I’m about to read chapter 4 in the book Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss. In chapter 4, I’ll dive into project design. However, before learning the specifics of gold-standard project design, I thought it best to stop and reflect on chapter 3. All too often in my personal and professional studies, I consume copious amounts of text; yet, I take very little time to digest the information through measured reflection. As a result, I read a lot, but I believe I walk away from the text with very few good ideas. I hope to change that through periods of forced reflection (like this). Besides, if I’m going to ask teachers and students to reflect on their own work and study, I must lead by example. So, here goes . . .
I’m very thankful to author Suzie Boss, who reviewed my first blog and offered some words of wisdom I should consider while investigating the intricacies of project-based learning. Boss writes, “[The] key is finding [the] right level of challenge for your students – challenging *enough* so they need to wrestle with complexity [and] persist through difficulty” (K. Boss, personal communication, July 29, 2018). Boss also added in a later tweet, “As teacher, you may need to provide scaffolding so students can succeed w/difficult challenge or problem. But don’t remove struggle – that’s where learning happens! Key is finding right-sized challenge. I like to say, ‘Big enough to matter, small enough to tackle” (K. Boss, personal communication, July 29, 2018).
The challenge for me at this point – and I suspect throughout the investigation and design phase – will be finding the right level of challenge for teachers first – as they will be on the frontlines retooling their classrooms to accommodate PBL – and students second. I suspect teachers must have some small degree of confidence in the new endeavor they are about to attempt – PBL – before they can guide students through inquiry, project design, and solutions. Training – the right kinds of it – and continued support through PBL experiences will be vital in giving educators the confidence they need to implement PBL effectively in their classrooms. I think in a well designed PBL system, students and teachers help each other. I’ve always said teaching is as much about learning as it is instructing. For example, I learn as I teach, and this PBL endeavor shall be no different.
Chapter 3 in the Larmer, Mergendollar, and Boss text highlights what research says about PBL. According to the authors, there are multiple studies that indicate PBL boosts test scores; likewise, there are multiple studies suggesting PBL has no impact on test scores; but, the authors could find no studies indicating PBL lowered test scores (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 54). I think I can breathe a sigh of relief there. I’m thankful to the authors, who cite a variety of studies justifying PBL’s use in core subjects. I’ll most likely peruse some of them when I’m done reading the Larmer, Mergendollar, and Boss text.
Lastly, here are my main takeaways from chapter 3:
- No Silver Bullets: Reading chapter 3 has reaffirmed what I already know: PBL is not a silver bullet, and much depends on the educator, the projects’ design, and the training involved in implementing PBL (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 59). My job is to make the transition to PBL smoother, but, as Boss has already indicated, I can not eliminate all the struggle – as learning occurs in problem solving.
- Teachers Struggle at First: I’m comforted to know that most teachers struggle with PBL at first; once they become well versed in PBL practices, they come to appreciate it and want to continue using it in their classrooms (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 59).
- Change Takes Time: Yes, I already knew this, but it was nice that the authors spelled it out plainly. Teacher competence will come with time and training. PBL is not mastered in an afternoon PD session; I can expect to train heavily for at least two years (Larmer, Mergendollar, & Boss, 2015, p. 60). Training – I’m sure – will contain a mix of PD models – face to face, online, blended, etc. However, I can not at this moment devise timelines and exact formulas on the size, shape, scope, and topics covered by and in training. It’s too early to tell. I simply know a variety of models will be needed – and will be critical to project success.
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.