• Jeffrey Hinton

PBL project design part 2: How to plan projects that work



"If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail."

~Benjamin Franklin


Observing a PBL classroom for the first time can be unsettling for traditional educators. Teachers have been taught over the years to believe that a quiet, orderly classroom with minimal student movement, noise, and disruptions is the optimum learning environment. In the traditional classroom, the teacher is typically at the front of the room providing direct instruction, generally through lectures and demonstrations, as students passively absorb the teacher's information. The PBL classroom, on the other hand, can look the exact opposite. To the uninitiated, PBL can appear loud, chaotic, and disorganized, as there is usually a flurry of activity as students freely move about the room collaborating, planning, researching, and designing. However, the most misleading aspect of the PBL classroom is its lack of structure. But this couldn't be further from the truth. It is just that the teacher had done all of the planning, organizing, and preparation before the PBL began.


An interesting way to think about PBL design is to consider two types of old-fashioned toys. One is the pull toy. This toy usually consists of a wooden animal, such as an elephant, horse, or dog, fastened to a wheeled platform. Attached to the platform is a string that children use to pull the toy behind them. This type of toy represents traditional lesson planning in which teachers design lessons to "pull" their students through content with all energy and control emanating from the teacher. Essentially, the students are led in whatever direction the teacher chooses with the locus of control firmly in their hands. The other kind of toy is the wind-up toy. This type of toy is comprised of a torsion spring that enables the toy to "walk" independently. Popular toy designs included animals, Disney characters, and robots. Wind-up toys are illustrative of PBL because teachers must frontload the project before beginning. In other words, they do most of the work of designing and planning the project before it launches. And then allow students the autonomy to work on it independently. In other words, wind them up and let them go as the project takes on a life of its own.


The teacher's role in PBL

Students' social and emotional well-being has come to the forefront recently in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent quarantine and distance learning. Teachers have been searching for ways to build strong positive relationships with students but find it difficult when engaged in bell-to-bell direct instruction. The wonderful thing about PBL is that because students work most of the time autonomously, the teacher becomes more of a "guide on the side" than a "sage on a stage." In PBL, they have more time to circulate the room and provide students with coaching, support, empathy, and inspiration as they work with students individually and in small groups. But they also have time to get to know their students personally. The everyday conversations will help educators build rapport and trust with their students and help them feel connected and valued at school.

Additionally, as coaches, teachers can give students valuable formative feedback in real-time as they conduct their research and investigations. In doing so, teachers can push students to engage in higher-level thinking through in-depth questioning strategies. Doing so will help students stay engaged, on track, and progress in the project.


Plan the learning experiences

As discussed in my previous post, the first step in planning the PBL using a backward design model is to identify key student learning outcomes informed by curriculum standards, benchmarks, and the project's big idea. Then, teachers should develop the evidence of student learning to include diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to assess students' mastery of key learning goals. The final stage of the backward design model is to plan the learning experiences to include the instruction, activities, and materials that students will utilize in the project.


Project duration

When planning the project, it is essential to consider how much time you can allot to the project. An important point here is that PBL should not add to an already crowded planning calendar but replace traditional lessons that address the same standards. It would be best if you spent the same amount of time on a PBL lesson as a traditional one to cover the same standards. In other words, if it took a week to address a set number of measures, the PBL should take approximately the same time. Because PBL is standards-based, it is vital for teachers to know their standards and be able to address them in the PBL strategically.

Further, to work more efficiently, teachers should think about how they can address more than a few standards in a single PBL. High-quality PBL should have no problem addressing multiple standards. The project should provide students ample opportunities to address various content and skills such as researching, writing, and communicating. If this is your first PBL, however, I suggest starting small by creating a project of only a few days. Then, as your confidence builds, you can make more in-depth projects that cover more standards.


What I've learned Becoming a good PBL teacher takes time, and there will be plenty of mistakes made along the way. Good PBL teachers must be excellent reflective practitioners as they critically evaluate what has gone well and what needs to be improved. I suggest keeping a "teaching journal" to take notes and make observations as you plan and implement your PBL. It will be an excellent resource as you hone and refine your project. If possible, work with other teachers in your building by forming a PBL professional learning community (PLC) so that you can learn and grow together.

Further, it is unlikely that you will teach every standard using PBL, especially in your first few years of PBL implementation. Therefore, build your PBL repertoire by introducing one or two PBL lessons in your first year and build on your success. Continue to add 1-2 projects each year; before you know it, you will have a collection of projects to pick and choose from.




Project Timeline

Now that you have determined how much time you want to spend on the PBL, the next step is to create a timeline of milestone events. A milestone event is used in project management to mark specific points along a project timeline. Creating a timeline before the project begins will help you and your students stay on schedule and build a sense of forward motion. Some of the project milestone events in PBL include:

  • The project kickoff

  • Formation of small collaborative teams

  • Investigate and research the driving question

  • Design and execute the project

  • Submission of final summative product

  • Community presentation or call to action of the final product

  • Project reflection


Use a PBL Planning Form to plot milestone events and stay organized, and remember to give yourself time and flexibility when engaging in PBL for the first time. There will likely be hiccups and unforeseen challenges as you begin the PBL that might cause delays.


Daily Lessons and activities

In addition to mapping out project milestone events, teachers must plan daily lessons and learning activities to support students' ability to complete the project. Remember, in PBL, students learn and master the standards through engagement in the PBL process, not direct instruction. Therefore, daily lessons and activities give students the knowledge and skills they will need to complete the project. For example, let's say that a class was engaged in a PBL that sought to increase voter turnout in their community. One way to do this is to understand their community better by analyzing demographic information. To successfully analyze the data, students need to know that demographics is the study of populations expressed statistically and usually describes things like age, race, sex, education levels, employment, marital status, income, birth and death rates, etc. Students would then need to understand how these various data points predict the likelihood of civic participation and voting habits. And then use the data to formulate a strategy to increase voter participation.


Teachers can prepare some daily lessons and activities before the PBL begins by predicting where students are likely to have gaps in their knowledge and skills. In addition, teachers may want to speak to their colleagues to see if they are teaching or have taught students the knowledge and skills that students will utilize in the PBL. Teachers can also gather information about their students' ability levels by administering a diagnostic assessment before beginning the PBL. The diagnostic can be used to assess specific proficiencies needed in the PBL. Finally, teachers should also use formative feedback gathered through dialogue with students and observations of student behavior to determine where students might need extra support to complete the PBL.


If you found value in this blog post, please see my previous post PBL Project Design Part 1: How to Plan Projects That Work

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