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.
I Don’t Know What to Do While the Kids Are Working
One of the beautiful things about project based learning and inquiry are the opportunities for students to uncover new content on their own. Through exploration and problem solving, children make truly remarkable discoveries (many of which teachers will not foresee). We should not, however, assume students will naturally bump into all of the information we want them to learn. A teacher once told Erin he could not bring himself to embrace inquiry because he is “really good” at direct instruction. He believed his ability to tell stories and interact with students was his professional strength. Erin valued his transparency because it led to an honest conversation. Who ever said project based learning was void of storytelling and direct instruction? After all: Students can’t think critically about nothing.Students can’t think critically about nothing. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
Direct instruction, however, has developed negative connotations, especially amongst fans of project based learning and inquiry. Yet, in Visible Learning for Teachers (2012), John Hattie tells us, “One of the more successful methods for maximizing the impact of teaching and enabling teachers to talk to each other about teaching is direct instruction…often incorrectly confused with transmission or didactic teaching (which it is not)” (p. 65). In reality, didactic teaching relates to slow-paced lectures, and we need a bigger definition of direct instruction. Even in a learner-centered classroom, the teacher fills the critical role of content infuser, providing students new information to ponder, question, challenge, and learn.
Through our experiences, we know our students benefit when we strategically leverage direct instruction throughout our PBL units. More specifically, during project based learning, we have found direct instruction emerges in three distinct ways: proactive, reactive, and learning detours.
Proactive Direct Instruction
This instruction, generally done whole-class, can involve:
- Content the majority of students will need as background knowledge to engage in the project.
- Content related to common misconceptions.
- Content students will need to learn, but we’re not confident that the majority of them will uncover it as they work through their projects.
- Specific jobs, skills, or tools the majority of students will want to execute or use, but they need some assistance.
In all instances, we ask ourselves: “Will the majority of my students be better off if I simply ‘feed them’ this information ahead of time, or should I make them work for it?” If we think we’re going to end up with struggle that makes students unnecessarily anxious, not productive struggle that leads to deep learning, we proactively teach the content. To inform our decision making, we can consider: what we know about our students (pre-assessments can help), what we know about the content, and what we know about the project and how much time we’re willing to dedicate to it. Once we decide content is worthy of being taught, we try to teach it as close as we can to when students are going to need it – before or toward the beginning of the project, or during the project prior to students bumping into it. This is called just-in-time learning.
Reactive Direct Instruction
This is the crux of our differentiated instruction; it is when we are in the middle of a project and we recognize students need additional support. This instruction, which generally comes in three forms, directly relates to student conferences.
- One-on-one conferring helps us to meet a student’s unique needs.
- Group instruction helps us to meet a group’s unique needs during a group project, or during an individual project when several students are struggling with the same concept. (more efficient than multiple one-one-one conferences in which we would repeatedly say pretty much the same thing)
- Whole-class instruction can take place when the majority of students are struggling with the same content. (more efficient than multiple one-one-one conferences or group instruction in which we would repeatedly say pretty much the same thing)
The majority of the time, content will relate to the project’s learning targets. However, it may also relate to:
- Specific jobs, skills, or tools students want to execute or use, but they need some assistance.
- Group remediation, when students struggle to collaborate.
- Project directions, especially if we were accidentally unclear as to what we want students to accomplish.
If students know what they have to accomplish, they are more likely to take ownership of their learning. Of course, on their way to their goals they’ll probably take their work in directions that include their passions and interests (which may not be encompassed by academic standards), or they may stumble upon an unanticipated phenomenon or idea. The teacher can react in one of two ways: Student curiosity can be stifled when we reply with something like, “That’s not what we’re learning!” or students’ inquiring minds can be nurtured when we allow for them to investigate their questions.The nurturing of students’ curiosities supersedes the covering of curriculum. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
The nurturing of students’ curiosities supersedes the covering of curriculum. Therefore, as much as possible, we should allow for these learning detours either (1) during the project itself, or (2) outside of project time during something like Genius Hour. Of course, we only have so many minutes with our students. Consequently, there will be times a detour will just be too long, or we may feel the learning won’t be beneficial. When this is the case, it is helpful to have a parking lot for students to store, share, and possibly collaborate over their findings. Students posting their thoughts publicly validates their thinking, while also creating a platform for students to become inspired by the ideas of others.
In the End
When we made the jump to project based learning, we embraced it a bit too much, and for some time we looked down upon direct instruction. Nonetheless, we’ve learned some lessons as we’ve progressed through our careers. Here are two of them.
First: Let’s stop wearing progressive as a badge of honor. Our classrooms aren’t about us; they’re about our students. Flash in the absence of substance means students’ needs aren’t being met. This is our top priority.Let’s stop wearing progressive as a badge of honor. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
Second: When we infuse direct instruction into project based learning, our flash (progressive practice) becomes the substance, as this combination helps to create the optimal conditions for student learning.
In the end, if we’re not uncomfortable with who we were a few years ago, there’s a problem. So, even though we went through our stage of “direct instruction disdain,” it was necessary for us to endure in order to get to where we are now. And, in a few more years, we know we’ll look back at our current work and tell ourselves we can do better.
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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