Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure
In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces
The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary.

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice
This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Strategies for Multi-Grade-Level PBL Projects

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 >


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When we get really excited by and really effective at implementing project-based learning, we start creating projects that become much more complex. We integrate multiple subjects, leverage more technology tools, co-teach classes, and have projects that last many weeks or even months. These projects are exciting, but a complex project brings more complex challenges. One of those challenges is integration and implementation across different grade levels. Such PBL projects are uniquely complex because schools have different learning outcomes and standards (sometimes drastically different), and also physical structures that create walls against rather than opportunities for collaboration. Here are some strategies and ideas to consider when planning and implementing multi-grade-level PBL projects.

Similar But Different Learning Objectives
Although there will be different learning outcomes because there are different grade levels involved in the project, many learning objectives and standards are similar from one grade level to the next. Learning is always recursive. We learn writing skills one year and get better at them the next year. We learn a science concept in middle school and then learn it again in a more complex way in high school. These are opportunities to integrate across grade levels in a more manageable way. Look for recursive learning outcomes and standards to make manageable assessment choices.

Same Focus, Different Driving Questions
As we know, creating the “just right” driving question can be really challenging, and that challenge becomes greater the more you integrate. With a multi-grade-level project, the complexity of the project may be hard to fit into a single driving question, especially since the learning outcomes are different across the grades. A multi-grade-level project might have a common theme or topic, like water quality or community issues, but the driving questions will vary for different teams or grade levels. In order to focus on specific learning outcomes or standards, be open to similar but different driving questions.

Multi-Grade-Level Collaborative Learning
It can be powerful when students learn together, and we can have students learn from their peers in different grade levels. We all bring our expertise and passions to learning. Younger students can learn from older students and vice versa. Know your students and their strengths and challenges. Form teams or help students form teams based on these strengths and challenges. Don’t let age or grade level get in the way. You know your students best, but while considering age difference and the complexities it brings, don’t let that hold you back from exploring other possibilities. As students work and learn across grade levels, have them contribute to group products or investigate different foci. Multi-grade-level learning also presents an opportunity for teachers to assess collaboration skills and for students to learn these skills from one another.

Individual Products
In terms of assessment, it’s crucial that students are assessed individually. We all want to know what our children know, which may mean an individual product to showcase that learning. Remember, these products can show learning itself or a variety of learning outcomes, some of which may be different than a collaborative product. Teachers and students can decide on the level of voice and choice for these products as well. When implementing a specific multi-grade-level project, an individual product can ensure a laser-like focus on specific grade-level outcomes for an individual student. This also allows students who prefer to work alone the chance to do so. In their case, make sure that they’re able to create an individual product.

Flexible Learning Spaces
Instead of a third-grade classroom here and a fifth-grade classroom there, treat classrooms as open spaces where collaboration and purpose, rather than grade level, is the focus. What could each room have that would make it a unique and powerful place to learn, and how will that support elements of the PBL project? Perhaps one classroom would focus on science content and labs, with materials to support the inquiry. Another classroom might be set up with technology tools for learning. Maybe there can be a “feedback” room where students give and receive feedback from others. With flexible learning spaces, teachers become flexible as well, and they help facilitate learning based on the purpose and unique setting of the room. Don’t forget hallways and other non-traditional spaces — they can be ripe places for learning, especially when it comes to PBL projects.

Many of us have already tried these multi-grade-level projects with success. They are rich opportunities to have students learn from other students of different ages, and they present a great opportunity for us, as educators, to learn and grow in our own implementation of PBL.

In the comments section of this post, please share your own thoughts about and experiences with multi-grade-level PBL.

Assess More, Grade Less

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >


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One of the best things we can do in our classes to not only increase student achievement but also improve school and classroom culture is to stop grading everything. We live in a world where much is driven by grades. College admission counselors want to see grades. Many district policies, in an effort to encourage formative assessment and reporting, demand a certain number of grades in a time period. Many of our students are grade driven and constantly ask, “What’s my grade?” There are several forces that drive teachers to grade. We must, however, push back on these forces and instead focus on assessment.

Do We Really Want to See Grades?
I would argue that when a parent, for example, wants to know his child’s grade, he really wants to know how his child in doing the class. A grade alone gives no clear feedback on what students know or where they are in their learning journey. Many schools realize this and no longer report grades; instead, they report on clear learning objectives. Work and assignments may be associated with these reports, but rather than grades coming first, learning comes first. Students and parents want the same thing—to know how they are doing. We should meet that need by providing assessments with clear feedback rather than simply reporting grades.

Grading Can Harm Learning
Yes, grading can harm student learning. Often, grades are used as an enforcer to make students perform; in reality, this approach doesn’t work. Grades are commonly used as the wrong consequence to address a problem. One prime example is how some teachers deal with late work. To try to prevent students from turning in late work, teachers threaten to take off points or negate a score. This is highly problematic because it muddies the true academic grade with a behavior issue, and it often doesn’t fix the root problem. We should stop using grades as punitive tools. In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck provides some great grading strategies, such as marking incompletes instead of zeros on late work to encourage students to work to correct a behavioral problem.

Focus on Formative Assessment
When we focus on formative assessment, we are actually taking a huge workload away. We aren’t spending all our time grading everything and can instead start working smarter. We can give more timely feedback in the moment. We can look for patterns in student errors and adjust our instruction accordingly. We can assign smaller, low-stakes check-in activities that help students know where they are in their progress toward the learning goals. Eventually, we may need to assign a summative mark to a student, but even then it shouldn’t be a priority. I was talking with a colleague about formative and summative assessment, and he jokingly said, “We give summative assessments when we are done with teaching.” We both laughed, but I knew he had a point. Summative assessments are assigned arbitrarily for the purposes of reporting, scoring, and sorting students. I say we instead focus on formative assessment to show that learning is never truly complete. Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s a dream I have.

Many teachers, schools, and districts have or are moving to grading models where assessment is meaningful and focused on feedback. It will take time to transform a culture of grading into a culture of assessment. We have to work with all stakeholders to reframe the conversation around student achievement and focus on meaningful assessments rather than hollow grades.

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