5 Ways to Avoid Project Based Learning Fluff #HackingPBL

This post is #3 in a series of 10 posts that serve as extensions of the 10 chapters in Hacking Project Based Learning, which I coauthored with Erin Murphy. This post is an extension of Chapter 3, which focuses on deciding on which content your project should focus. #HackingPBL

For all of the posts in the series, tap/click here.

When I taught fourth grade, I was initially met with skepticism from other teachers when I started to regularly engage my students in project based learning (PBL) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). I think much of this apprehension existed because some of my practices did in fact perpetuate the myth that PBL was fluff and that the “real” teaching and learning takes place through more direct instruction. However, as I continuously reflected upon and refined my craft, many of these doubters went from, “That wouldn’t work with my students!” to “How can that work with my students?”

Looking back, I still think some of my original PBL practices were forgivable, simply because I had to begin somewhere (Don’t we all?). But, there are definitely some bits of advice I wish I had been given prior to getting started.

That being said, here are five ways to avoid project based learning fluff.

1. Focus on the Right Academic Standards: When planning a project it could be tempting to simply start with “cool” ideas, as opposed to first exploring what should be taught based on academic standards (or a standards-aligned curriculum). As a fourth grade teacher I participated in an elementary level STEM initiative. Following the initial professional development I went to plan my first STEM unit, only to realize my curriculum was a bit outdated. So, rather than wasting time designing learning experiences aligned to old standards, I first created an updated makeshift pacing guide to ensure any units I put together would be future proof (until a change in standards, which has still yet to happen).

So, start with the standards, but don’t stop there. The majority of a project’s content should be encompassed by standards that call for students to dig deeper, and looking at a standard’s initial verb tells us just how deep students should have to dig. For example, a Grade 7 Common Core English Language Arts standard reads, analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning. Since analyze is a verb that calls for higher-order thinking (Level 4 on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge), this standard could be worthy of contributing to the basis for a project.

2. Don’t Make It the Cherry on Top: A lot has been written on the differences between projects and project based learning, and this graphic nicely sums up some of the key discrepancies. A traditional project usually calls for students to create some type of product to demonstrate what they have already learned, and often times we cry “Differentiation!” or “Student choice!” when students are allowed to present their facts in various ways: PowerPoint, Prezi, infographic, etc…There are two problems here.

First, this approach sends the subtle message, “Now that you’ve already learned everything, let’s spend valuable class time regurgitating the facts in a ‘fun’ way, even though the extra work won’t lead to a deeper understanding of content.” To put it bluntly, what’s the point? As a teacher, if I already know that ckckson has acquired the necessary knowledge about animal adaptations, why does he then have to prove to me another time, in another format that this knowledge exists? Second, more significant differentiation and student choice should take place during the learning process. There is really nothing special about having students be the ones to decide where they are going to copy and paste what they have already learned (information dump). But, I do think end products are noteworthy when they are leveraged in an authentic way (e.g., Madison wants to make an eBook, so she researches the effective components of this medium, incorporates them into her work, and then publishes her book for an authentic audience.).

3. Teach for Deeper Understandings: The alternative to the traditional project is project based learning, in which students uncover deeper understandings of content while they are working through their projects. And, ideally, by the time the project is complete, students will have had multiple opportunities to demonstrate this knowledge. So, what exactly leads to a deeper understanding? Two main factors are productive struggle and context.1

Productive struggle: Students are learning about evaporation. Rather than memorizing a definition, they regularly observe a glass of water and they are provided with time to speculate what is happening to the diminishing amount of liquid. The definition is only provided after the majority of students have a conceptual understanding of what evaporation is all about. Context: This activity becomes that much more relevant and useful when presented within the context of a PBL experience, such as students creating their own ecosystems. Students can then use their knowledge of evaporation during the construction of their ecosystems while gaining a deeper understanding of how their ecosystems function…While traditional instruction often paints student acquisition of content in terms of black and white – they got it or they don’t – PBL allows for students to demonstrate understandings that allow for them to go deeper than just “getting it.”

4. Set up Checkpoints: When I first started teaching fourth grade, I was fortunate enough to have a tremendously talented teaching partner right across the hallway from me. Needless to say, during my early years our classrooms looked entirely different from another. While I don’t think my instruction could have ever been called “traditional,” it was far more conventional than my counterpart’s, as her students were constantly engaged in projects, collaborative activities, and finding ways to incorporate the arts in their work…A few months into our time together we had a candid conversation during which she asked me for my honest opinion of her teaching approaches. At some point during my response I asked (in a nonaccusatory way), “How do you know your students are learning what they’re supposed to learn?” And, ‘till this very day, I still ask myself this very same question during PBL (or any type of activity).

Even so, if we are waiting until the very end of a project to find out who knows what, we are doing our students a disservice. To ensure students are learning what they are supposed to learn, and to dispel the myth that students can only learn through more direct instruction, we can build formative assessment checkpoints into our project directions. At certain points, students must conference with the teacher and get approval before moving on. And, as a result of these conferences, the teacher can adjust instruction accordingly.

5. Watch Your Time: When rolling out a project I have never been a fan of assigning a specific due date, as inflexible scheduling generally prioritizes shallow coverage of content while ignoring the individual needs of students (much like teachers being forced to follow a strict pacing guide). Instead, I would rather give an approximate project duration (e.g., 4-6 weeks), constantly gauge student learning, and ultimately assign various due dates as a result of individuals and/or groups learning and completing their projects at different paces. Nevertheless, problems arise when a project starts to drag on past its intended number of weeks, as was the case a few times in my fourth grade classroom. As a result, it takes much longer than it should for students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of content, and other material doesn’t get the attention it deserves or it is “forgotten” completely. Dilemmas like these are exactly what give project based learning (and inquiry-based learning) a bad wrap as teachers cry, “There’s no time!”

So, here are three tips. First, if you are starting out with PBL, start small, such as by having your students all create a similar product (e.g., a podcast), but give them some flexibility in defining the process and what the final product looks like. Second, lay out your project, week-by-week, and communicate this schedule with your students (and maybe, parents). Third, always watch your time, as you could easily be at least a month into a project before you know it.

In the End

Myths are perpetuated when we fail to learn from mistakes around us, including our own.

While I don’t think the idea of PBL as fluff is as pervasive as it once was, I do believe this myth is still out there, mostly because not all educators have a true understanding of what PBL entails (and I’m still learning as well). If we want to champion PBL and promote its growth outside of a few progressive classrooms here and there, a crystal clear picture of what it does and does not involve could go a very long way.

How do you think we can avoid project based learning fluff? What has worked for you?

Connect with Ross on Twitter or visit his website.