Tag Archives: voice and choice

What can all teachers learn from PBL with our youngest learners?

I just finished reading Implementing Project Based Learning in Early Childhood by my amazing PBLWorks colleagues Sara Lev, Amanda Clark , and Erin Starkey. First of all, this book is a must read for any elementary teacher, especially PK-2. The book is organized around common concerns (misconception actually) about PBL that the authors have heard from other elementary teachers. Not surprisingly, they are the same concerns about PBL that I hear from secondary teachers 🙂

What I like the most is that the entire book tells the story of a project in Sara’s transitional kindergarten class. “Seeing” how she plans, implements, and adjusts the project for her students based on their abilities and interests clearly models what PBL can be. Sara is a master of planning like the Professor, but pivoting like Tokyo.

As a secondary teacher, I think sometimes high school teachers focus too much on content. Elementary teachers tend to focus more on holistic teaching of the whole child. A couple of common early elementary practices stood out to me as missing from many middle and high school classrooms. Here’s 5 things all PBL teachers should use:

1. Anchor Charts

I never hear high school teachers use this term. Rarely middle school teachers (usually those certified K-8) use anchor charts. Why don’t secondary teachers document student discussions and thinking with anchor charts for all to see? Instead whole group “discussions” tend to be teacher dominated by lectures and slides.

So I did a little research and found this post that describes how to use anchor charts at the secondary level. I think that they make a ton of sense at all levels and are especially helpful for English Learners. Another alternative that I could see is having student groups develop their own anchor charts to organize and demonstrate their learning. They would make an excellent formative assessment to quickly see if students understand a concept or process.

2. Observations

One of the most powerful tools that teachers have is their ability to observe students and analyze their needs. Of course in the teacher-dominated classroom this rarely happens because all we would see is bored kids taking notes. But in PBL, conferencing with students, listening to conversations, and watching groups attack problems are high value formative assessments to not only gauge learning, but pivot toward student interests, ideas, and needs.

Listening is the most underrated formative assessment.

3. Illustrations

We know that visuals are an important way for humans to process informations. Many classrooms use different types of illustrations, but I don’t think there can ever be too many. Drawings, art, diagrams, charts, graphs, timelines, multi-media, infographs, concept maps are great ways to engage in content in any subject area. Students should be analyzing and creating visual content in every class.

Illustrations should be a part of both formative and summative assessments. I would have my students draw answers to essay questions and have them verbally explain them to me. This honored the content knowledge of my students who may not have been the strongest writers, but understood the social studies content. Illustrations can be especially helpful for special education students and English learners.

4. Choice Time

We know that play is a great way to learn. Kindergarten rooms are full of objects for kids to interactive with in a tactile way. Secondary rooms are often sterile with only desks and chairs. Ask most secondary kids their favorite class and it probably has some “junk” in it: Art, shop, plants and animals in biology, woodworking, computers, lab equipment, drama props, etc.

Sometimes teachers let students do something “fun” like games if they complete their work early, but the authors advocate for unstructured choice time being an integral part of the learning. Many teachers are terrified of the word “unstructured” but the difference is that kindergarten rooms are full of engaging items to play with.

What if middle and high school rooms had interesting items for play?

It is important to note that Sara sets out specific items depending on what they are doing in class. For example she puts out a bin full of instruments when they were studying music and blocks, rulers, and measuring tapes when they were designing their outdoor classroom. What the casual observer might not realize is that Sara uses this choice time to listen to her students practice the vocabulary that they are learning and having casual conversations about the project. Then she pivots the project based on these formative assessments of their conversations.

The popular genius hour is a version of choice time, but I think that it should be more hands on and tactile like in a STEM lab. At the secondary level this might look like a set of primary source pictures or old objects in history or students designing their own experiments in science. ELA probably does the best job of this with choice reading. Math may be the most difficult, but one option is letting students free design with a tool like Desmos. The main thing missing at the secondary level is the space and materials to allow students to play.

5. Space

Intentionally leave space for student voice and choice in projects. I love how Sara didn’t even plan all of her standards ahead of time, but found standards to add to her project based on the choices that students made in the middle of it. Other times she made something that she had planned feel like it spontaneously came from her students. None of this is possible if our planning calendar is packed full, using every minute of the day. Instead leave space to pivot to student needs and passions. Anticipate areas for student choice and intentionally plan out time for it.

“We don’t give voice…It is our job to create learning environments where children are encouraged and supported to make their voices heard.”

Lev, Clark, & Starkey

Implementing Project Based Learning in Early Childhood is a great read full of practical PBL advice for teachers of all levels. Go get yourself a copy, you won’t regret it! Wondering how to teach ECPBL remotely? Check out this Facebook group where Sara is sharing what she is doing this year.

Let’s Connect

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting on remote learning?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.

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.