5 Ways I Screwed Up (and Fixed) Project Based Learning In My Classroom

About a month ago I was chatting with a colleague who was inspired to implement project based learning (PBL) in her classroom, took it upon herself to do so, and her first attempt at it was a complete flop.

While talking with her about what took place, she mentioned how many bloggers and writers (including myself) spend a lot ccf time talking about what we should do, but we don’t always reveal the struggles we endured to arrive at our current belief system.

Although I’m sure there are countless reasons as to why we should be transparent about our trials and errors, there are a few that immediately come to mind:

  • From my point of view, writing or talking about my past practices helps me to strategically reflect, which then informs what I’m currently doing.
  • From the point of view of someone who is following in the footsteps of others (my colleague), it is often comforting to know what we’re enduring is “all part of the game” and comparable what others have gone through, and not just exclusive to those “who don’t know what the heck they’re doing.”

That being said, here are 5 ways I screwed up (and fixed) project based learning in my classroom.

1. I Prioritized Cool Technology over Student Creativity

Project design/instruction customarily calls for beginning with the end of mind, or with what understandings we want students to walk away. However, there were times in which I found a “cool” tool that I just had to use with my students, and therefore I began “with the technology in mind.” I generally don’t have a problem with this approach if (1) we’re talking about a project that will take days, not weeks, and/or (2) some flexibility still exists in regards to how the technology is used. But, early into my PBL career I was so obsessed with technology, I made it a habit of having my students engage in 4-6 week projects during which I sent the message, “Use this technology in this way!” One such example involves a weather project in which students collected weather data over a three-week period, which they were then told to present and analyze using technologies of my choosing. Part of the directions read:

“Working as a team, and calling upon all of your data and research, use Keynote and iMovie to create a weather presentation. Each member contributes a segment for his/her quantitative and/or qualitative data, and reasoning why the weather acted in the way that it did.”

Quick Fix: Provide a few options, but also allow for students to use technologies of their choosing (and maybe, no technology at all). If you’re skeptical, have students run their plans by you before putting them into action.

2. I Created Rubrics That Promoted Compliance

As a classroom teacher, one thing I never got right was rubrics (and I know I can’t be the only one). Time and time again, the rubric for each project looked like the project’s directions regurgitated in another format (click here for an example in which students created director commentary for a movie scene). When rubrics are presented in this way, we run the risk of promoting compliance, not creative learning. For instance, there is a strong chance students will be able to “play the game” and earn an A by simply following what has been outlined for them in their rubric/directions, especially if the teacher is calling for very specific tasks: appropriately title your work, include three photographs related to your topic, include at least ten adjectives, etc. While the rubric I’ve linked to isn’t quite as bad, it still focuses on what I wanted students to do. If students are to have the freedom to exercise their creativity, while maintaining a crystal clear picture of why they’re learning what they’re learning, the rubric should include what we want students to understand.

Quick Fix: In Chapter 7 of Hacking Project Based Learning – a chapter that is available for free in the Hack Learning Anthology – Erin Murphy and I rethink the traditional rubric from the ground up with the creation of the Progress Assessment Tool (PAT). The PAT contains three columns: left, learning targets to be assessed; middle, what each target could look like within the context of the project; right, where feedback is provided in relation to each target.

3. I Expected Students to Be Able to Collaborate

Speaking of rubrics, pretty much all of my rubrics for group projects had a graded component for collaboration, which read, “I was the best teammate that I could be, and I continuously contributed to the project throughout its creation!” While we can debate whether or not collaboration should be graded, if you are going to grade something, make sure it is something that has been taught. For a few years I never actually taught students how to collaborate, yet I graded them on this skill. Many students (let alone adults) don’t know what true collaboration looks, sounds, and feels like, yet it’s so easy to get into the habit of putting students into groups, telling them to work together, and then getting upset with them when there’s trouble. Looking back on my first few years of teaching, I can honestly say I feel bad for my students with whom I was heated when they had problems coexisting with their partners. Telling students something is going to be graded doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically adapt to meet expectations.

Quick Fix: Towards the beginning of the school year, take time to explicitly teach collaboration skills and then continue to support students throughout the year. Think about having students look into the features of effective collaboration and then plan for how they could incorporate them into their own work. Also, I highly recommend reading through this article, “G-R-O-U-P-W-O-R-K Doesn’t Spell Collaboration” by Timothy Quinn.

4. I Issued Group Grades

Another grading issue involves how, whenever students engaged in group work, all members of the same group received the same grade. Here we have a few problems. Students should always be graded according to their individual abilities, even when engaged in group work. Per Rick Wormeli, “Since [group grades] are not accurate indicators of mastery on the part of any one student, and that’s what grades are supposed to be, they undermine the legitimate use of grades.” Truly, we are doing our students a disservice if we are allowing for their knowledge (or lack thereof) of certain content to be masked by others. Also, I’m sure most of us can recall at least one story in which we suffered as a result of having to work in a group. As one of my favorite memes declares, “When I die, I want the people I did group projects with to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.1”

Quick Fix: The more I facilitated PBL (and teaching, in general), the more I realized grades were not necessary. Use a group or individual rubric (or Progress Assessment Tool) to provide feedback throughout a project, but ultimately assess (and possibly grade) students according to their individual abilities. These assessments can take on many forms.

5. I Didn’t Go out of My Way to Educate Parents

Once we start to implement more progressive practices, such as PBL, it’s natural to continually refine these instructional approaches while using them more and more, year after year. In fact, by the time I left the classroom, my science and writing instruction were all project based, with some additional projects occurring in math and social studies. While these shifts may sound exciting, the more PBL took place, the further away my students and I moved from the type of education the majority of my students’ parents most likely received when they were in school. Towards the beginning of each of the first few years in which my classroom was “all out PBL,” my progressive nature ending up backfiring a bit as I dealt with a few parents who had difficulties wrapping their heads around the different ways in which learning was happening in my classroom (and also, as a result, they didn’t know to support their children with their schoolwork). So, no matter how far along we may think we are, if all of our stakeholders are not on board, we have work to do.

Quick Fix: If you’re “one of those progressive teachers,” more than the typical Meet the Teacher Night will probably be needed for parents (and possibly, students) to feel comfortable with what’s taking place in your classroom. Before the school year even begins, consider setting aside a day to work with your students and/or offering to meet with parents. Also, once I realized the error of my ways, about a month into each school year I held an additional Meet the Teacher Night (with a focus on projects and technology), and I also gave parents my cell phone number to keep the lines of communication open as much as possible.

In the End

In reality, I could go on and on about all the ways I screwed up when implementing project based learning (and as a teacher). And, undoubtedly, a few years from now I’ll look back at my current work and I’ll be able to pinpoint all of the things I could be improving upon right now.

What matters most, I believe, is that we’re constantly reflecting and then moving forward in all aspects of life, both professionally and personally. After all…

If you’re not uncomfortable with who you were a few years ago…there’s a problem.

How did you screw up (and then fix) project based learning? In what noticeable ways have you improved as a teacher, educator, or person?

Connect with Ross on Twitter or visit his website.