Before the summer hits, Erin Murphy and I will be releasing our new book on project based learning, Project Based Learning. Real Questions. Real Answers. – Unpacking PBL and Inquiry. To say we’re excited about this release is an understatement. And, more information to come! #RealPBL
In the meantime…Over the next month or so, I’m releasing a five-post miniseries, PBL Problems, which addresses some of the problems I had when implementing project based learning, as well as some of the problems other educators have had and/or continue to have.
Here’s a look at the five posts/problems, all of which will contain excerpts from the new book.
- All of my students are creating the same exact product.
- My students aren’t getting along.
- I don’t know what to do while the kids are working.
- My students aren’t learning what I needed them to learn.
- Project based learning is so different from all my other teaching.
All of My Students Are Creating the Same Exact Product
While formulating our ideas during the planning of a PBL unit, we can rely on the three tracks of project based learning, which range from most restrictive to least restrictive. We can think of these tracks as a gradual release of responsibility, starting with Problem Track and ending with Open-Ended Track:
- Product Track – All students create a product(s) or contribute to an event, but there’s flexibility regarding how this is done so students can exercise their creativity to own the process.
- Problem Track – The project starts with a problem (usually, real world) that is either given to students or found by students. This approach is often referred to as problem based learning or challenge based learning.
- Open-Ended Track – Students are presented with the project’s High Impact Takeaways (also called enduring understandings), learning targets, and possibly an Umbrella Question (also called essential questions or driving questions), and told they can demonstrate their knowledge however they’d like (with maybe a bit more direction provided).
One track isn’t necessarily “better” than the other. For any given project, the track we choose to use can depend on our specific context. For example, even when we (and our students) are comfortable with the open-ended track, depending on what we want to accomplish, it can still be appropriate to use the product track. And yes, more than one track could be tackled during a PBL unit – students debating an issue (product track) in the midst of solving a problem (problem track) – but one track tends to predominantly drive the unit as a whole.
Project based learning is rooted in backward design or “beginning with the end in mind,” which calls for us to begin our planning by considering what we want to be our students’ main takeaways (High Impact Takeaways or enduring understandings) from the learning. In short, “the end” refers to what we want students to understand – not a specific product, not some flashy technology. And, there should be flexibility regarding how students arrive at their understandings.
However, here are three classic blunders we tend to run into:
- We're Product/Technology Obsessed – We’ve come across a cool product or cool technology and we just have to make it the focal point of the learning. We know we’re committing this blunder when toward the beginning of a project we tell our students, “Everyone is going to be creating and/or using [insert product or technology],” instead of, “Everyone is going to be learning [insert concepts].”
- We Overplan – We’ve created step-by-step directions to help to promote errorless learning to help to ensure everyone’s final product is showcase worthy. We know we’re committing this classic blunder when we distribute to our students overly detailed step-by-step directions that leave little room for error and little room for students to use their creativity to own the learning process.
- We’re Stuck – We’re now maybe proficient at the product track, but we’re stuck on this track, unable to transition to a model of project based learning that could be a bit more student-centered. We know we’re committing this classic blunder when our students start to believe projects are synonymous with products, and their excitement may even start to dwindle over the course of the year.
Overall, no matter the blunder, let's refer to this overarching dilemma as product based learning.
We'll address the classic blunders, one at a time.
We're Product/Technology Obsessed
My guess is that everyone, at one point or another, has committed this blunder (so, no need to get down on ourselves). Also, when dealing with shorter projects (e.g., a week or less), I’d argue we can justify focusing on a specific product and/or technology as long as we’re still looking for evidence of students hitting their learning targets. The blunder is when (1) we allow for product/technology obsession to become the norm, and (2) a longer project has all students having to demonstrate their learning in the same exact way.
One simple way to avoid this problem is to present our idea as one of several options, while leaving room for students to come up with ideas of their own. Note, this is different than distributing a “fun” menu of options. Rather than choices being made based on what’s cool or what’s easily accessible, choices should be made based on what students are trying to accomplish. For example, if students are looking to make a difference in the community, leveraging social media is a viable option. Meanwhile, if they’re looking to influence other students, they can potentially use the morning announcements or hang up posters around the school.
