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Your PBL questions answered

By Suzie Boss
November 24, 2014
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A questioning mind is essential for teachers as well as students as you set off on your project-based learning journey. ISTE readers recently asked their PBL questions on social media. Below are the answers to some of them.

How can you effectively assess not only the end result of a project, but also soft skills along the way?

When you're designing a project, think about what you want students to know and be able to do by the end of the learning experience. What's the important academic content they need to understand? And, just as important, which life and career skills — such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and effective communication — will this project help them to develop?

With specific learning goals in mind, you're ready to start planning for assessment. Think about how you will check in and provide feedback on students' progress throughout the project — not only in a summative way at the end, and not only with regard to academic content. Skills like collaboration and critical thinking are too important to take for granted. Students who are new at PBL may need your help figuring out how to be an effective member of a team or when to take a creative risk. Plan specific activities to help them develop and strengthen these important capabilities.

Based on what you're hearing and observing, with help from formative tools such as exit tickets, quizzes, journals and more, you can make just-in-time adjustments in your teaching plan. By the end of the project, students should be able to apply what they have learned on the content side to produce quality work. They also should have mastered important life skills that will stick with them long after the project is over.

What skills does the teacher need to maintain order in the chaos of 30 minds learning and questioning all at the same time at different paces with different passions?

During the " "messy middle" " of projects, students may indeed be researching different topics, developing diverse products and progressing toward understanding at varying speeds. This should be a time for active, student-driven learning. But students who are new to PBL may need your help figuring out how to direct their own learning, especially if they're used to textbook-and-test-driven instruction.

For example, instead of relying on the teacher for answers, encourage students to seek out information from multiple sources, including library or media specialists and content experts from outside the classroom. Don't assume students will know how to budget their time effectively, either. Break a big project into manageable chunks, with milestone assignments along the way. Before sending teams off to work independently, hold a quick all-class meeting to review the work at hand and then rotate among teams to listen in on their conversations. Use a range of check-ins to find out who's doing what and how team members are getting along. Plan mini-lessons for small groups that need more time or scaffolding to understand particular concepts.

Don't be afraid to set parameters for the project. As the teacher, you decide how open-ended or narrowly focused the project will be. For example, in a STEM project with real-world applications, is everyone designing a solar oven? Or are teams given room to investigate and design a variety of alternative energy products? For a language arts project, is everyone producing a digital story? Or can students choose the product or publishing format that will best appeal to their desired audience?

Even a tightly focused project should allow enough room for student choice so you foster engagement and encourage creative problem solving.

How do we convince other teachers to give PBL a try? And how do we get resistant colleagues on board?

Project-based learning requires significant shifts from traditional teaching. It's seldom successful as a top-down mandate. Instead, teachers tend to become advocates when they have the professional development, time and collegial support they need to get comfortable with PBL. In schools that are experiencing widespread adoption of PBL, the energy to expand often comes from early adopters who give projects a try. Their examples — and positive results — show what's possible and can help pave the way for others.

In Reinventing Project-Based Learning, we encourage teachers to share their stories. Talk up PBL moments (successes as well as challenges), and share photos of your engaged learners via Twitter and other social media. Use the hashtag #pblchat to connect with fellow PBL advocates. Blog about your projects and the technology tools that take PBL in new directions. Create a school library of project plans that others can borrow and adapt. Invite colleagues to watch your PBL classroom in action. And invite the whole community to end-of-project showcase events.

When colleagues hear your students describing and reflecting on their learning experiences, they may be convinced to try PBL with their students. Be ready to offer your own strategies and insights to support their learning journey. That's how the PBL community gets better with practice.

Have more questions or suggestions about PBL? Please respond in the comments, and let's keep learning together.

Suzie Boss is the co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Check out the new expanded second edition of this popular PBL guide.