Tag Archives: #Social Emotional Learning

Scaffolding Thinking in PBL

Most teachers are skilled at using scaffolds to help special education, English learners, or any student who needs extra support in breaking down and understanding concepts in core content areas. One of the most common misconceptions about PBL is that because students have “choice” that they are allowed to do whatever they want, and teachers don’t do much to help them. Not true! In high-quality PBL, Teachers still work alongside students to scaffold content. The difference is that it is usually happening in small group workshops.

In Project Based Learning, teachers also need to scaffold student thinking. The British Journal of Educational Technology recently published a study of high school students in a medical Problem Based Curriculum (paywall). It found six ways to move students from novice to expert thinking. Here’s how to scaffold thinking in the Project Based Learning framework.

1. Prompt students to include context

Context starts on day 1 of a project when we ask students “what do you know?” We launch with an entry event to not only get kids “hooked” into the project, but to activate prior knowledge. Constructivism tells us that students can only build on their previous knowledge base. Students often forget what they know or don’t realize that it applies in a new situation. Consistent use of protocols such as

  • Knows and Need to Knows lists
  • Notice and Wonder
  • Predict, Observe, Explain
  • I used to think…, but now I know…
  • Others might say…

build a culture where students start from a place of inquiry building on what they already know.

2. Ask open-ended questions

Traditional schooling has often focused on closed-ended questions with one right answer on multiple choice tests. PBL starts with a Driving Question that is open with many paths for students to consider. But we also want to teach students to ask their own open-ended questions.

The Question Formulation Technique (QFT) is an excellent protocol to teach students the difference between open and closed questions by sorting them. This leads to students generating more open-ended ones. Once students have learned the difference, it is easy for the teacher to have the class reword closed ended questions so that they are open.

3. Help students transfer knowledge and experience

One of the biases of Western education is the spliting of knowledge into content buckets or classes. Students often struggle to apply learning to new situations because they think it only applies to a certain class. Often core content is so separated from the real world that students don’t see the application of school to their lives.

In PBL students explore authentic questions in their community. Students learn how content applies to their lives in a meaningful way. Walls between content are broken down by integrated projects. Students have ample opportunity to apply various disciplines toward their project solution.

4. Leave room for student ownership

One of my favorite parts of PBL is student voice and choice. Students get excited when they participate in their learning in meaningful ways. Schools overemphasize compliance leading to complacency. If we want deeper thinking, students need permission to take the project where they think that it needs to go.

A practical way to do this is to let students plan parts of a project. When you design a PBL project, plan specific places where students will have choices whether it be groupings, content topics, or final products. As students become proficient, consider having students co-design the entire project with you. I have seen kindergarten classes who can do this with teacher support!

5. Invite and manage risk

My colleague Nate Langel applies the “You failed and it was awesome!” mantra to his science classroom. Students design their own experiments around the content topic and test their ideas. When things turn out “wrong” he gives high fives, celebrating that students learned something that doesn’t work and encouraging them to question why to redesign for another experiment.

Another way to invite risk is to model vulnerability. Be transparent with students about things that you are currently learning and how it feels. If you are trying PBL for the first time, tell your students that you trying a new way of learning because you think that it is better for them. Admit that you are nervous and acknowledge that you expect bumps along the way, but that will not be how you measure success.

6. Encourage reflection

We know that metacognition is vital for deeper learning. Hands-on learning doesn’t mean that students’ minds turn off like a factory worker on an assembly line. We need students to be hands-on and minds-on. John Dewey told us “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

End every lesson with a chance for students to reflect on the day. It doesn’t need to be a huge time suck. It could be 2 minutes for a journal entry, turn and talk, or exit ticket. Students should be reflecting on content and the SEL skills that they are developing. Mix it up so students don’t get bored. Reflection creates velcro moments where the learning sticks in long term memory.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

No Shark Fin Soup for You!

Algae Bomb

Carmen and Teresa were surprised when they arrived to class. There were green streamers and green plastic material all over the place. It covered the desks, chairs, bookshelves, and was even on some trash items scattered on the floor. “What happened?” they wondered while excitedly discussing with their classmates.

