Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, but how do you get started with Project Based Learning?

April 4, 2012 at 7:16 AM 5 comments

Thanks to Cheryl for asking this (more politely of course :-)). Wading through the enormous verbiage on the subject in this blog and elsewhere is just overwhelming, so I thought I’d share the reply:

What title/driving question(s) are you considering? That’s got to be first. Sometimes the question suggests ways to start.

One way is with the Socrates Cafe  to gauge where students are coming from for a particular project – Start with a question that is a bit broader than the project driving question.

We had some instruction about the problem – in my case, this was a powerpoint/discussion and notes about oil reserves, exploration, production and refining. So interesting and central to their lives it held them. Then they were cued up to understand the problems. PBL is sometimes mis-understood as a free-for-all and lacking rigor. In fact, the opposite is true, largely because the context given by projects makes the information so much more meaningful and therefore memorable. (Our students picked up 7% on the standardized tests on fact recall with the intro of PBL.)

Maybe then show some short, way cool clips of ideas around the driving question/problem that is driving your project. Inspire them to act with successful stuff already working AND preferably stuff that seems fun, has meaning and has a design coolness to it. I used clips of crazy bikes and had magazines like Conservation for them to read about tech ‘fixes’ to some of the problems with oil. Got them talking about stuff they could do.

After that, I’d ask them about project in THEIR lives – what have they made happen? Or their parents/families ex. a camping trip, a party, etc. Why did they work so hard at it? How did they get started? What problems did they encouter and how did they solve them? That makes it seem so much more do-able to them, less of a big sigh, more work reaction.

Then be ready to outline the project as a great answer to the big problem with something they already can do. Have something written down, so they know what the trajectory is, and what the expectations are. Be careful not to be too perscriptive – allow as much room for student choice as you can. It’s a huge motivator. Be clear with them what the end product is and have it be real – something useful, not just a paper to grade. The sense of meaning is really key to engaging older students particularly.

Because your students are not used to PBL, let them know how it’s similar and different to business as usual.

Have interim deadlines with small deliverables to start with. For example, I have the multi media project ad campaign for their energy opportunity due in two weeks. Then it’s time for them to get to the big project of doing the multi media. That way, they get feedback on how they are doing, and you get a finger on the pulse of the progress of the project.

I think the use of concept cards to link academic vocabulary to their projects was a key piece for keeping their belief in the academic seriousness of their projects, plus another way for you to know where they are with their understanding.

Here are some things NOT to do (aka mistakes I have made :-))

  •     Don’t start with a downer video clip about the horrible problem that we are all going to die from. Depressing and de-energizing.
  •     Don’t talk for two straight periods about what they will have to do. Allow plenty of time for student reaction and discussion.
  •     Don’t over plan so every step is totally controlled and every tiny piece has points attached. It sucks the joy out and makes it a box-checking exercise for them and you. (The 300 point grading scheme was the bane of a friend’s daughter doing an otherwise fab 11th grade project.)
  •     Don’t despair if the first time out, it’s a struggle. Let yourself learn from the experience and ASK kids what they think would help – I found out last year that allowing them to choose between a text-based task and some way cool, hands-on projects was doomed because they could not be seen to be sucking up to the teacher and were socially bound to take the easiest option. Thanks to two girls who quietly had a word in my ear. Otherwise I would have ended the year thinking they were a bunch of sad slackers and didn’t care at all about PBL.

I really hope this helps. Let me know what works and what doesn’t. It’s not easy but it is a great ride.

Entry filed under: Assessment and grading, Class Management, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Curiosity, Energy Opportunities Project, Project Based Learning, PROJECTS, Reflections, Starting the School Year. Tags: , , , , , .

Framing it on the up and up Electrifying Chemistry

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jane Krauss  |  February 1, 2013 at 4:14 PM

    Sue, FYI we are referring to this blog post in our upcoming book. Grateful to see at last check that it’s working (first accessed 08/12).
    See your name in print in March!


    • 2. Sue Boudreau  |  February 1, 2013 at 10:34 PM

      Thank you Jane! The book on inquiry? Looking forward to reading it. Sue

      Sent from my iPad


  • 3. Erin Varbel  |  September 16, 2013 at 5:18 PM

    This is a great simple, practical post about getting started with project-based learning, especially for those of us out there that are about to enter into the wonderful and rewarding world of teaching. I will be referencing it in my Technology in the Classroom course at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. I am especially appreciative of the “don’ts” list. Thank you!


  • 4. Dan Whaley  |  June 9, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    Reblogged this on Dan Whaley's 2014 Zoo Externship.


  • 5. carterl2014  |  June 16, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    Well done. I completely agree with the fact the questions has to be larger to give the students some room to move. I also liked the statement that they students need to know what the end result needs to be.



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