Sunday, October 11, 2015

Freedom Comes from Knows and Need to Knows

by Heather Hester

The six years of teaching in a traditional school before crossing over to PBL taught me many lessons.  One of the most important was that no matter how well prepared I was, how many bullet points I used on my handout, how many questions I anticipated, I still did not know the answers to all of the inquiries my students would make on the day I introduced a new project.

My trusting leap into the PBL world led to all sorts of freedom, especially on the day of a new project.  A well-planned entry event should never lead the students to all of the answers, but rather to the questions I used to dread. Documents, scripts, letters and community partner visits should be sprinkled with the breadcrumbs (clues that hint at content and skills the kids will need to know in order to successfully complete the project) that will invoke curiosity and a true longing for information.  No longer do I need to worry about not being able to answer all of their questions. Instead, I worry if they do not ask enough of the right kinds of questions.

One of my favorite steps in launching a new PBL is the Know/Need to Know (K/NTK) list that happens as the students are processing the entry event.  This takes the pressure off of me, the facilitator, and allows kids to hover in the unknown, letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities the new project work has to offer. Before, I needed to be able to answer all of the questions the day I passed out that handout.  If I did not know an answer to a question, I looked unprepared and incompetent.  With PBL, the teacher is no longer the key holder to all information but rather the coach that helps to guide the students to ask the right questions and find the answers on their own.  I now can step aside and let them list their inquiries.

Nearly every time I encounter K/NTKs, students have the same logistical questions. They want to know immediately how groups will be assigned, how they will be graded, how much time they have between benchmarks and the final due date.  In order to help them focus on the other important questions, I ask them to break their lists into three categories: skills, content and process.  Since they tend to focus solely on the process questions, categorizing forces them to search the entry events for the content tied to standards they will be learning as well as the skills they might be practicing.  

Sometimes extracting a N/NTK list can become cumbersome. Consider changing how you tackle this step each project to shake things up.

  • Encourage students to color code the entry document, marking it up with highlighters and looking for clues as they read.
  • Have students work individually, recording lists separately then share out as a whole class.
  • If you have already arranged groups, have the teams record lists together then share with everyone.
  • Project a document and have students facilitate as classmates share out.
  • Use sticky notes and have each student record K/NTKs on each note. Ask students to post each under the correct category on the board or wall. Have student volunteers process them by sharing out the notes with the whole class.

The understanding is that some of their NTKs will need to be answered immediately. Perhaps some questions must be addressed to set them on the right track or to settle some logistical details.   Facilitators need to be warned that students might express frustration by not getting all of the answers they want immediately and it is so tempting to tell them everything up front. The more projects students do, the more they will learn to trust that their NTKs will get answered.

A piece of advice that was modeled to me was the necessity of making these lists living documents throughout the entire project.  Keeping the list visible or posting in the classroom helps to remind both the facilitator and students how important it is to the PBL process. Beginning as early as the project launch, establish the routine of using these lists to have students create workshop requests. As you complete phases of the project, go back to them to see which items you can move from the NTK section to the K section so students can chart progress.  Throughout the project, students should be allowed to add new NTKs they have developed. Then at the end of the project while reflecting, students should be able to see what they have learned from their NTKs to determine success. 

Compiling Know and Need to Know lists will encourage students to engage in inquiry based conversations, take charge and drive their own learning, but most importantly, grant freedom to the teacher from being the know it all.

Heather Hester is an English Facilitator at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.