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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

PBL: Finding the Right Approach

Can you remember the last time you had a real “ah-ha!” moment? I had one of those moments a little over a month ago. I was at a training session for coaches and administrators where we were discussing strategies for how to best coach teachers, specifically Math instructors, in PBL. As we moved through each day of the training the attendees became increasingly aware of their own comfort and discomfort levels with PBL. At one point a participant shared how she realized there were two areas of content knowledge she needed to learn and understand: one was a Math content knowledge, and the second was a PBL content knowledge. To me this was a profound statement. I thought to myself, “YES! This woman is really onto something here. This is a way for me to explain what it means to implement PBL in a classroom.”

In much of my experience I’ve heard PBL described as an educational model, a philosophy, or a process for learning. It’s also been likened to a vehicle in which we drive instruction. I think these are true descriptions, but to hear this person identify PBL as its own content knowledge really clicked with me for a few reasons. First off I believe PBL, while becoming increasingly popular, is still severely misunderstood. Over the years as I have coached teachers and been coached myself I’ve come across some common approaches to PBL that have lead to its lack of success in a school or classroom. If we address PBL as a “content” area it sheds light on why these approaches don’t work. Let’s look at a few I’ve encountered and likewise named:

1.     The “Add-on” approach: One of the most common approaches to PBL I’ve come across is treating it like an additional educational initiative teachers need to add on to what is already occurring in their classrooms. This approach leads teachers to feel overwhelmed and under pressure. They believe that in their already full schedules there isn’t enough time for an additional initiative such as PBL. On top of getting in all of their standards, testing, and the other school initiatives, teachers are left feeling as if PBL is one more item on a checklist they must complete out of compliance.  In many cases, the school or district presents PBL in a manner that leads teachers to believe this. Instead of it being a “grass-roots” movement, it is laid out as the plan of attack or the educational platform to accomplish district/school goals. In this case, teachers aren’t having the chance to “buy-in”; they’ve been told that they already bought it. When it’s considered an “add-on” PBL loses its power to drive instruction and change education.  If you find yourself in this place, here are some next steps:
a.     Reframe your mindset on PBL. Check out this blog: Five Myths of Project-Based Learning Dissected and Debunked Look at what you are already doing in your curriculum/class/district and search for natural connections to PBL. You’ll probably find that it is a solid fit.
b.     Work with your administration and request that they provide time for teachers to collaborate on designing projects. Request already scheduled professional development to focus on additional PBL training and support.
c.      Use existing PBL resources: There are a plethora of PBL resources out there: Magnify Learning, New Tech Network, The Buck Institute for Education, Edutopia and many others offer a variety of vetted options.
2.     The “Cliff-Notes” approach: In this approach teachers/schools/districts may learn some of the PBL basics, but they aren’t fully committed to immersing themselves in PBL. In the same way a student might read the Cliff Notes of a book and then try to write an essay, they try to make an educational paradigm-shift with a surface-level knowledge of PBL. Staff members may read some articles or books on PBL. They may attend a webinar, a workshop, or session about PBL. They might even go to a PBL training provided by the school or district.  With the knowledge they have, they try their hand at implementing a project or two in the school year. In this scenario their PBL knowledge can be limited or incomplete, which leads to the mislabeling of “projects” as PBL. In other cases the PBL is only being done partially and without fidelity to the model, which also can lead to mediocre PBL lacking in rigor and structure. Without proper planning and knowledge of the PBL process, the projects fall apart and PBL is seen as a failed model. Furthermore, the lack of follow-up and ongoing training/support often leads to discouragement and nominal success for teachers and students alike.  Here are some next steps if you find yourself in this approach:
a.     Gain a deeper understanding of PBL and continue growing in your knowledge of it. Check out monthly PBL blogs from teachers and students who are immersed in PBL. Consider attending more training sessions or shadowing at a school where PBL is fully implemented.  
b.     Work with your administrator to see if there are resources/time to do additional PBL training. Create a follow-up plan in your school/district for how PBL practice will continue.
c.      Take time to properly plan projects. There are a variety of Project Planning Forms out there that can help you with the planning process. There are several housed on the Magnify Learning website under PBL Resources.
3.     The “Lone Ranger” approach: In this situation, teachers have come across the ideas and concepts of PBL and truly want to put it into practice. These kinds of teachers are often the ones who are pioneers of PBL in their school or district.  They are taking their own time and resources to learn more about how to do PBL well. They are committed to doing PBL with fidelity, but without further support from administrators and peers it becomes a tiring if not lost battle. They don’t have continued support or follow-up on their implementation of PBL nor do they have other teachers to share their PBL experience with. Often their district has too many other demands that don’t allow for them to do PBL fully. Without support their PBL attempts can be discouraged and even squelched. If this describes you, here are a few next steps:
a.     Seek out administrators/coaches who would be willing to offer you support in your PBL practice. 
b. Find teachers in your school/district or another school/district who have implemented PBL successfully. Find some collaboration partners who can support you.
c.     Become PBL Certified! This process allows you to have ongoing support as you work through the elements of a project. Check out PBL Certification.
4.     The “Cafeteria line” approach: In this approach some of the more palpable elements and key components of the PBL model are adopted, but not the entire model. So a district, school, or teacher may have agreed to do PBL, but they leave some of the crucial elements of healthy PBL model out. For instance a teacher could be implementing PBL, but they don’t ever include a community partner. Or students are doing PBL, but the teacher makes all of the decisions leaving out student voice and choice. In other cases, the PBL project is a made up scenario and lacks authenticity. The elements of the PBL model that are more appealing or easier to accomplish are adopted, while the less appealing ones are ignored or discarded.
a.     Commit to a PBL model/process and stick to it with fidelity! The 6 Steps Problem Solving Process provides a solid framework for doing a project. It can be found under the Magnify Learning website under PBL Resources.
b.     Use the 6 A’s Project Design Rubric. Check out this blog: The 6 A’s of PBL Project Design.

