The following is an excerpt from the eBook, #RealPBL Deleted Scenes, which contains excerpts that didn’t make it into the final draft of the book, Project Based Learning: Real Questions. Real Answers.
Background Information: The book’s Introduction was probably the most difficult part to write, which is why two of this eBook’s excerpts are from the Introduction. In the Introduction, we wanted to include a few reasons as to why project based learning should be prioritized, but we don’t want to alienate the reader by getting too technical too soon. This section, from the Introduction, is a personal favorite due to its emphasis on Reading and Writing Workshop. However, it was removed because (1) it could be confusing for those who aren’t familiar with workshop, and (2) it could turn away those who aren’t fans of workshop. Ultimately, a portion of this section was used elsewhere in the Introduction.
PBL Provides Context for Student Learning (Much Like the Workshop Framework)
In both of our school districts, Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop are used for the teaching and learning of literacy. Zooming in on the workshop framework, using narrative writing as an example, a typical instructional unit (unit of study) could follow these steps. As you read, even if you don’t use workshop, think about how these steps might parallel your experiences with project based learning or how these steps could transcend literacy:
- Through the collective analysis of exemplars, the teacher introduces the unit’s genre, narrative writing, to students. Amongst the discussion, she gives each student a handout containing the unit’s learning targets – what students should be learning and applying as they write.
- Over the next 4-6 weeks, the teacher engages students in a series of mini-lessons, lasting about 10-12 minutes each. Each mini-lesson focuses on a very specific aspect of narrative writing: writing a lead, introducing characters, inserting transitions, helping readers to visualize, etc.
- After each mini-lesson, students are given about 25 minutes to write in their writers’ notebooks; it doesn’t matter what they write as long as they’re personal narratives and students are working toward the learning targets. During this time, students can use what they’ve learned from mini-lessons to enhance their work. Also during this time, the teacher meets with students, individually and in small groups, to help them to move forward with their writing.
- As the teacher meets with students, sometimes she will notice many students are struggling with the same concept. She addresses the misconception by having the entire class stop their writing so she can teach (or reteach) the concept to everyone.
- Most lessons conclude with a 5-minute meeting, during which some students read parts of their work so everyone can learn from one another. Oftentimes the teacher will ask specific students to read certain excerpts to demonstrate what particular concepts look like in action.
- Over the 4-6 weeks, as students write in their notebooks, some pieces may resonate while others may fall by the wayside. The ones that resonate, about 2-3 for the unit, are taken through the entire writing process: revising, editing, publishing.
We tend to think about instructional approaches in isolation, and even though the workshop framework can be leveraged in powerful ways when teaching literacy, we usually don’t consider how this same framework can be applied to other subject areas. Nonetheless: Proven practices in one subject area can typically be used in others with the same success. For example, project based learning closely resembles the workshop framework – an actuality that is regularly an “AHA moment” amongst educators who are familiar with workshop but not necessarily project based learning. In fact, when designing project based learning experiences, we have heard educators refer to it as “Workshopping [insert subject area].”Proven practices in one subject area can typically be used in others with the same success. #RealPBL Click To Tweet
More specifically, workshop and project based learning have the following in common:
- Student work time is kept to a maximum, while direct instruction is kept to a minimum and used, when needed, to take students from where they are to where they need to be.
- Students generally work toward the same learning goals with flexibility regarding how to get there.
- There are planned opportunities for students to learn from one another.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, much like workshop, project based learning provides context for student learning – context that includes more than just a topic. After the topic is introduced, students continuously apply what they’ve learned to their projects and learning goals.
In project based learning this context is crucial as (1) it serves as the glue that holds the learning together, and (2) students develop a deeper understanding of content as they engage in productive struggle when applying their learning to their projects. Without this context, the direct instruction would have nothing to latch onto and therefore possess far less substance. As Katie Wood Ray (1999) explains in Wondrous Words:
We need units of study where our focus lessons over a period of time work together to build big, important understandings…Without units of study our focus lessons become a hit-and-miss series of bits of teaching, isolated sound bytes that don’t come together into larger, more lasting understandings. (p. 212)
A PBL unit comes with context that includes a topic, at least one project, and learning goals, and it also tends to include High Impact Takeaways and an Umbrella Question (which we’ll discuss in Chapter 3). However, too much learning only includes a topic. Here’s what such a unit may look like:
- Teacher introduces a topic, such as the three branches of government.
- Students are exposed to said topic through a series of lessons, which may or may not be distributed as a packet. As students learn, formative assessments help guide instruction.
- Students are tested on the information they learned from the lessons.
- Everyone moves onto the next unit.
While there are several problems with this approach, here are three to consider: the entire unit, or the majority of it, is laid out with disregard for the students on its receiving end – an eerily similar unit may even be taught again next year; unless students are in love with the three branches of government, there’s no incentive for them to learn the material other than to do well on a test; never is it clarified for students what they should know, understand, and be able to do as a result of studying the three branches of government. Therefore, the unit lacks true direction and feels as if the teacher is trying to cram a complex topic into inadequate instructional time by feeding students facts that they are then required to regurgitate.
Proven practices transcend subject areas. And we think students could benefit from schools and districts (1) establishing a definitive list of practices that should transcend subject areas (e.g., learning targets, effective feedback, student voice and choice, etc.), (2) defining these practices, (3) deciding what it should look like when these practices influence student learning (not necessarily teacher instruction), and (4) working together to collectively reinforce these practices.
- Project Based Learning: 3 Types of Direct Instruction #RealPBL - April 17, 2022
- Getting Started with Project Based Learning #RealPBL - April 11, 2022
- How Do I Lead Project Based Learning? – Evaluate Professional Learning #RealPBL (part 4 of 4) - April 3, 2022