I recently visited an alternative education high school where I had taught for a year. The school uses PBL and students are genuinely loved and cared for. It was great seeing the staff and hearing success stories of former students. But unfortunately one horrible story sticks out in my mind.
Two of my former students are in prison to be tried for murder. One of them allegedly shot a kid in the face during a planned robbery of a drug deal. This student had some struggles at school, but I did not expect to hear about 2nd degree murder.
This caused me to reflect on some other former students who didn’t make it through high school. One made an online bomb threat to a former middle school that he previously attended, shutting down the school and terrifying that community. Another was arrested for armed robbery after breaking into a house with a gun. A third was shot in the lower body (but fully recovered), presumably in a drug transaction that went bad. All three of these boys never got in trouble at school.
You know what else all four of these boys had in common? They were strong academic students. They did their work and did not need much support to be successful in the classroom. Attendance was sometimes an issue for them, but when present they worked hard and did quality work.
These boys did not need better lesson plans, clearer learning targets written on the board, more engaging content, or any other “best practices” to be implemented in their classes. There are no magic teaching strategies that would have helped prevent their actions.
Instead they needed comprehensive counseling and mental health services, mentors, and effective community programs to help them and their families.
This is just a sampling of stories from my short stay at this school. There are rampant substance abuse problems and these students face pretty much every horrible challenge that you can imagine in their homes and communities.
You know what is not going to help these students “make it?” Better math and ELA instruction. This school uses PBL, focuses on SEL, and borrows practices from Restorative Justice and Mindfulness. All of these are wonderful education strategies, and help many students find success and graduate. But those who work in these settings know that none of it is ever enough to reach every student.
So I wake up early today, unable to sleep, in my comfortable, safe, middle class life. I wonder about the effects of second hand trauma on the staff who have dedicated YEARS to loving and serving a struggling community and its students. Little is done to support the adults in the building and look after their mental well-being.
Then I consider the politicians’ solutions to failing schools: start a charter, more accountability through standardization and mandatory testing, meanwhile cutting funds that schools are “wasting.” There is too much blaming of teachers who put their heart and soul on the line every day for kids.
The highest budget item for any district is paying the staff. Cutting school funding means cutting either staff pay and benefits or eliminating people. Often times the first people to go are the “support staff” including counselors and social workers. We can not solve complex problems by having less adults in schools for kids. Anyone who has worked in schools knows that smaller class sizes and more support is helpful for all schools, but is a necessity in low income, high trauma schools.
Schools can not fix all of society’s ills. The problems are systemic in society, not just in schools. Poverty in the form of unemployment and underemployment causes very real and traumatic issues for so many families. Schools can not be held responsible and culpable for every lack in children’s lives. Whole communities need to be restored.
We need comprehensive programs for these communities. These schools need more funding for mental health, counselors, and social workers. It would be impossible to have too many caring adults in our schools. We need mentorships for every child by community members. Teachers do not have the time or capacity to do this alone.
Will we ever get beyond the rhetoric of naming laws “No Child Left Behind” or “Every Student Succeeds Act” and actually fund adequate mental health and social care for students and work to end systemic poverty?
Project Based Learning is a student centered framework that encourages inquiry through research, problem solving, interviews, and exploration. It values student groups dialoguing together to construct their own meaning about important content questions. It is a natural fit for teaching methods such as discovery learning, simulations, design your own experiment, and vertical whiteboards. PBL encourages students to build on their background knowledge through experiences and exposure to new information.
But what about when there are important gaps between what students know and need to know to solve the problems embedded into the project? As teachers, we have an obligation to meet the required standards of our district and state and district. How can we be assured that all students learn the necessary content in PBL? Teachers do have a responsibility in PBL to constantly use formative assessments to make sure students are on track. And it is not “against the rules” to use direct instruction when needed!
Direct instruction gets a bad rap, but pretty much every teacher uses it. We know that lectures by themselves are one of the least effective learning strategies. We also know that all students will not “magically discover” important concepts without teacher direction and input. So how can PBL teachers effectively provide direct instruction? Here are a variety of effective methods that I have used. Most of these strategies assume a PBL framework with project work time happening for the class as a whole, while a subset of students are attending the workshop with the teacher or expert.
