Things to remember about PBL

Posted on 08.30.2012


As the school year grows closer and closer and I rewrite my UbD’s I have been thinking about the projects I do with the students and how to make them more authentic projects of inquiry.  A post from Ginger Lewman about PBL vs. simple projects has really helped me think more about how I plan, introduce, work-through, grade and reflect on projects with students.  This year I am going to try and do more of the following:


Make the projects as authentic and experiential as possible

Each Unit should have an end project in mind that is meaningful to students in some way.  This could be a skill they can develop, like writing a eulogy or giving a dramatic speech in public OR it can be creating a plan to deal with flooding should it occur and then posting it in a public place.

The priority here is the project and unit should be about giving the student more agency as they enter deeper into our democratic society.

So, as I create my units and projects I am thinking about what the students and I can do together that contributes to a larger goal – whether it’s working on a skill they want to develop, or creating awareness, or simply building on something they want to get better at.  Part of the trick is also being flexible with them as well – a teacher I really respect is always pushing me to get student feedback and use them in the design process.  It’s a scary thought to let students design their own projects or inquiry, but can also be very powerful.  However, student choice and student voice is key on any level.


Make it a reflective process

I want the students to learn throughout the unit, I want them to show me what they learned and perhaps most importantly, I want students to think about why and how they learned/learning.  Too often we get boged down in an end product and do not think enough about what it takes or is taking to get to it.  Often times discoveries and new ideas happen as we learn and create.  I really want my projects to encourage reflection because I think that’s how people get better.

Practically speaking, this happens at every stage:

Planning: when students get their project assignments, usually at the beginning of the unit, I outline the key steps or check-in points along the way on the project description.  You can see an example of this by checking out an oral history project about immigration for world history here.  On the first day we look at the steps and we create a planning document.  The planning document has three columns: the task, the date when it should be completed and a column that is called, “what stands out to me is…”

At the beginning of the year there are many steps because I am modeling how to break up a large task (the project) and make it more manageable. As the year goes on, there are less and less steps and we work together to create those intermediary steps.  For the oral history project, we sit as a class and fill in the first two columns.  I tell students about key dates of when things are due and the steps.  As I tell them I ask for feedback, If they have to interview someone, we talk about if they are simply going to start the interview or if they need to create questions first.  So even before they interview they have a first step that is creating the interview questions – that goes on their planning document.

When each step is due, I come around and give them a stamp to credit the completion of the step.  As I stamp their sheets they fill in the last column and do a bit of reflecting.  (I wrote a bit about how I want them to reflect in my previous post) At the end of the project they reflect as well on how well it went.


Make it collaborative

Students have peer groups in the class; they are in groups of 4 and also in pairs.  At each step I encourage students to share their progress and ask for feedback.  This is something that I do, but I don’t think it goes particularly well.  Giving good feedback is a skill that develops.  To help with this I always have ready focused conversation starters and prompts for feedback if I sense there is some hesitancy or just lacking of feedback.

Some practical ways to get kids to share:

  • Pair/share activities – students quickly share with a neighbor or group and then share out a good idea from the conversation.  It makes it more anonomous and many students all of a sudden can have a voice.
  • A quick whip around the room of thoughts or ideas – ask students to say their first thought, or complete this sentence: “yes and…”
  • Groups tweet – kids love it.  Yes, you need a computer or phone, but I think most teachers have access to some sort of technology.  I have students tweet to #nesoko.
  • Get up, interview and share – students walk around the room and interview their classmates using a simple prompt to help.
  • Gallery walks – students put their work on their desks and get a sticky note or two and have to leave one suggestion on someone’s project.  no one can sit down until everyone has at least one sticky note on their project.

Peer editing is always done as is critical questioning and suggestions – however I think the idea of sharing can be encouraged as well.  I want students to share their work, this can be helpful on so many levels.  Many students have trouble starting or think that their idea is just not good; hearing from their classmates helps with this for sure.

Do I worry about copying? No. Copying can only happen if there is one right answer; if a project is designed right, having one right answer is impossible.

[thought: I realize I am not writing about group projects, I am going to save some of that for another post.]


Ultimately, designing a good project is like doing one and I am looking forward to doing more.

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