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.