Last Sunday, I finished reading Chapter 5, Managing a Project, in Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning. I’ve spent the rest of this week on my exercise bike each morning reflecting on what I read. (For those who are wondering about the exercise bike, click here).
My biggest take away from Chapter 5: I need to reread it as I design professional development for teachers. There’s quite a bit of information on the 4 phases of a project (Project Launch; Building Knowledge and Understanding; Product Development and Critique; and Product Presentation). I need my eyes to pass over all the information again for specific insights.
Below are important topics, details, and observations I made as I read Chapter 5.
- As much as possible, train students on PBL concepts prior to PBL rollout: As I’ve been suspecting, we will have to take time to train our students on the collaborative and teamwork aspects of PBL (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 99). I’d like to make this training specific to the first campus where we plan to launch PBL. However, Brightbytes data for that campus is intertwined with another campus – as we use a campus-within-a-campus model for some of our schools. Therefore, I can not get an accurate picture of student needs at our first campus until the two campuses are separated in the next two years. (Back to the drawing board). On the whole, students need training on how to work well in teams; analyze and answer truly open-ended questions; work through the steps of inquiry and critical thinking; give and receive feedback; contact/interview experts; cite sources; and speak in public (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 100, p. 101). We can lay the groundwork prior to PBL through regular Breakouts, modeling the desired behaviors in class, and offering opportunities for students to reflect in both written and verbal-response discussion boards.
- Evaluate sources of information: In addition to lessons on the academic content to be assessed in the PBL, students also need to be trained on how to evaluate sources of information, how to maintain research logs, note-taking strategies, how to address and interact with outside experts, and how to reassemble as a team to discuss what has been learned (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 114). Note to ELA teachers: Literature circles are a great way to immerse students into the world of reading, inquiry, and discussion. Therefore, launching literature circles might be good prep work for a run at PBL.
- Critiquing their own work: Students must be taught how to critique each other’s work as student self monitoring promotes learner independence, helps kids internalize their learning, and promotes three of the 4Cs (communication, collaboration, and critical thinking) (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 123). Methods for promoting student self critique include a charette, a gallery walk, critical friends, and consultancy (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 123).
- Mapping the project: Units of study are mapped out, so teachers and students know what standards, lessons, and ancillary activities must be covered in a given amount of time. A PBL project is no different; it must be mapped out, as well (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 101). The Gold-Standard PBL model follows for project phases: Project Launch, which includes the entry event and the introduction of the driving question; Building Knowledge and Understanding, which includes investigating solutions to the driving question as well as acquiring the skills needed to fully answer the driving question; Product Development and Critique, which encompasses building solutions to the driving question and revising them through peer editing; and Product Presentations, where student solutions to the driving questions are revealed (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 102). Prior to guiding the our first campus through PBL, I must review Chapter 5 – as the authors devote a great deal of ink and page real estate to explaining each of the four stages in depth.
- Building student teams: Teachers will want to give some thought as to how student teams will be assembled, and two major methods come to mind instantly – teacher-selected and student-selected teams (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 112). Each method has its pros and cons, which range from saving time, the creation and reduction of hurt feelings, and minimizing team disputes to increasing student buy-in, difficulty in honoring student requests, and reducing the development of cliques (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 112). I suspect most veteran teachers will be aware of the blessings and pitfalls associated with teacher-selected teams vs student-select ones. At this point, and this tangent blends into student training, as well, the biggest takeaway I have is that students need to be prepared to work in teams. They must understand teams rise, fall, sink, and swim together. Each team is only as strong as its weakest member, which means team members must learn to support each other – as each person is strong in some areas and weak in others. The challenge for classes as a whole and teachers in particular will come in assembling teams whose members complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – as each team member must simultaneously be a support for the team while being a vulnerability for it, as well.
- Products must demonstrate the learning standards: It should go without saying, but is nonetheless worth mentioning, that the products students create must demonstrate the students have learned the academic standards aligned to the project (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 115).
- Just-in-time instruction: Teachers must resist the urge to front load a project with lots of need-to-know information. (“You’ll need to know this for later.” “You’ll need to know that for later.” etc.) (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 115). Instructional support should come on a just-in-time basis, which means teachers have to allow student teams time to investigate solutions for the driving question before they hammer learners on the how-tos for completing the project requirements (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 115). If textbook assignments and lectures headline the opening act of PBL, students are apt to deflate – as they are made to wait before they can actually do any real investigation (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 116). Teachers can release a bit of control and allow curiosity to drive students towards learning academic content. The reverse may not be true: Hitting academic content hard at the beginning of a project may not push students to inquiry.
- Grading: Keep the grading system fair. Grades should be based mostly or solely on individual work – not a team-created product (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 120). PBL is a learning process for all involved. Some students thrive; others must learn academic content and the responsibility of delivering products and services on a deadline. Don’t compromise the grades of students who contributed fully to a project because of a teammate’s lack of participation.
- Formative Assessments: The project and its products can be viewed as summative assessments. Formative assessments provide students the opportunity to monitor their own learning and receive feedback so they can improve academically (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 121). For teachers who worry about the number of grades they might take during a PBL project, formative assessments also provide additional inputs for the gradebook. For example, formative assessments can take the form of exit tickets, notes, rough drafts, quizzes, and outlines (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 124).
The work continues . . .
Larmer, J., Mergendoller, J. R., & Boss, S. (2015). Setting the standard for project based learning: A proven approach to rigorous classroom instruction. ASCD.
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