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.

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.

Grades Should Reward Students At Their Best

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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Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards-based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

Taking Close Reading to the Next Level with Text-Dependent Questions

 

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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I remember some of the writing prompts I used to gives students as well as ones that were given to students in assessments from the state. They often looked something like this:

Imagine you were given all the funds and resources needed to go on a trip of your choice. Write a persuasive letter to your parents to convince them you should be allowed to go on this trip. Use evidence to support your ideas.

This isn’t a bad assignment necessarily, and, in fact, it could prove to be a great scaffold if I were teaching students persuasive or argumentative writing. However, we are all in the process of adopting rigorous standards and curriculum, and the rigor of this assignment, as it stands, may not cut it. Our students deserve to be appropriately challenged with the curriculum. Our students can do better, and one way we can challenge students to read the text more closely and write from their critical analysis is through text-dependent questions.Text-dependent questions, as the name implies, require that students read the text in order to answer the questions. There is no “faking” an answer. Such questions require students to dig deep into text in a variety of ways. Some text-dependent questions might be more surface level, while others may require analysis. Here are some tips teachers should consider as they craft text-dependent questions.

Scaffold the Level and Type of Questions: While you might be tempted to immediately demand high-level analysis questions, consider using a scaffolded process: begin with simple comprehension questions, then move on to questions that require inference skills, and finally build up to deep-analysis questions. This will help students gain the necessary knowledge to answer the more challenging text-dependent questions. It will also help students gain confidence, which will encourage them to persist when more challenging questions are posed. These scaffolds can also allow you to assess for gaps in reading skills and plan lessons accordingly.
Know What the Text Does Well: What does the text that you selected do well? Is it a poem that really brings to light the power of metaphor? Is it an article that shows a strong argument? Is it a novel that really highlights character development? Knowing what the text does well can help you pick and craft the best questions for student learning. It will also allow you to align the text-dependent questions to standards more clearly in both literary and informational learning targets.
Use Questions for Both Formative and Summative Assessments: Remember these text-dependent questions can serve as either formative or summative assessments. In your planning, you should begin with the end in mind and determine what you truly want to summatively assess. You can also choose to spiral assess a reading standard or skill to ensure retention and allow you to differentiate if needed. Also, remember to be flexible. While questions may be planned as a summative assessment, you have the power as the teacher to adjust and shift them to serve as a formative assessment if you notice your students need more instruction.

Great resources include the Literacy Design Collaborative, which specializes in full literacy modules for all grade levels that include text-dependent writing assignments. Also, Achieve the Core has many resources related to the Common Core State Standards, including materials on text-dependent questions and professional learning modules to use with teachers.

How Can Project-Based Learning Motivate Students Even Further?

 

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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We all know that project-based learning (PBL) works, and there is research to support this. Districts leaders and individual teachers use PBL to deliver content, including content aligned to new, rigorous standards such as the Common Core State Standards or the Next Generation Science Standards. Projects integrating this learning strategy can come in all shapes and sizes; some projects are interdisciplinary while others focus on a single discipline, and each project can use varying levels of technology. Though each project can cover a wide variety of topics, there are common “essential elements,” as identified by the Buck Institute for Education, that must exist for true PBL to take place. While these elements provide a great foundation for building effective projects, educators can take project design even further to motivate all learners.

True Voice and Choice
To effectively implement PBL in the classroom, educators must first motivate and engage their students. Teachers can often accomplish this by allowing students to provide input on their learning experiences. When educators begin providing voice and choice to students, however, they often do so sparingly. Instead, teachers need to personalize each student’s level of voice and choice based on how they learn. On the ambitious end of offering voice and choice, an educator can serve as a conductor overseeing how students will shape their learning experiences, what path they will take, and how they will demonstrate that learning. Educators should continually aim for this student-centered learning style, and not adhere to a permanent practice of offering limited voice and choice.

Authentic Work
One necessary element of PBL is that students engage in authentic and meaningful activities. In order to reach this level of engagement, students must be able to envision an authentic audience that would benefit from their learning activities. Engaging students in authentic work can make it easier for them to see how their activities could influence an authentic audience by introducing them to real world challenges. Reflecting on questions such as “Who can provide us with relevant, expert feedback?” and “Who would find our work valuable and needed?” can help educators develop meaningful PBL activities. Students can make a difference, and educators should build projects around authentic purposes. When the work matters and is shared with an authentic audience, students are intrinsically motivated by the fact that what they are doing has value.

Challenge and Rigor
One major myth of student engagement is the idea that all learning should be fun. Yes, fun projects can engage some students, but only temporarily. In fact, challenging and rigorous assignments are often more motivating than fun and easy activities. We’ve all experienced times when we were appropriately challenged; we lost track of time, we thought more deeply, and we learned. Educators should seek to challenge students. When educators provide rigorous and authentic projects and give students voice and choice, students will accept that challenge. PBL doesn’t demand more work; it demands challenging work.

Educators who implement PBL using the following strategies will find that their students want to dig deeper and learn the material. Sometimes these projects “get out of control” in a good way and spawn new, authentic projects that teach important content skills. A skilled educator can see this deviation as an opportunity to harness student motivation and to further engage students in the learning process.

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