This post originally appeared on ASCD Express, a regular ASCD Publication focused on critical topics in education. This article appeared in Vol 10. Issue 4, the focus topic being managing messy learning. View Original >
Project-based learning (PBL) can be messy by nature, but, then again, isn’t all learning? PBL is a student-centered practice. Because it allows for voice and choice for students in not only what they produce but also how they spend their time, the learning is not as structured as many educators are comfortable with. However, PBL can still be focused if educators pair content standards with a menu of choices for demonstrating understanding of those standards, rather than allowing students to do projects on whatever they find interesting.
Even when students are given a menu of choices, though, teachers must closely consider and anticipate PBL management to ensure that students are engaged in learning important content and skills. As you plan projects, consider what students need to know to be successful with the project; how you will help them develop the skills to self-manage and collaborate throughout the project; how you will use formative assessments and benchmarks to check student progress throughout the project; and finally, how you will provide ongoing feedback and opportunities for students to reflect on their progress throughout the project.
When teachers first launch a project, they should ask students what they need to know to successfully complete the project. The students should then collectively compile a list of the questions they will ultimately need to answer throughout the project. These questions might be closely aligned to content—for example, “What are the important beliefs of Islam?”—or they might be process based—for example, “When are experts coming in to see our work?” This list of questions not only helps guide students in their learning but also helps the teacher plan appropriate scaffolds and lessons to make sure students are getting what they need to complete the project. Because this list may not initially be comprehensive, it is imperative that the teacher returns to the list throughout the project to allow students the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned and ask new questions. The need-to-know list can help focus the inquiry and turn the inquiry process over to students.
Tools for Scaffolding Self-Management and Collaboration
Two skills—self-management and collaboration—play key roles in successful PBL. Students must learn to both self-manage (independently manage their time and tasks) and collaborate (work cooperatively with others). Teachers can use a variety of tools to help students learn to acquire both of these skills. Physical tools, such as time-management logs and task lists, which are cocreated with students, can help break down the project’s process so that students can learn to manage their workloads on their own. Other physical tools, such as learning logs and team contracts, can be used to foster collaboration among students and teach them how to communicate with one another and hold one another accountable for various responsibilities. Rubrics can also be used to articulate the quality indicators of effective collaboration (the Buck Institute for Education has some sample rubrics for K–12 collaboration).
In addition to providing students with these physical tools, teachers need to explain the concepts of self-management and collaboration and encourage students to work toward acquiring these skills. When it comes to self-management and collaboration, we can’t expect all students to come to us with the necessary skills to work effectively independently and in teams. If we implement scaffolding techniques to teach and encourage these important skills, we set the stage for a great project and build classroom culture along the way.
Formative Assessments and Benchmarks
One PBL myth is that students are given complete control of their learning. On the contrary, it is crucial that teachers are very aware of exactly where students are in the learning process. Formative assessments and benchmarks are key in PBL to not only ensure that students are held accountable but also to ensure that we, as educators, know what students know or don’t know and are able to adjust instruction as needed. Educators should create and implement formative assessments that are aligned with content and skills learning and the product-creation process. Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey is a great book to help you think about a variety of ways to formatively assess.
Be prepared to give students timely, specific feedback on formative assessments and benchmarks and teach them how to self-assess and give feedback to peers. The Educational Leadership article “Feedback That Fits,” by Sue Brookhart, discusses high-quality feedback and offers guidance for determining the appropriate timing, amount, and mode of delivery.
Get Out of the Way
PBL is powerful because it empowers students to be self-directed, lifelong learners. Giving students space can be quite challenging for many educators. I remember when engagement and on-task time looked like students sitting in rows being silent. We know that this is not the case for PBL. During this “messy middle” of PBL, teachers need to gauge whether or not they need to intervene in the collaboration and learning process. If we want our students to be problem solvers, then they need to have the space to solve those problems. These skills can be built with a balance of both hands-on and hands-off approaches—that is, learning when to step in, when to back off, and when to simply give the students the tools they need to take control of their own project, whether collaborating with others or self-managing. As educators, we do a disservice to our students if we solve all of their problems for them. Sometimes it is necessary to be present in the learning process but out of the way so that students can learn to learn.