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.
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.