more) can be leveraged as a PBL entry point, with each participant deciding where to begin based on: his or her comfort level, student readiness, available resources, time of the school year, etc. Once teachers are skilled at a few PBL components, then they can work on stringing them together in the “proper” order.
Often times, teachers are already implementing one or more of these approaches and consequently they have jumpstarted PBL without even knowing it. Chances are, if you’re working with your students to become problem solvers and independent learners, you’re already on your way to making PBL a reality in your classroom.
Project based learning is nothing more than an inquiry-based unit. So, it makes sense to first become comfortable with teaching inquiry-based lessons prior to transitioning to designing multiple inquiries that work together to create a PBL experience.
While the shift to inquiry can be intimidating for both teachers and students, a natural starting point is to rethink the order of our lessons. More specifically, we can always consider moving any direct instruction/explanations as far back as possible (which Dan Meyer beautifully illustrates in this video, “Khan Academy Does Angry Birds”).
Much of the time, when a lesson begins with direct instruction or an explanation, the inquiry is sucked out of the learning as the students then know exactly what to expect and do. For example, in this science experiment I used to do with my students, each group was charged with creating a simple electrical circuit to get a bulb to light up. Now, one approach I could have taken would have been to show my students exactly how to make a circuit, and then they would have been able to replicate my actions without a problem. However, by simply providing my students with directions and materials, and allowing for them to engage in productive struggle as they tried to light up their bulbs, they developed a deeper understanding of how simple circuits work. And, we held off on hammering home the features of a simple circuit (direct instruction/explanations) until after students had uncovered them on their own.
Think about how this same “formula” can be applied to other subjects/lessons, such as students writing a narrative essay. Rather than first telling students what an effective narrative involves (through direct instruction), groups of students can first analyze exemplars to uncover their quality features. Then everyone gathers as a class for the direct instruction to make sure all students are on the same page before beginning the writing process.
In the End
Educators are usually surprised when they realize getting started with PBL isn’t all that difficult, there are multiple ways to get started, or they’ve already gotten started and just don’t know it!
So go ahead and find your entry point! And if you already have, dig in deeper!
Which entry point resonates with you? How did you get started with project based learning?
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