Monday, July 20, 2015

Back- To- School PBL Curriculum Map Checklist

 My sister- in- law, a kindergarten teacher, posted this clever and oh- so- true quote several weeks ago…

"Teachers are solar powered. They recharge in the summer."

Summer can work wonders. We garden, ride bikes, sleep, hang out with our kids, and…. we work.

I think that the most important work that teachers do in the summer (especially late summer) is reflect. What were the successes? The failures? How can I get better? What do I want to try this year?

And now, alas, summer’s almost gone.
When it’s time to put that reflection into action, the document that I pull up first is always the curriculum map. 

While curriculum maps are nothing new, they do have a different look and feel in PBL. In short, a PBL Curriculum Map has a row for each project or unit and columns for topics, driving questions, standards, approximate duration, potential community partners, project deliverables, and benchmarks.

It’s important to note that many of the details (i.e. scaffolding activities, entry event format, assessment pieces) will be addressed along the way in the school year. Some, though, need preemptive attention to make sure that you don’t a) run out of time, b) go crazy or c) decide you hate your curriculum in the middle of the year.

Here’s a back- to- school curriculum checklist for the PBL educator.

1.       Take a fresh look at your Driving Questions.

These are the bedrock of each project or unit that students complete. Driving questions are, by definition, broad and holistic questions that can only be answered with deep inquiry; that is to say, they are not yes or no questions or ones that begin with “what,” “when,” or “where.” They are also not specific to any one scenario or situation but are instead adaptable and

As an example, my AP Biology students will do a project where they analyze the impact of invasive plant species on our watershed and propose solutions. The overall topics are ecology and evolution, and while I may or may not choose to do this project again or even every year, my driving question for this project is constructed in such a way that give me the flexibility to choose.

           A non- example:

What are invasive species and why are they bad for ecosystems?

If this were a driving question for a project, that project might be over in 20 minutes. It’s not deep, requires no inquiry other than a Google search, and isn’t broad enough to encapsulate all of the topics of ecology and evolution.

A better, but still inadequate, example:

How do invasive plants impact the Haw Creek Watershed and what can be done about it?

This isn’t an awful driving question because it’s still fairly open- ended. It would require plenty of research and investigation. But it’s not a good driving question because it’s too context- specific. There are plenty of other facets of ecology and evolution that do not fall under the umbrella of this driving question. Therefore, it’s out.

The winner:

How do ecosystems exist in a state of balance, and how do disruptions to that balance affect species in the short and long term?

This broad stroke carries enough weight to drive a curriculum for an extended period of time (in my case, possibly a full quarter.)

The important thing here is that, from a planning perspective, having a set of good driving questions will help you budget your time spent on each topic, feel confident that you’re focusing on the right stuff, and give your course/ curriculum the year- to- year stability and consistency that it needs.

2.       Reexamine the logic of your sequence.

A “perfect” curriculum map would have all of the topics and skills presented in such a sequence that each project belongs precisely where you have placed it in the year. That is, each topic or skill should serve as a building block for what comes next in such a way that your curriculum is constantly “spiraling up”; in essence, this means that because each topic is a building block for future topics, it is revisited throughout the course (albeit in different ways and probably not necessarily re- taught.)

Naturally there are other factors at play, too. We do ecology in the fall because it’s still warm out and it would be immensely disappointing to do ecology exclusively indoors. Maybe there’s a cultural event like Ethnic Expo in October that would be a great focal point, celebration or curricular connection and you’d like to build a project to fit in with that event. Those factors are important, but are secondary to the logical placement of topics in a sequence. We all have done projects where we realize, often too late, that there were skills or topics that needed to come earlier or later and think, “Wow… how much better would this have been if the students had already learned how to do scale factors going in to this?” More important than fall weather for doing ecology and evolution is the fact that these are topics that are both foundational and broad; they are implicit to the rest of the curriculum; therefore, they come first.

3.       Check for round pegs being forced into square holes.

I had a conversation with a middle school science teacher earlier this summer who was implementing cross- curricular projects with her teaching team. The issue she was having was that there were some projects where her topic had to take a back seat to language arts and math (she had too little content), and others where she was super crunched for time to deliver a lot of science in too little time.

