One of the best teaching strategies simply requires us to change the order of what we do. Instead of leading with standards and “I can” statements, create opportunities for student to experience and play with our content before explicitly explaining it. Begin class with an open-ended question, an experiment, or reading a picture book. Start with purposeful play on the topic of the day or project.
PBL as Backwards Teaching
In Project Based Learning this means starting a unit off with an entry event to initially engage kids in the upcoming content. It is an appetizer to get them excited and ready to dive in. Followed up by the student-generated Need to Know list of questions, the class begins a journey of structured inquiry.
The teacher and students work together to formulate the path of the project through protocols and routines. It is not free time or chaos, but rather teachers guide students through structures such as design thinking models to produce deliverables for a purpose, usually with a community partnership.
Direct instruction is embedded with workshops throughout the project. This is teaching backwards. Instead of instruction first and then student practice to demonstrate learning, PBL teachers start by launching students into tasks that they are not prepared to do yet. This inquiry preps students to receive teacher input, i.e. direct instruction, as they get stuck along the way. As students become proficient at PBL, the teacher’s instruction is less about specific content knowledge and more about skills to search, interpret, analyze, and evaluate information for themselves. Students develop the abilities to learn for themselves in ways that transfer to multiple content areas.
Content specific vocabulary can be a challenging part of teaching and many effective strategies exist. A math teacher in a Facebook group that I am a part of, posted a request for strategies to teach vocabulary without direct instruction. Now maybe she meant how to have students practice vocabulary, but my immediate thought is why wouldn’t direct instruction be an element of teaching new terms? I am not talking about direct instruction in isolation, but after students have interacted with concepts.
My suggestion was to have students play with math first through an open ended problem or thin slicing and then at the end of the class teach students the vocabulary. Then all you are doing is telling students the official math names for the concepts that they just experienced.
It makes sense and is consistent with constructivist pedagogy that students build meaning on previous learning. After experience, the brain can more fully understand what new words mean by connecting to other experiences. But the teacher will need to explicitly name the new vocabulary and guide students to make connections.
This is not isolated to math instruction as every content area needs students to learn vocabulary. So pedagogy and vocabulary instruction are not binary choices between direct instruction or student centered discovery. We can and should use both, but order matters. Let students experience content concepts first, before we name them.
Learn with me!
If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to teach SEL skills. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I have limited availability for PBL & SEL workshops during the school year so contact me early. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at email@example.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.