Another way to avoid this problem is to make sure we’re assessing (and possibly grading) the project based on what we want students to learn (learning targets) – not based on what we want them to do (the project’s directions), which promotes compliance. In other words: If our assessment tool looks like project directions regurgitated in another format, we’re doing it wrong. When assessment criteria is transparent, clear, and based on learning goals, both students and teachers typically feel more comfortable with students carving out their own paths in order to demonstrate their learning.If our assessment tool looks like project directions regurgitated in another format, we’re doing it wrong. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
Even with longer projects, there’s nothing wrong with all students creating the same product as long as they have room to exercise their creativity to make it their own. We can make room for this creativity by crafting our project’s directions with intentionality and/or by embedding student choice into the project itself.
Once we give our students overly detailed (possibly step-by-step) directions, we’ve let the cat out of the bag. Our students will probably know exactly what to do and inquiry will be non-existent. Instead, we can err on the side of caution by asking ourselves, “What do I need to give my students to maximize inquiry and creativity while ensuring an unreasonable level of frustration will not be reached?” Here the goal is to give students Goldilocks Directions – directions that aren’t too easy, aren’t too hard, but are just right. We want the majority of students to experience productive struggle. And, for those who are struggling (unproductively), additional directions can be filtered in, varying from student to student (or group to group) as needed. As students work toward learning goals, it is this productive struggle that is ultimately the main difference between learning that is hands-on and learning that is minds-on. (For the most part, our goal is the latter.)
Regarding student choice, with our project in mind, we fill out a T-Chart. The left-side, titled Teacher Choice, should contain the teacher choices that take place during the project. The right-side, titled Student Choice, should contain the student choices that take place during the project. Then, we can consider how some of these choices could be shifted from the left to the right. What can make student choice (and voice) so effective is (1) its simplicity, and (2) the fact that it is a “term” that doesn’t need explaining to educators, students, parents, etc. We can skip the what and get straight to the why and the how.
Our students are much more likely to develop project fatigue if every project has them creating some sort of final product, whether it be individually or as part of a group. We can avoid this blunder by using the problem track – a natural next step if we want students to better own the learning process.
The problem track allows for differentiation in approach, as the problem itself can be identified by the teacher or by the students. Optionally, the teacher may introduce a topic and ask the students to identify associated problems. In this instance, the class may decide to tackle one problem together, or the teacher may allow for each student or group to address their own problems.
Some examples from the problem track:
- Students’ desks are uncomfortable
- A local diner (a neighborhood favorite) needs remodeling
- Endangered animals need help to survive
Because it may be difficult for us to imagine how to plan for these types of projects, the steps of the design thinking process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test – give us a starting point that makes it easier for us to wrap our heads around project planning. More specifically, we can use these five steps as the backbone of our project’s directions.
At the same time, because we’re using design thinking within a school setting (as opposed to a startup in Silicon Valley), we need to add on elements of project based learning to turn this teaching and learning into a “full blown” unit. Some of these elements may include: connections to academic standards, High Impact Takeaways, an Umbrella Question, learning targets, an assessment tool (such as a rubric), etc. Think of project based learning as the shell that wraps around design thinking to make it “school ready.” In terms of literacy, we can think of project based learning as Writing Workshop and design thinking as the writing process.
In the End
As we work with students, a question we can regularly ask them is, “What are you learning and why are you learning it?” When answers relate to specific technologies or tools, products, following steps, or doing well on a test, the teaching and learning is perhaps in the wrong place. In contrast, we would rather have students’ answers relate to learning goals and how the learning is relevant to them on a personal level.
Product based learning is most likely a stage every PBL practitioner has visited at one point or another, which makes it a frequented location (but certainly not a destination) along the continuum of more authentic project based learning experiences. However, moving on from this location doesn’t always happen overnight, but rather through an ongoing, gradual process of reflection and refinement. So, in short, product based learning isn’t the problem; the problem is when we view this stage as the endgame as opposed to an entry point into something greater.
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- A Step-by-Step Guide to Project Based Learning in a Virtual World - March 23, 2020
- PBL Problems: I Don’t Know What to Do While the Kids Are Working #RealPBL - March 2, 2020
- PBL Problems: My Students Aren't Getting Along #RealPBL - February 24, 2020