Planning for PBL Implementation

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 >


Planning for project-based learning takes a lot of time and effort. All teachers who have planned a new project know the work that goes into making one a success. You have to create an engaging driving question to focus the inquiry. You need to select and plan for products and authentic audiences while being mindful of voice and choice. You have to plan a great project launch. You must align the project to standards. And the list goes on and on.

However, after this initial phase, the planning isn’t complete. Next, you move into the nitty-gritty—the day-to-day work of students, the calendar of tasks and instructional activities. Because the students drive the learning, this aspect of planning can be difficult to map out.

Here are some ideas on planning PBL project implementation so you can be both ready to go at the outset and flexible in responding to how students shape the project as they learn.

PLANNING FOR AN ORDERLY MESS OF LEARNING
Start with the learning targets: While planning a project, it’s easy to move quickly to the activities, tasks, and instruction you think students will need. Most of the time, our instincts are spot on, but sometimes we get too focused on these points and lose sight of what we want students to learn. When we focus on that, we can be more intentional about the instruction students will need.

While they’re nothing new, learning targets can help provide a focus for learning and the intentionality needed for implementation. We should start by unpacking standards into small, achievable, focused learning goals. This involves taking a standard and analyzing the nouns and verbs to create leveled targets. For example, a standard might include the phrasing “analyze the causes and effects of a historical event or development,” but it might be helpful to create targets that include words like “identify” or “classify” in order to ensure that learning is incremental and moves at an appropriate pace.

The learning targets we generate might separate out concepts if a standard has several within it. For example, if the standard included the concepts “perpendicular,” “parallel,” “intersection,” and the like, I might have a different learning target for each one.

Many teachers use “I can” learning targets to make them more student-friendly. When we break down our objectives, we make learning more incremental, and we, as teachers, can think through all the learning that needs to occur and how long that might take.

Plan the what and how, not the when: Many of us are linear people—we like to have events occur in a logical, often chronological, order. But when we plan a PBL project, we need to be more flexible in our thinking. Yes, some things will need to occur in a linear fashion. For example, we most likely will have a clear start, aim for many set milestones, and come to a logical conclusion with a demonstration and celebration of learning in the project.

That broad linear outline allows for a lot of flexibility. Once you have your learning targets in writing, you can pair them with appropriate instruction, scaffolding, and tasks that will support students in meeting them. Activities and instruction don’t disappear in a project—they just need to be used at the right time. PBL focuses on inquiry and student questioning: Once students generate their initial list of questions, teachers can be ready with appropriate instructional moves to support their learning.

Instead of having a rigid calendar, you can keep a list of scaffolding and instruction that’s ready to go when students are ready for it. They will continue to answer questions, ask new questions, and discover information and ideas, and you’ll eventually need to provide that scaffolding and instruction. The Buck Institute for Education has a Student Learning Guide form to help you plan that process.

Leverage differentiation: One of the key components of differentiating a PBL project is thinking about what instruction and scaffolding is needed for the whole class, for small groups, and for individuals. We can learn critical lessons on differentiation from the pedagogy for English language learners, special education students, and so on. We can provide different types of instruction and scaffolding instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach—planning units of instruction while knowing that all students may not need every unit.

We have those units ready, but only provide them to the students who need them. Through assessment, we can identify when the instruction and scaffolding are needed—with the peace of mind of knowing that we’ve thought through the instruction and are prepared to differentiate as needed.

Be prepared, mentally and on paper, for an orderly mess in a PBL experience. When we plan projects focused on the learning, we can be more responsive to students, with lessons and assessments on hand to provide just-in-time instruction for them as they learn through powerful inquiry.

A More Complete Picture of Student Learning

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 >


I’m really excited to see that educators are clear about the use of formative and summative assessment. We’re using formative assessment to gauge the effectiveness of our teaching and to know what our students know and have yet to learn. We’re using summative assessment to evaluate student progress toward course goals and report grades.

It’s important that we understand the difference and communicate it to students effectively. At my school, I hear students explaining the difference to each other, and I know that they see their formative assessments as growth opportunities. They know that they have to show mastery.

At the same time, by naming assessments, we may be falling into a trap of being too rigid. I know that when some teachers name an assessment as summative, they might be wary of changing it to formative. Sometimes our curriculum prescribes these assessments and whether or not they’re summative, and we might feel compelled to comply with that direction.

Our current assessments are geared toward reporting on mastery—often what the grade measures—rather than learning. But we could create assessments that value the learning along the way. Such a system would record not just quizzes, tests, written work, and presentations, but also exit tickets, and even conversations between student and teacher.

I think the next step in the conversation around assessment is to be more flexible and to approach assessment of student learning as a photo album or a body of evidence rather than as one or the other of two things, either formative or summative.

It’s OK to Be Flexible
At the moment, the terms formative and summative are used to describe the intention of the assessment. Is the intention to check in on what students have learned thus far? Is the intention to reflect on instruction and perhaps change practice? Is the intention to give meaningful feedback to students? Is the intention for students to reflect and set goals? If the answer to these questions is yes, the intention of the assessment is formative. And if the intent is to score, grade, or provide a cumulative evaluation of learning, then the assessment is more likely summative.

It’s important to remember that assessments and their purpose can change. If a majority of students are not successful on an assessment that was intended as summative, educators should have the power to make that assessment formative.

And if a student performs at standard on an assessment that was originally intended as formative, educators might choose to use that assessment as summative.

Instead of being rigid, we should be able to change the purpose and use of an assessment in order to meet the needs of our students.

A Photo Album
Imagine that you hired a professional photographer to document an important event in your life. Maybe it’s a wedding, a trip, or a religious celebration. After the event, you reach out to that photographer, excited to see the moments that were captured. The photographer instead sends you only one photo—one photo that is supposed to capture all the important memories of the event.

We would never want just one photo of a big life event, and we shouldn’t want only one assessment to record our learning journey. Assessment should be more like a photo album, capturing many moments of learning. A photo album captures pictures of people, processes, items, events, and more, just as assessment should. If we treated assessment like a photo album, we’d use a variety of moments to get a better picture of student learning.

A photo album is celebratory and powerful, and assessment should be the same.

A Body of Evidence
As the teachers I work with plan units, I encourage them to not be tied down to rigid structures of assessment. Instead, they should continue to collect a variety of assessments. Students should take their own pictures, so to speak, and propose their own student-generated assessments to balance out ownership of the assessment process and products.

Consider the idea of a body of evidence. When we focus on a body of evidence, we don’t have to limit ourselves to a set number of assessments. We can use a variety of assessments to report student learning, from ones that we mandate to ones mandated by our districts to ones generated by our students.

So students might have different numbers of assessments. With some students, we may need more evidence of learning than we do with other students. All students deserve a body of evidence that shows their learning. This approach honors teacher skill and judgment and helps us better know and report on what students have learned.

Here are some questions to reflect upon as we consider this approach to assessment:

How can students generate their own assessment tasks?
Where can I be flexible in using assessments to report on student learning?
Can I use a variety of types of assessment to create an album of student learning?
Can I rely on a body of evidence rather than a set number of assessments?
How can I report on the most current data of my students?
How should I communicate this approach to parents and students?

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