Previously: PBL Part 2: No Tracking Needed

Making the logistics of PBL work has been among the toughest challenges of this year. Here are three things I learned this year that helped me in the face of these challenges:

Finding the right task matters

For finding the right tasks, Shawn Cornally has crafted the “PBL unicorn” (see below). That is to say, the perfect project is the intersection of power standards, personal interest and external audience. The unicorn also shows the likely pitfalls of projects that don’t hit the unicorn on the nose; anyone who has tried PBL has been there. Cornally’s framework bears a strong resemblance to what my charter organization uses as the yardstick for our projects: the Buck Institute rubric.

I kept these both in mind as I decided on the projects for 9th grade math. At the very least, I made sure that the project was driven by a rich, captivating question that is worthy of multiple weeks of study. I strive for questions that are nearly impossible to exit. The rest tends to fall into place once the question is figured out. [I will say that the external/public audience piece has been difficult to attain. My first attempt – Desmos Graph Art project – produced incredible work and allowed me to see the benefits of students’ doing work they know will be displayed, but it will be hard to replicate.]

Project design matters.

This is not the same as finding the right task. For the inquiry question “How can historical trends be used to predict the population of Madagascar in 2050?” students could take the project in countless different directions. I heard Eric Davis at Global Citizenship Experience, a PBL independent school in Chicago, say: “Each project should have something open and something closed.” I love that. It gave me language to help fight my impulse to go whole-hog into PBL and let the kids run wild, which of course gets unwieldy for students and their teacher.

Here is where I landed on what to open/close in the project that stemmed from the inquiry question above about population: students chose which country to investigate, but based it on this data set and followed this template to organize their report. This project, then, served as an assessment of their data analysis and modeling skills, but certainly not their organizational or research skills. In another project premised on students asking their own inquiry question and answering it by building and using a math model, the openness of the project gave me anxiety. So I restricted the medium (a math write-up) and gave a ton of suggested scaffolds for the modeling process (overview of the project here).

Checkpoints with feedback matter.

Whether the checkpoints in the project come from the teacher or the student, the first step in a project is setting the timeline to ensure a high-quality on-time product. I started the year without time-sensitive checkpoints, and to my surprise found some students who spent 3 weeks of the 4-week project doing close to nothing. By putting short-term deadlines on pieces of projects, students had a better idea of how to succeed. When I started giving short, actionable feedback to students about their project at the checkpoints, it helped immensely. When the feedback was on the rubric that the students were to ultimately be assessed on, students’ work became more focused. If peers can be trained to also give this feedback, all the better (this is still a work in progress in my classroom).

From a teacher perspective, checkpoints help me organize and stay sane, and using Google Forms and Google Docs* is the only way I’ve been able to manage this. In the ask-and-answer-your-own-question project, for instance, students submitted (and re-submitted and re-submitted) their inquiry questions in a Google Form that I kept open for about a few days (Checkpoint 1). I had a master sortable spreadsheet that was rigged to display their most recent question. I checked in or gave feedback to those students who I deemed needed it. And now I have a place to look with every student’s question, that will help me help students as they work towards Checkpoint 2.

What is the rest of the world doing to make project-based learning more manageable?

* Though it seems sketchy, there is a free tool called Doctopus that actually makes managing students’ Google Docs much more manageable. I highly recommend it.

PBL Part 4: Exercises, Problems and Projects