Stations are an elementary staple that are a natural fit with PBL. Student groups move in rotation to different spots in the room and complete various tasks. One station can be with the teacher, who leads a mini-lesson on a core concept. Benefits include movement, variety of tasks, and allowing the teacher to focus on a small group of students at once. Stations work great with literacy, reading, and mathematical concepts. Middle and high school teachers should try using stations too.
If students are assigned roles during the project, consider a workshop for just one set of roles. Give the class project work time and then call out just the editors or the tech gurus from each group for specific instructions or resources. If you aren’t using specific roles, have each group choose one representative to attend the workshop and report back to the group. Role based workshops encourage collaboration as the groups depend on each other for information and resources.
5 Minute “Lecture”
Instead of having students come to your teacher station, go to them! Prepare a 5 minute mini-lesson based on a gap in student understanding or an unanswered “Need to Know.” Give students an extended block of work time. Work your way around the room checking in with each group’s progress. In a dialogue style “deliver” the mini lesson during a group conversation. Students will be focused, as you are only talking to their group and you can easily check for understanding. By the end of the hour, you have effectively met with each group and incognito taught your content.
Flip the Script
How many times have you given a lecture and then assigned a related practice activity, only to have half the class need help getting started? We have all been frustrated when students don’t pay attention to our whole class instruction. Instead try giving students the practice activity first, knowingly that most will not be able to do it. Allow five minutes of struggle and when the inevitable hands start popping up say, “Looks like we could use a workshop on this.” Then give the instruction that you traditionally gave first. Many students need to experience the struggle before they are ready to listen. Some students won’t need any help and they can continue on their own without you!
One of the weaknesses of whole class lectures is that they do not allow for differentiation. They tend to treat every student as needing the exact, same information. With PBL, it makes sense to use formative assessments to determine which students need specific help. Then the following day, mandatory workshops can be given for a subset of students who have misunderstandings, were absent, or just need more practice with the teacher. Many of the requirements for IEP’s or scaffolds for EL students can be given in this format (without labeling students) but also offered for general education students who need help too.
Voluntary workshops are some of the most powerful and effective ones. When students choose to come, instead of being forced, they tend to be focused. But when you offer a voluntary workshop, some students who need help won’t choose to come. Give the workshop without them. As soon as it is over, check in with those students. Tell them, “Looks like you are struggling with this. I just gave a workshop on it. You should have been there.” And then walk away and repeat with the rest of the students who needed the workshop but didn’t attend. Once you have made these rounds, announce to the class that you have decided to repeat the workshop and given the “teacher eye” to all of those students and make sure they attend. The goal is to teach students to advocate for themselves and to learn to seek help when they need it.
Just in Time
Another variation of Flipping the Script, is Just in Time instruction. It makes no pedagogical sense to teach students about something before they are ready to learn it or perform a task related to it. They won’t listen and you will end up reteaching it. An example of Just in TIme teaching would be how to do a works cited page. Give students the requirements and resources for how to properly do one, but not a lecture. Wait until after rough drafts are done and a few days before the paper is due. Project an exemplary works cited page and ask students to pull up theirs and compare. If their works cited page doesn’t look like it should then have them come to a workshop on how to do it.
Student Requested workshops are a subset of Voluntary ones. As part of the PBL process and culture, students should be able to request any workshop at anytime. Importantly, the teacher does not need to lead them immediately. Oftentimes the teacher will tell students that the workshop will happen tomorrow based on scheduling and realistically to give time to prepare for meaningful learning. Student Requested workshops are excellent indicators that students are engaged in deeper learning.
Teachers are not the only ones who can lead workshops. Outside experts can be a great resource, especially in areas that the teacher may not know details about. Student Led workshops are powerful because they empower student leaders as they teach their classmates. One area that I always use Student Led workshops with is technology. At the high school level, I don’t teach how to use tech tools, but expect students to figure it out by themselves. Every class has some technology nerds, and I designate them the experts to help classmates.
