Why Your Project Needs a Verb

Why Your Project Needs a Verb

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

Designing project-based learning (PBL) assignments opens up several decisions. The challenge that students will face, the assessments that measure their learning, the amount of voice and choice to offer, the calendar and length of the challenge—these are just some of the many facets of an effective PBL project.

As we design a project, we may have trouble really focusing it. It might be too big and get out of control in implementation or perhaps too small and not a true PBL experience in which inquiry abounds. These problems often come from lack of clarity in goals or from a struggle to capture and hone the purpose of the project. In my planning with teachers and in my own experience as a PBL practitioner, I find there is an essential component that centers a project and allows the rest of the essential design elements to fall into place. This component is the verb.

Why Focus on Verbs?
Verbs are powerful. As an English teacher, I would always have a lesson on powerful verbs. We would try to take verbs like to go and to say and come up with more powerful and specific verbs like to swoop or to exclaim to work on word choice and powerful writing. In fact, we had a ceremony where we buried “dead” verbs that we would no longer use in our writing. While silly, it helped students focus on their writing. Now, take this to a teacher level and and apply it to PBL.

Projects are supposed to focus on authentic problems and challenges, whether real or scenario-based. Verbs focus on action and doing. When we focus on verbs, we focus on not only what students will learn, but what they will do with that learning—the application of that knowledge.

Verbs can help us hone our purpose for the project. What do I hope that students get out of this project? What action are students taking? What change are they making? What are we discovering? All of these reflective questions can be folded into this: “What is the verb of the project?”

Weak Verbs, Powerful Verbs
A weak verb can make or break a project, or cause you to run into pitfalls. For example, the verb to tell runs the risk of students simply regurgitating knowledge. On the other hand, it could lead students to tell creative stories full of imagery and imagination. Similarly, the verb to teach could lead a student to simply stand and lecture, or it could lead them to design an innovative lesson. The problem with weak verbs is that they don’t, by themselves, push students to richer learning outcomes. Instead of tell, why not persuade? Instead of teach, why not advocate?

Here is an example of how finding the right verb can transform a project. A teacher needed students to learn about religions around the world in her social studies class. She wanted to make sure it was a project where students couldn’t copy and paste the content. At the outset, her project was too googleable—students could complete the work without any critical thinking or creativity, simply by using a search engine. She then thought about what students would do with this knowledge. What was the one verb that would capture the purpose? Was it to share? No. Was it to build awareness? No. Finally she landed on the verb to debunk—specifically, debunking stereotypes about world religions. She wanted students to choose what they would debunk as well as what product they might use to do so.

Through reflection and by picking the right verb, she came to the overall purpose of the project. Once she had the verb picked for her project, the driving question came naturally: “How can we debunk stereotypes that the general public has about world religions?” It was an easy plug and play. This is especially useful, as many teachers new to PBL struggle with the driving question. By focusing on the verb, you inevitably create a piece of the driving question for the project.

Teachers should pick verbs that are appropriate to their students and contexts. There are many lists of powerful verbs out there on the internet—like this one, for example—and they can serve as inspiration to make your project not only more challenging, but also focused on having students do something with the knowledge and content.

Can Students Choose the Verbs?
Students can be involved in the process of creating or cocreating the verb for a project. It all depends on your comfort level of working with students to create questions. You might present students with a topic as well as a list of verbs and ask them what the best verb for that topic would be. That might work with class projects or individual passion-based projects. In addition, you might have students create questions from verbs that fit under a larger driving question, so students might choose a path within the project to explore with verbs that are focused on action. You can support students with your own version of the Tubric, a tactile tool used to create questions.

When you design projects, consider using verbs as a focal point. They can help not only focus the project, but create action and ensure application of knowledge, as well as lead to a powerful driving question.

What’s a Gamer Brain and How Can We Harness It in Class?

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

In the past, I’ve written on ideas for gamification—using games in the classroom—but lately I’ve been reflecting on some of the bigger ideas that games open up in terms of pedagogy and the classroom experience. While we can use games as tools and perhaps build units that are gamified, we might also adopt some basic ideas from the experience of playing games. Here are four takeaways from games that we can instill in our classrooms.

Leverage the Gamer Brain
People like different kinds of games. You may love a game that your friends don’t like. This is only natural, as different games have different motivations, mechanics, and other design elements. However, these games access different parts of the “gamer brain,” a concept developed by International Hobo Ltd. and illustrated by Rob Beeson, a game marketer and producer. Perhaps you’re a Socializer who likes to talk and support other people while you game. People play World of Warcraft for this reason. Or maybe you’re an Achiever who enjoys the process of collecting objects and completing every available goal. Obviously, Pokémon—the card game and the mobile app—aligns well here. Games may leverage one or more gamer types in their design, and our lessons can too.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Have students self-assess what type of gamer brain they might be.
Have students discuss their favorite games to uncover how they like to engage in their gaming time.
Play games with students and have them reflect on why they like the games. Use that information as feedback for lesson and unit design.
Create a lesson with different types of activities for different gamer types to pick from—perhaps a collection-based activity or a more social one, for example.

Embrace Failure
This is not a new idea, but it’s still an important one. Games can be played over and over, and we can fail and make mistakes and try again. Can you imagine what it would be like to play a game like Super Mario Brothers and only have one shot to get it right? Crazy! Unfortunately, much of the school system and our classroom structures are set up that way. While it is challenging, we need to find ways to allow students to redo work and try again. Games give the just-in-time feedback that shows us what we need to do better, and we teachers can do the same to make failure simply part of the process, not an end. Watch Edutopia’s “5-Minute Film Festival: Freedom to Fail Forward” for more inspiration.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Assess your grading practices to ensure they allow for multiple tries and redos.
Don’t grade practice—grade students at their best.
Embed reflection throughout your lessons to help students learn from their failures and mistakes.
Share famous failures and inspirational quotes to help reframe failure into a more positive experience.

Celebrate Epic Wins
Have you played a game and had a moment when you won and were so excited that you blurted out “Yes!” in celebration? That’s the epic win or “fiero,” as Jane McGonigal explains in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World: “Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: We throw our arms over our head and yell.” To me, this means that learning should be challenging, but appropriately so. We should create challenging learning experiences so that students are given enough support to triumph and feel the epic win. We should also celebrate ourselves and each other when we get those wins in the classroom.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Have students celebrate everyday wins regularly as a discussion or journal activity.
Record reactions of students being successful and share them with the class.
Share your successes and wins as a teacher with your colleagues.

Foster Voluntary Learning
We don’t—or at least we shouldn’t—play games because we have to. We do it because we choose to. When we pick up a controller or a chess piece, we’re volunteering into that experience. Games would not be as powerful if we had to play. We can stop when we want, which creates a feeling of safety. When we step into a game, we accept “the goals, the rules, and the feedback” of the game. This is probably the hardest aspect of games to instill in education. Students are required to go to school, and what they learn is mandated. However, we can do our best to create invitations to learn and to create spaces where students volunteer to learn.

How can you use this in your classroom?
Focus on engaging strategies like project-based learning to open the door to learning, instead of forcing students through it.
Provide as much choice as possible for students, from grouping to product and topics.
Give a student a pass if they don’t want to engage, and seek to understand why that is. Then follow up and invite them back to the task.
Ask students what they want to learn about, and do your best to leverage this in lesson and unit design.

What do you think we can learn from games to make learning better for our students?

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