Each of these approaches reflects a deeper misunderstanding about PBL. When students approach their courses in any of these ways, they usually aren’t successful nor do they reach their full potential. So we really shouldn’t expect it to be different with PBL implementation. This is where the concept of “PBL content knowledge” really comes into play.  Content knowledge must be learned and skills must be practiced for successful application to take place. I say PBL is a type of content knowledge for a few reasons. It is a methodology that must be studied, learned, and applied. It requires a certain kind of mindset and way of thinking as well as a skills set to implement it. It has its own vocabulary i.e. rubric, driving question, entry document, group contracts, Know/Need to Know, benchmarks and the list goes on.


If teachers, schools, and districts want to adopt and implement PBL with success it needs to eventually become a full immersion experience.  Learning Spanish in a high school class isn’t the same as being dropped for 3 months in the middle of Madrid, Spain to learn it. In the same way learning about PBL isn’t the same as fully immersing in it and implementing it. PBL becomes the “conduit” for teaching your standards and skills. You learn and then keep learning the content on a deep level. You get training and continued support to implement the concepts. You regularly apply the skills and concepts in the classroom. You continue reflecting on and refining your practice. It’s not an add-on to what you’re already doing; it becomes what you do. It’s not accomplished by skimming through a few PBL resources; it becomes a deep continual practice. It’s not meant to be done alone; you need support and collaboration partners. PBL is the full delicious meal; not a tray of a la carte options. If PBL is approached as a type of “content” (and I believe it is) then the manner in which it is learned and applied cannot be haphazard or half-hearted, it must be intentional and steadfast.