Carmen and Teresa were 5th graders in Heather Creelman’s class at Goshen Post Elementary, a wall-to-wall PBL school in Loudoun County Public Schools, Virginia. It was launch day for a new project focused on food webs, oceans, and photosynthesis. The “green” represented algae that was out of control at Virginia Beach, located three hours away from their school. Students had many questions:

  • Why was there so much algae?
  • What caused it to spread?
  • What are the uses of algae?
  • What are the results of over production of algae?
  • Does it matter if there is so much algae?

Students were already familiar with the PBL process and started generating Need to Know questions. The discussion on the causes and effects of the algae led to how problems in the food chain can lead to an overpopulation of algae due to a lack of oxygen produced by plankton. Students followed up the food chain from plankton to sharks and realized that a shortage of sharks led to a ripple effect down. At this point Creelman showed a video on shark thinning and how the species was moving toward endangerment. She then asked the Driving Question: “How can we as stewards of the ocean advocate for the protection of sharks?”

Authentic Inquiry

Creelman and her colleagues had planned this project to focus on an authentic problem that matched standards in science, technology, and ELA. They knew that sharks would be the focus and that students would create a brochure of their learning and have a verbal presentation, but they didn’t know what direction students would take the project and who the audience would be. They left that up to the students to decide.

Through research students soon discovered that sharks were often hunted specifically for their dorsal fin. Fisherman would cut it off to be sold to restaurants for shark fin soup and throw the rest of the shark back into the ocean. They were not happy about this practice! Carmen looked into the law and discovered that Virginia already had a law prohibiting shark fishing, but it had a loophole: restaurants could still buy shark fins harvested elsewhere. Teresa discovered that there was a restaurant an hour away that actually served shark fin soup.

Students were outraged and decided that they needed to take action. They wanted to educate the public and change the law. Students discussed who the authentic audience should be, and they immediately decided that the president must act! The teachers dialed down their expectations to a local official. Students researched and found their State Representative Jennifer Wexton and sent an email inviting her to their classroom to hear about the sale of shark fins. A few days later, Rep. Wexton responded yes and a date was set.

Carmen and Teresa were so excited! They knew that their work on sharks would be shared with a celebrity. This wasn’t a make believe project. They would have the ear of an actual government official. Carmen and Teresa worked hard on their brochure and elevator pitch. They gave and received feedback to their classmates through the Tuning Protocol. They revised their work so that they could present a factual and motivational presentation on why shark products should not be sold.

The big day came for Rep. Wexton to visit. Carmen and Teresa were nervous, but confident because they believed in the urgency of their pitch and were well prepared. When it was their turn, they shook Rep. Wexton’s hand and delivered their elevator pitch. It was a great day for Goshen Post Elementary to be proud of!

Fast forward a year later when out of the blue, Creelman received a tweet with a video in it from Rep. Wexton revealing that the House in Virginia had passed the Shark Fin Sale Elimination Act, a bill banning the commercial sale of shark fins and products containing shark fins.

When Creelman shared the news with Carmen and Teresa and the rest of the now 6th grade students, they were overjoyed! They beamed with confidence from what they had achieved.

Responsible Decision Making

The Shark Fin Project is an exemplary example of how PBL can be used to develop the Social and Emotional Skills of Responsible Decision Making. Students were identifying problems, analyzing situations, solving problems, and evaluating during the entire project. From the launch students were asking questions and actively investigating the root cause of too much algae at the beach. They were exploring an authentic problem near them and looked to solve it.

Inquiry throughout the project had them discovering and analyzing the sale of shark fins in their state and concluding the action needed was to pass a new law. Through the Tuning Protocol, students evaluated each other’s work. Students reflected on changes they needed to make to their final presentations.

The ultimate result of this project was that students not only learned about, but practiced ethical responsibility. They took on the task of making a change in their state laws. During final reflection Carmen said, “This made me see that people will actually listen to me even though I am only 10.” Teresa agreed adding, “I am going to vote someday because it does make a difference.”

Creelman shared that in her ten years of teaching, students have never been more empowered because they knew they were making a real impact. As teachers we don’t need to focus on preparing students for the future, they can make a difference RIGHT NOW if only given the opportunity!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.