We looked at her standards next to her curriculum map and it seemed that not only was there an opportunity to take some of the pressure off of her time in the time- crunched project, but in fact, some of the content fit better into a different project (the one where she didn’t have enough to do with her kids.) A win- win resulted! She would have a better and more logical placement of content in her team’s curriculum.

Another peer had done a cool thematic project, also a cross- curricular one, where students designed and tested their own water filters while studying The Lost Boys of Sudan. She had included broad standards about global weather patterns and ocean currents in a project where all students really needed to know about water was a bit about its chemical makeup. While technically she had included “water standards,” they were non- essential and forced into a project (because, let’s be real… we’re expected to get them all in.) Nonetheless the conclusion we reached was that they needed to be taken out and given a more meaningful and authentic context (i.e. write a different driving question and design a different project.) It was indeed a good experience for the students and should stay… but it should be executed differently (in her case, social studies has more curricular ties to language arts than science did, it was decided that a proposal be made to her team to move it.)

When standards are forced into projects, things get weird. And with all things education, if it’s even remotely confusing to you, it will be downright baffling to students.

4.       Evaluate the impact of community partners.

The inclusion of adults other than teachers has an immeasurably important effect on the engagement and authenticity of projects. The best projects involve a community partner at many points along the way. If you ask students doing PBL, they’ll state the tremendously positive impact of these authentic partnerships.

Except when it’s not. Sometimes we have grandiose plans for how to include these outsiders into our projects and it simply doesn’t pan out; we wanted to have them come five times in a month and they could only make it happen once, or we thought they would just love being with us and interacting, but actually they were bored (or worse, unimpressed.)

A curriculum map should have a column for community partner ideas, even if they’re just brainstormed ideas. Many times we encounter potential community partners after a project is done and gone. As a Cubs fan, I know the adage all too well: there’s always next year. Revisit the names in that column and decide who you will call back, which names should be scratched and perhaps how to use certain persons or organizations differently and better than before.
It may be obvious to state this, but I’ll do it anyway. When asking community partners to provide feedback or instruction to students, make sure that a) they are operating in their domain of expertise and b) students are given sufficient content preparation prior to their coming. I’ve made the mistake of asking museum officials to give feedback on the scientific content in displays, falsely assuming the officials had a science background. And I’ve had many a time where I felt embarrassment on the behalf of my students because I hadn’t prepared them well enough for the community partner’s visit (or I did not provide the community partner with enough detail about what their background was.)

Also be mindful of fatigue on the part of your community partners. Sure, there are a few people that I contact every single year and they come in with abundant gusto. Others I know I should probably only ask every couple of years. It naturally stands to reason that if a community partner got a thank you note from a student after last year’s project, you’re more likely to get their help again.

5.       Budget variety.

Think about the culminating products that your students might produce this year. If you do have past years on which to reflect, ask yourself whether or not they did enough different kinds of things as PBL experiences. If what they did at the end of each project was a PSA or a slide show presentation, it may be time to think about how to incorporate more variety into your planning. While I am of the strong belief that it’s more about the process than the product, there’s a lot to be said for asking students to create final products that stimulate their imagination, build a variety of skills from communication to technology to collaboration, and give them a challenging goal to work towards.

There are some PBL projects that are truly authentic, where the work they are doing replicates the work being done by the corresponding adults in those disciplines. Clearly a great thing. My students participated as student scientists in a Purdue yeast biodiversity survey for the past two years and it was truly authentic and truly engaging because they were doing real work (they discovered new species, even.) There are also projects that sacrifice some authenticity for the sake of engagement. I’ve created complete mock- up crime scenes of cookie recipe thievery that were 100% fictitious, but also highly engaging. Both of these approaches serve valuable roles in the curriculum.

Finally, budget variety in the duration of projects. Not every project needs to adhere to a formulaic, “perfect” project length. If there’s a project that will take five weeks, consider following it up with a two week mini- project. Students get worn out, too. There’s some dread that happens when, coming off a huge project, you jump right back into another huge project.
The greatest thing about each new school year is that it’s a fresh start. The greatest thing about a good curriculum map is that you don’t have to completely start over each year. Curriculum maps should always be considered living documents that will evolve over many years… but while there will be elements that are “one and done,” never again to be repeated, there will also be pieces that bear the original ink from the very first drafting of the map.

