Find Your Starting Place for PBL

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If one of your goals for this school year is to give project-based learning a try, now’s the time for a check-in. Have you introduced at least one in-depth inquiry project yet? If so, what have you—and your students—learned from the experience? If not, you may find that spring offers an ideal time to remodel a traditional unit of study into a project that puts students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Recently, I listened to a team of three grade-one teachers reflect on their first PBL experience. The project used students’ communication, literacy, and problem-solving skills to address an issue that affects learners and teachers alike. Their driving question—“How can we design a more peaceful classroom?”—was clearly relevant to students’ lives. By encouraging students to suggest, prototype, and improve solutions, the project invited students to make a meaningful difference.

Teachers might have addressed classroom tensions by imposing rules of their own. Instead, they designed an inquiry project that incorporated all the elements of effective PBL. (Read about the eight essential elements of PBL in Mike Gorman’s recent post). Their goals were ambitious: deeper learning and a more positive classroom climate.

To launch the project, the principal paid a visit to class. He explained that he had noticed an increase in scuffles on the playground and disruptions during class time. Could students help him address this issue, which was interfering with learning? This hooked student interest from the start. They understood that their ideas would be taken seriously.

Next, students spent time gathering and graphing data. They made observations about where, when, and why problems were occurring. They also used communication skills to interview experts, such as a school counselor. They invited a team of fifth-graders to model conflict-resolution strategies. To incorporate a literacy component into the project, teachers introduced children’s authors like Judith Viorst and others who write honestly about the challenges of being a kid.

After prototyping and testing a variety of solutions, students shared their ideas for peaceful learning at an end-of-project presentation that drew praise from parents as well as school staff. Some parents said they noticed better communications at home, with students displaying improved problem-solving strategies outside of school.

Project success has buoyed teachers’ confidence about expanding PBL efforts next school year. They also have new appreciation for the value of collaboration. Although it’s certainly possible to succeed with PBL on your own, teachers benefit from being able to reflect with colleagues about what’s working and what’s challenging about a project. By teaming up, these teachers have built a toolkit of strategies for managing projects that they can use again and again. They also understand the value of reflection in PBL. It’s important for teachers and students alike.

Are you ready to give PBL a try before the school year ends? Consider starting with a unit that’s already on your spring calendar. Think about remodeling it to incorporate in-depth inquiry, student voice and choice, and a final product to be shared with an authentic audience. Look for opportunities for students to not only learn important content but also deepen their ability to collaborate, think creatively, and communicate effectively.

Even a short-term project can deliver lasting benefits. What are you waiting for?

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