Monday, January 23, 2017

Back to the Basics: Self-Evaluating Projects

 It’s a new year, and new years mean fresh beginnings. I like the start of a new year because I feel as if I’m getting a reboot similar to the “restart” on my computer. It’s an opportunity to look at my professional practice, see what I’m doing well, and modify my weaknesses. The flip side of the New Year’s coin is that it can make me feel a strong sense of pressure and even anxiety to meet my goals. In my professional realm, I start to wonder how I will get everything done before the school year comes to a halt. When I feel this way, my natural inclination is to go into survival mode and close myself off to anything that will require even more energy from me. In reaching this point, I realize the need to simplify my life and get back to the basics. If I can do a few things well and with fidelity then I can experience success alongside my students. In the spirit of getting back to the basics, I think through my main objectives and goals for my students. Here are a few questions that help me with refocusing:
·      What do I want to accomplish with my students this year?
·      As a qualified and competent professional, what do I believe is best for them?
Since I operate my classroom with a PBL model and philosophy, I then think through my PBL practice:
·      Why do I practice the PBL model?
·      What are the elements of PBL that make it valuable for my students?  
As I dive into the semester, I have the opportunity to shed some light on my projects and make sure I’m staying true to the model. I look at it as if I have a microscope on the project or as if I’m doing a project dissection. I think through the key elements of a project and evaluate whether or not my projects embody those. It helps me to do a review of those elements and ask a few questions about each one in relation to my projects:
·      Driving Questions- If I’m doing PBL well, then each project needs to have an essential question, which helps guide students through the project and gives them a purpose for completing it. Here are some questions to ask:
o   Do I have a clear driving question for each project?
o   Is the driving question challenging?
o   Is the driving question engaging?
o   Is the driving question authentic and addressing a real problem?
·      Standards- I have to hit my core standards and skills, and therefore my projects must be designed around my standards.
o   Have I clearly defined the standards and skills that I am going to address in each project?
o   Have I appropriately grouped standards and skills together so I can teach them in each project?
o   Will my end products allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the content standards and skills?
·      Essential/Employability Skills-With each project, I want to reiterate and give students opportunities to develop the employability skills (21st century skills) they need for future careers.
o   Am I giving students opportunities to develop collaboration skills through grouping?
o   Are my projects offering students voice and choice and the ability to be creative?
o   Are my students learning work ethic and agency by pacing themselves and meeting deadlines in my projects?
o   Do my projects require critical thinking and problem solving?
o   Do my students have the opportunity to develop communication skills?
·      Community Partners: I want to make sure my students are engaging with the community and interacting with adults in professions related to their projects.
o   Does each project enable students to have some form of an adult interaction?
o   Are my students learning about real problems in the local, national, and international community?
o   Are my students engaging with people who are in professions related to the content they are studying?
·      Benchmarks/Scaffolding: I also want to make sure I’m giving my students plenty of support throughout the project.
o   Have I created benchmarks for each of my end products?
o   Am I scaffolding each of my benchmarks to help students meet them?
o   Am I giving students ample time and in class support to meet benchmarks?
o   Am I doing formative assessments that allow students to improve their products/work?
·      Rubrics- Each end product should have a rubric that allows my students to see how they are being assessed and allows me to communicate expectations for the project.
o   Have I created rubrics for my end products that include the specific standards and skills I need to assess?
o   Are my rubrics student-friendly?
o   Do I regularly reference and have students use the rubric throughout the project?
o   Am I using my rubrics to clearly communicate my expectations to students?
As I map out the semester and work through my projects, I want to ensure that I’m doing PBL with fidelity. If I do it well, then not only will I be able to meet my standards, but also my objectives for my students. Honestly, at the end of the day if I do PBL well then other school-wide objectives and district initiatives are also met. It’s a win-win for everyone.



Monday, December 12, 2016



Let’s Take a PBL Pause

Being immersed in a Project- Based Learning environment can be, um, taxing, sometimes. Asking kids to manage projects in every class is a lot to ask. Sometimes, we all just need… a little break.

The brilliant Veronica Buckler and I co- facilitate a Global Science Perspectives class, which is an integration of English 9 and Environmental Studies. We recently had such a break (well, sort of.)

Nearly every ninth grader at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School is also enrolled in World Civilizations, and we saw an opportunity to make a cross- curricular connection, while also taking a “PBL Pause.” The book Life of Pi struck us as a very appropriate book for our freshmen to read, both for the religious exploration on which Pi embarks and also for the immersive nature experience and adventure that he has. Given that it’s also a fairly challenging book, it seemed to us that we should focus on the literary elements, vocabulary, and reading comprehension of our students, while using the book as a learning tool for a project that was happening in their class next door.