Taken together, a new school year and a fresh revision of your curriculum maps will ensure that there’s a least a few bars in the battery at all times this year.

 If you need help creating a curriculum map, contact Magnify Learning for a discipline- specific thought partner and sign up for summer training in 2016!

Andrew Larson facilitates Environmental Studies and Biology at
 Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Five Myths of Project- Based Learning Dissected and Debunked

by Andrew Larson

Seven years ago I became a brand- new educator for the second time. Though I was in a comfortable position in a well- established school of good repute, I needed something more, though, at the time, I didn't know exactly what that was.

Then, something came along at just the right moment. Our school corporation took a leap of faith by starting a Project- Based Learning program, a courageous move that has changed the educational landscape of our community and region.  I leaped, along with a group of trailblazing ninth graders and a small handful of educators hungry for change. We went all- in with an educational model that many had written off as a fad.

Along the way, I've had the most profound professional education I’ve ever had. I’ve become an immensely better instructor than I was in my previous ten years’ experience; I owe this to the special dynamic that PBL both requires and creates. I learned how to work with my incredible adult team and guide our awesome, curious and adventurous students through rich learning experiences.

It hasn’t all been pretty. We made plenty of mistakes, some resulting in students deciding it was “not a good fit” and transferring. Some staff members found the rigors of project planning completely overwhelming to the point that they either left our school or left education altogether. In the end, though, the journey has left me a staunch advocate for PBL. There is no model of education that can be implemented well without the right personnel, and PBL is nothing if not demanding of competence, flexibility, open- mindedness, and tolerance of failures.  But I stand, with a rapidly growing population of renegade educators, as cheerleaders for a method that works—as long as it’s done right.

There are misconceptions about PBL.  Some stem from those who have tried to implement it, most likely without adequate support or training, and crashed & burned. Others come from misinformed perspectives. Below I address five of these myths, from my own perspective, borne from a school and system that has successfully implemented PBL in an already successful school corporation.


“Project Based Learning isn’t for everyone.”

I’ve heard it many times: my son just needs a textbook. My daughter just needs to be told what to do. He can’t work with others. She just needs structure. All students have their own needs, and no one teacher or system is going to change that.

Project Based Learning doesn’t replace good teaching; it does, however, lend itself well to co- existing with research- based approaches. While there are most certainly a myriad of approaches that could be integrated with PBL, the one adopted by our district is Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a framework of brain- based instruction that benefits all learners regardless of ability or learner style. It may have started as a set of strategies for providing accommodations for some, but ultimately, all learners benefit.

It should be reiterated that this approach was not adopted by just our school, which is project- based, but was instead implemented on a compulsory basis by all schools in our district. It turns out that PBL in particular fits naturally (incredibly so, in fact) into two of the three categories: Engagement (students that seek meaning and motivation in their learning get that from PBL because of the authentic learning experiences that its presents) and Action & Expression (when students are given voice and choice with how their mastery of content is manifested in final products, they can communicate their learning in many ways, instead of a prescribed and possibly one- dimensional means.) The third category, Action and Expression, is squarely in the hands of the instructor. In other words, you have to be a good teacher and PBL won’t save you if you’re not.

The point is that PBL can’t be done well without sound pedagogy, whatever that pedagogical approach is. It can provide a range of options for students to express their knowledge and skills, and can provide meaning to the learning where there perhaps was otherwise not.

“I’m afraid that I won’t be able to hit all of the standards if I do PBL.”

It’s been my experience that I am no more likely to run out of time than I ever was in my previous teaching life; that is to say, covering (or, as we like to say, uncovering) the standards is challenging regardless of the setting. My approach has always been to prioritize and clump. There may be a standard or two or three that doesn’t get due justice in my classes, but rest assured, it won’t be a “power standard”; it will be the minutiae, the high- minded semantics and “pet standards” (the ones written by a person clearly with an agenda) that get slighted.

