Edgeucation Blog

Ten Tips for Better PBL

August 29, 2016

Thom Markham

Image of teacher teaching students for project based learning

Meeting Common Core Standards requires more emphasis on inquiry and project based learning (PBL.) Increasingly, in the 2012 -2013 school year, teachers will be asked to design and implement high quality, student-focused projects that help students go deeper into subjects, think harder, and perform better.

Teachers with experience in ‘doing projects’ often feel that they know how to do this, but delivering high quality PBL that yields ‘visible greatness,’ in the words of a teacher I talked with recently, is not easy work. Effective PBL begins with mastering a design methodology that combines discovery with accountability. After that, the power of PBL is harnessed when teachers employ a set of tools and principles aimed at engaging students in a powerful learning experience—the kind that directs them toward deeper thinking, and that often permanently shifts their behaviors and attitudes in a positive direction. That’s the standard we now seek in our schools.

That standard can be met through PBL, but not without overcoming certain pitfalls and gaps in PBL by letting go of ingrained practices in education that actually retard deeper thinking. What should you look for, either to use or avoid?

First, I’ve found that high quality projects begin well before students ever see them. This is the stage in which you are conceptualizing a project and working on a design idea that will engage students in solving an important, relevant, open ended problem. What do those problems look like, and how do you get there? Here are ten tips:

  1. Start with a challenge, not a predetermined outcome. Letting go of predetermined outcomes sounds simple, but industrial education is built on the premise that we teach students what we believe they ought to know. That’s why we have standards. But PBL aims at getting students to know and apply the standards. If you know the answer to the problem already, it’s not a good project idea. Here’s a good test: Can the answer be Googled?
  2. Think of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, which emphasizes creating and evaluating, rather than remembering and understanding, is a helpful tool in the early stages of project planning. Your goal is not ‘awareness’ or ‘recall’ or even ‘analyzing’ in the academic sense; your goal is to direct students into the deeper domains of learning, in which they struggle with ideas, draft conclusions, weigh alternatives, and create solutions. Stay away from project ideas that result in students listing, defining, or categorizing. If the products of the project sound too conventional to you, they probably are.
  3. Commit to inquiry. As you plan out the teaching and learning on a project schedule, commit to keeping the inquiry alive. It’s easy to default to teaching the curriculum rather than allowing students to think for themselves. Use lots of triads, pairs, and teams to get students to brainstorm and trade solutions. Given time constraints, this is tricky territory for PBL, so you probably will need to decide how to balance direct instruction with think time. But err on the side of thinking, and as you plan out the schedule, allow the time necessary for students to work their way through a complex problem.
  4. Refine the DQ. The challenge needs to be captured in a solid Driving Question for the project. This question is not an essential or thematic question; it’s designed to tell students what they need to learn in the project. At the end of the project, they will have answered this question, either through the products they prepare or the reflection at the end of the project. Getting to the right question is hard work. Think of it as an editing process. You’re trying to identify exactly what you want out of this project. Often, the right question emerges when you investigate the purpose of the project. Recently, I discussed a cell structure project with a 9th grade biology teacher. Once he realized that the purpose was not to teach the parts of the cell (that’s Googleable), he moved onto how the structure of a cell compares to a virus, and how students can use this knowledge to probe diseases and their cures.
  5. Beware the PowerPoint and the tri-fold brochure. It’s hard to design projects with products that matter. The usual suspects—such as a PowerPoint or a brochure—rarely invigorate students. Your first objective is to plan for products that mirror what professionals would do. For example, in a recent health/fitness project, students design a Personal Fitness plan that matched the form used by a local health club. Similarly, in Biology, students designed a zoo, and in Algebra, students created a chart that matched school attendance to District revenue—and placed the chart in the front hall for all students to see every day (attendance went up.)
  6. Use a protocol to tune your project. There is one key best practice that has emerged at schools that succeed at PBL: Teachers review their project plan with colleagues prior to launching the project. This process works very well if teachers use a Critical Friends Protocol to analyze the project plan. Discussions alone (“I have an idea I’d like to run by you.”) aren’t sufficient. PBL is complex, and benefits from multiple viewpoints and detailed feedback.
  7. Grade work ethic. Good rubrics are essential to defining performance in PBL, both for assessing the application of content and 21st century skills. However, good performance is very dependent on training students to work hard. A work ethic rubric is your most essential tool here. It is a flexible rubric that can be adapted to different grade levels, defines expectations for students, and grades them on the kinds of skills and attitudes that employers seek today. In many schools, work ethic is now ten percent or more of the final grade on a project.
  8. Design a breakthrough column. Ideally, PBL doesn’t result in ‘A’ work; it encourages something better. Every well designed project offers the opportunity for students to go beyond mastering concepts, facts, and skills—and to demonstrate ‘break-through thinking. This is the kind of insight captured in the top of the pyramid on the new Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in a strict standards-based environment, that kind of thinking is not encouraged or supported. But any rubric can be adapted to this vital goal by having a breakthrough column. What do you write in this column? Nothing, leave it blank. Let students show you what insightful solutions look like.
  9. Use visible thinking routines. I’m will elaborate on this in a coming blog, but the most pressing issue for PBL teachers is how to encourage students to talk intelligently in teams about problems that matter. Moving from groups to the language of teams is a first step. A second step is to require protocols that train students to share prototypes, probe each other’s thinking, share and evaluate solutions, and use the vocabulary of the discipline they are studying. The Visible Thinking routines developed at Harvard are ideal tools for your PBL teams.
  10. Plan to reflect. Follow this rule: Your project does not end until you have led students in a reflection on what they have learned. Use a systematic approach to reflection, with key prompts that review student performance, the project outcomes, and your contribution to the project plan. The general approach is to get at three elements of reflection: (1) Encouraging deep learning and retention; (2) Focusing on quality and excellence; and (3) Developing a ‘growth’ mindset.

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