A pattern of the previous formats is that they are all smaller workshops, not with your whole class. Smaller workshops are more powerful because they are focused and personalized. A whole class workshop with the traditional lecture is a format that for the most part, I try to avoid. Instead use whole class instruction as a starting point to go over the expectations and agenda for the day or as an ending point to reflect and summarize the learning of the day. I rarely “deliver content” in a whole class style of lecture with note taking. When I do, I record it so students can watch it later at their own pace.
While I avoid whole class lectures, I do have whole class activities such as watching videos, reading articles, and class discussions. Rather than a lecture, where the teacher is the source of knowledge, try using a variety of sources to expose students to relevant content. Then structure conversations using protocols to promote equity. Some favorite protocols include Socratic Seminars, Fishbowls, Say Something, Spider Web,Speed Dating, and Chalk Talk. Protocols keep students at the center of the learning, encouraging participation and reflection on their learning.
Don’t let boring lectures dominate your class. Don’t fall for the PBL teacher as babysitter myth that students are 100% on their own either. Teachers should be providing instruction to students throughout the PBL process as needed. The key is accurate formative assessment of where each student is at, so that appropriate support can be provided in the right way at the right time.
“Failure is success in progress.” —Albert Einstein
“At the outset of a project, enthusiasm and idealism are high. As educators, we approach our project-based learning (PBL) with an eye toward success, but what happens when things don’t turn out as planned?
My co-teacher and I launched a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) video project on World War I and World War II in our integrated American history and English language arts class. The project married the concept of CYOA books with videos where viewers choose what to do next. Rather than have each group make its own video, we decided to have our whole classes divide up the tasks to create one giant adventure.
Students were placed in different teams based on self-identified skills, and roles included writers, actors, directors, artists for props, lighting and camera operators, and video editors. Each class created a storyboard on a whiteboard wall, plotting all of the paths and choices like a sideways tree. Groups of students began writing scripts for each scene, including details of the setting and props.
The students did an excellent job of distributing roles and diagramming the big-picture storyboard, but they struggled with the rest of the project. Ultimately, we were unable to finish the videos, but the challenges gave us new insights on how to successfully implement this type of project in the future.”
Going to school isn’t a job. Students don’t get paid. And yes, they are forced to be there. Therefore I am always hesitant to apply business advice to schools. But more and more I am seeing that project management strategies often do apply to student groups in PBL.
In order to help an employee find motivation, the the proper “trap” should be identified leading to applying the appropriate solution. I believe this can be adapted to leading a class of collaborative groups using PBL.
This trap can be summarized as “I don’t care enough to do this.” I would argue that this is the most prevalent motivational problem that we have in school because of our one size fits all, mandated curriculum. PBL is a great approach because it gives the teacher freedom to customize their class to their students’ interests and abilities.
The first step in fixing a values mismatch is to know your students. Build relationships with your kids and discover their passions. Then PBL projects can be designed to connect with them. I have even designed an entire class project with only one student in mind, that is struggling to engage in my class. Students will find more value in a class where they have a positive relationship with the teacher and they feel like the content addresses issues that matter to them.
Lack of Self Efficacy
In this trap students are saying “I don’t think that I am able to do this.” Except students rarely say this out loud. Instead they avoid the task with disruptive behavior or shut down by sleeping or daydreaming. Oftentimes this student tries to hide the embarrassment of lack of ability or belief in themselves from both the teacher and other students. It is crucial that teachers see through these smokescreens and identify the real cause of student actions.
Again the first step is knowing your students and then applying the appropriate scaffolds to help them succeed. Have you identified your students who are EL or special ed? What about the students who don’t have an official “label” but need support? Show students quality examples and give them outlines and other scaffolds to get started. Acknowledge when they are successful to help them build confidence. Most importantly remove scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore and point out the growth to students.
“Remember at the beginning of the year, you needed my help to multiply fractions. Now you can do it all by yourself!”
Sometimes students are feeling that “I am too upset to do this.” One of the reasons that I like to start class by meeting kids at the door is to check on their emotional state when they get there. This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If students are angry or depressed, then they will not be able to focus on school.
Be a caring listener. Have a private conversation with the student and hear out what is bothering them. I often ask students if they would like to talk to a counselor or another trusted adult if I can’t give them the time that they need during class. We rarely can fix whatever is bothering them in the middle of a busy class but students must know that we care about their well being more than the content that we teach. Ask students if they think that can do the tasks of the class that day. Once they have been truly heard, most students can focus on what they need to.