It’s true that there are processes involved in PBL that take time away from content instruction. For a given project, the “launch” and subsequent creation of groups, group contracts, etc. may take up to two days. At the end of a project, presentations may take a day or more. Reflection and celebration of successes are givens. However, meaningful project planning can result in better use of time if students are given skills in collaborating and have access to abundant, high- quality information. If a project is well- planned, students may work in a self- paced way and avoid wasting time waiting on others to catch up with them. Benchmarks provide the opportunities for instructors to assess which groups are ready to forge on, and provided the resources are in place, students may at the least test their ability to explore on their own and never be held back.

 “PBL is great, but it’s not really preparing them for the college learning environment.”

I couldn’t disagree more. The tendency for college work to involve more group projects is an emerging reality, but it’s the opposite end of the approach spectrum that creates more concern for me. There are those that feel lectures and traditional note taking have no place in a PBL environment. I am not among them. Never would I say that daily instruction should be done stand- and- deliver style excessively, but sometimes, every student truly and honestly needs the direct instruction. And truly, if we are not asking students to practice note taking and developing attention spans suited to listening for, say, 30 minutes at a time, we are doing them a disservice. The point is that there is no single instructional approach that is, quintessentially, PBL. Just like with any effective instructional approach, variety matters, immensely.

 “I’m not ready to give up all of the control in my classroom.”

Nor am I. There is no substitute for good instruction, and those of us that do PBL do not go forth carelessly, letting the kids decide what they will learn, in what order, and how they’ll be taught. It’s quite true that one of the greatest things about PBL is that students do assume more ownership in their learning, in terms of how best to communicate and apply content in ways and contexts that are meaningful to them. It should not be forgotten, though, that we are the content experts, not them. It’s our job to provide structure and sequence to a project in such a way that students move logically through a set of concepts, all the time applying their new knowledge to solve the authentic problem at hand. 

There is a change in dynamic that occurs as a result of a well- executed project launch, where students identify their “Need to Knows” about the problem, scenario, and logistics of a project. Those Need to Knows, coming from the students as they do, help eliminate the perennial question of, “Why do we need to learn this?” That is, because the students express a particular Need to Know, there is an implicitly closer identification of how the content helps them solve a problem.

That being said, students generally don’t know how to sequence and structure the learning of that content. That job belongs in the hands of a qualified expert (i.e. the teacher.) Giving up that control would be a big mistake. Never—ever—should a project be allowed to veer away from content standards for any extended period (though I cannot put a hard number on that exact duration.) If it does, we run the risk of improperly preparing our students for their next steps in school and life.
As a general rule, time devoted to standards in a project is equal to the time that would otherwise be given in a traditional approach. We cannot change the reality of time and minutes, so we must pace appropriately. If a project is allowed to languish in purgatory, no one is either happy or appropriately educated in the end.  This leads us to the last one….

“PBL isn’t rigorous enough.”

PBL, by my personal definition, is the application of content standards to solve a real- world problem that matters. Application is, by definition, and requires, by necessity, higher- order thinking and problem solving skills. Content standards are viewed as the minimum proficiencies. So how is that not rigorous?

If the quantity of information that students learn takes second seat to the quality, then I’m of the “so be it” mind. But again, it comes back to the original definition: standards are, truly, the minimum. My colleague Rachelle Antcliff likes to say, “I love standards; I look at them and ask, ‘Is this all I have to teach?’” In a traditional classroom, the answer is, “Yes.” In a PBL environment, the answer is, “Um, no. They have to learn the standards, apply them to the authentic context to solve a problem, 
communicate their knowledge to community partners in a number of ways, while working together as a team, struggling with decisions, and meet numerous deadlines along the way.”


So, am I biased in my dispelling of these “PBL Myths?” Perhaps, but only because seven years of experience has taught me what PBL can be, should be, and will be, for the rest of my educational career.  I know that PBL is a daunting change in mindset to undergo because I did it and have seen many others do so as well.

The only advice I can offer is (to borrow from Boromir from “The Lord of the Rings” and countless internet memes) “One does not simply implement PBL without the proper training and support.” Check out Magnify Learning for training opportunities and resources, and enjoy the journey.

Andrew Larson facilitates Biology and Environmental Studies at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.