In World Civilizations, students went on a “deep dive” into world religions where they explored and refuted misconceptions about a religion of their choice. All of the work culminated in a gallery of work that was an engaging collection of “museum pieces.” Additionally, students hosted an interfaith panel discussion, where persons of many faiths addressed student questions about how their religious beliefs impact their daily lives and how they impact society. It was a brilliant demonstration of civil discourse among persons whose beliefs about religion may differ, but not their belief that we all need to accept and respect one another.

Back to the point, though: even in an immersive, wall- to- wall PBL environment like ours, it is important to occasionally pause from project work and just get up to our elbows in traditional literacy work. Much has been discussed over the years about how best to incorporate literature into PBL. For many years, I was of the steadfast belief that any book selected needs to have a clear thematic tie to the project and should serve the role of helping students conceptualize the big “so what?” of the project. I do still believe this to be an important and valuable approach. Sometimes, though, the selection of books is contrived or forced into a project where it may not belong. It is a mistake to use a book in a place where it does not belong, don’t you think?

Other times, we just need to read a really good book, because it will open students’ eyes to The Classics, exemplary modern literature, or just a title that they might not normally choose for themselves. Especially if those titles are of a higher reading level or use complex literary devices, it may be of value to have, as a goal, to first and foremost, read the book to bolster literary skills.

In our recent project, we had the chance to use Life of Pi for both purposes. In GSP (the English 9/ Environmental Studies course) we read to comprehend and gain insight (how can Pi possibly be a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim???) as well as to explore the rich symbolism present throughout the book. In World Civilizations, students dug into religious tenets, history and societal impact, with that work culminating as described above.

New Tech Network Literacy coach Alix Horton, whom I’ve revered during my own PBL journey, has been studying how best to use literature in PBL for years. She offers a potentially broader definition of what PBL really is and asks the vital question, “What do people in the real world do when they read this type of literature?” In some cases, the answer is that they apply the lessons learned in the text to solve a problem, gain empathy, or apply the author’s techniques or insights to the creation of their own literary (or other) work. Other times, the answer is that they are strictly reading for pleasure or to become an informed participant in a larger dialogue. No matter the instructor’s goals for what students take away from a particular book, reading always has an authentic purpose. There are a lot of reasons to read.  All of them can be tied to the successful completion of a PBL project, albeit some more directly than others.

The directness of that connection may influence whether or not we choose to make it an integral part of a project. Sometimes, it is an excessive stretch to fit a particular title into a curriculum if the goal is to do it in a project- based mode. I think there are three potential takeaways from this fact. The first is to rethink the titles teachers use with students. It could be time to find alternatives that fit well into the context of a project. The second (and the one to use if you are inextricably “married” to a title) is to use the book in a more traditional approach, especially if students will need more support to understand the book. Finally, students can self- select books to read on their own. These might have a project connection. They might not. In the end, the teacher must decide if that matters or not.

I have to say that our recent Life of Pi experience was a good for me as it was for the students (most of whom really liked the book, by the way.) Students interacted with the book in many ways. We did a RAFT assignment (Role/ Audience/ Format/ Topic,) give students many options to demonstrate their understanding of Pi’s religious coming of age; later we did a “Bingo” assignment where students again had many options to demonstrate their interpretations of the symbolism in the book. Both had a certain “project feel” while still being somewhat more traditional in nature. This step- back into a more supporting role for the World Civilizations project was not only a welcome change of pace, it was also a pragmatic solution that met a need we had, and was a great opportunity for cross- curricular collaboration.

In previous blog posts I have emphasized the need for balance. Teachers who are new to PBL are apt to become overwhelmed with the amount of planning that a good project requires. Even seasoned PBL facilitators can run themselves into the ground if they try to make everything their students do tied to a project. Even worse, the mindset that all things must be PBL, all the time, can cause us to force material (like certain works of literature) into a space where it might not belong. Don’t feel like you are cheating if you give yourself and your students a “PBL Pause;” you might, in fact, be doing everyone a favor.