This trap is when students say, “I don’t know what went wrong with this.” I think in schools this is usually an avoidance ploy of the above, Lack of Self Efficacy variety. Students (and adults too) don’t want to admit failures or weaknesses so they shift to excuses of “I was too busy” or blaming group members for not completing tasks.
One solution that can help student groups is teaching them to hold each other accountable. I like to use a Student Scrum Board or Trello for groups to regulate themselves. With a clear plan for project management, then students can focus on the actual problem of lack of skills or perhaps a values mismatch as being the real reason that work is not being completed.
None of these are magic, but it is always important to know our students and to properly assess why they may not be successful on a given day. I also think that it is critical to their growth to acknowledge what has been holding them back and how they have overcome it. Then the next time that they are feeling unmotivated they can learn to self analyze the cause and self correct.
Who controls most classrooms? Whose voice dominates? Who decides what is learned, how it is learned, and with whom? Who determines the assessments and what they look like?
When first learning about Project Based Learning, many teachers skeptically ask me “How do I keep kids on task?” or “How do I ensure that students learn all of my content standards?” Often what they are actually questioning is “Does PBL lead to classroom chaos?”
Behind these questions is a fear of losing control. Educators worry that if they allow student voice and choice, their well managed class will turn into a free for all. They don’t say it out loud, but these teachers fear Anarchy as seen on the left hand extreme of the Control Continuum with students having one hundred percent control and the teacher exerting none.
They imagine students doing whatever they feel like with the teacher asserting zero input. When educators think about inquiry based or student driven work, they wonder, “What is the teacher is doing? Just sitting back reading a book or playing a game on their phone?” They picture the teacher as a clueless babysitter ignoring a mob of spoiled rotten children. They imagine poor substitute teachers that they have observed and think “No way!”
But this is a straw man argument and one of the biggest myths about PBL. No one is advocating for Anarchy in the classroom!
To demonstrate how ridiculous this fear is, I want to consider the opposite extreme: Tyranny. On the right side of the Control Continuum, the teacher has one hundred percent control and the students have zero.
At this logical extreme, the teacher commands every student action. The teacher is a military dictator controlling every thought through power and fear. Students are marionettes, powerless to think or react without permission. Relationships, feelings, and emotions are irrelevant as the supreme leader dictates content into the brains of his subjects. They will obey, and they will learn at his command.
Just as the metaphor of teacher as all powerful dictator is absurd, so is the teacher as powerless babysitter. Student centered inquiry is NOT a free for all. It is NOT students doing whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like doing it. These analogies are a thought exercise to show that both extremes of the Control Continuum are equally absurd. No one is advocating for the style of teaching at either end. Both are straw man arguments that if they did exist somewhere would warrant firing the teacher.
But educators rarely question the right side of the continuum. What if the teacher has too much control? Does the climate of many classrooms stifle creativity and actual learning? There is not the same fear associated with the right end of the Control Continuum as with the left. A strong classroom leader (but not to the dictator extreme) was the model that many teachers experienced when they were in school and is their comfort zone.
A further danger of the fear of student voice and choice is that some teachers don’t believe that “their students” can handle self directed learning. Sometimes this is because of the age of the children or maybe their socio-economic background. This is dangerous thinking. We know that students will rise to meet expectations and vise versa (The Power of Expectations). We also know that implicit bias can prevent our students of color from being pushed as much as they should be. ALL STUDENTS can self direct their learning with proper scaffolding and support. Never sell your students short of what they can become or do!
PBL as Framework
PBL is actually the opposite of Anarchy. It is a framework, a structure, a design process for student centered learning for both the teacher and the kids. PBL has protocols to guide students through content standards while giving them voice in what and how they learn.
We will explore the what the middle of the Control Continuum looks like in a future post and reflect on where the ideal spot is for both teachers and students. But for now, can we all agree that the fear of PBL leading to chaos is a misguided myth? Don’t go to the straw man extreme of Anarchy as an excuse not to try PBL. Give it a shot and you will learn to love the process and students will excel beyond your wildest imagination!