Project Based Learning

Inquiry in the Classroom

With the advent of Common Core State Standards as well as the explosion of the flipped learning model, project based learning (PBL) has is becoming more of  a staple in modern classroom. It marries inquiry learning to to the ubiquity of modern electronic learning resources. What is inquiry learning? Is it different than the Socratic method employed for thousands of years? Does it abandon standards and fly in the face of No Child Left Behind?

One might say that inquiry is at the heart of all learning. The question for many teachers is just how to achieve that goal. Two instructional methods have grown over the past few decades: project based learning (an inquiry process starting with an open ended question) and problem based learning (more of a problem-solution model). In this blog I will lump them together.

How does one implement a PBL in the classroom?

The first step is to cut up or organize your school year into one or two “essential questions,” that is, high level, open ended, integrative questions. This term was originally popularized by Intel Teach to the Future, a program we ran in our district for several years when we first started to implement PBL. An example of an essential question for geography might be, “What is a healthy planet?” Or, “How does where one lives affect one’s quality of life?” Find good resource tools from Intel Education’s Tools for Student Centered Learning.

Then sub-divide the essential question or semester into driving questions. Look at Buck Institute of Education (BIE) Do It Yourself site for lots of resources. Or check out their free Tools. The term “driving question” was popularized by BIE. They must be open ended (no right or wrong answer), linked to academic standard(s), relatively high level (requiring critical thinking), and not be something that can simply be Googled. An example in geography might be, “How are the resources in developing countries different than non-developed countries?” Or “How does access to water affect the wealth of nations?” You might ask a challenge questions such as, “Should habitats be protected?” As PBL evolves in your classroom, and student internalize the rubric, you can give your students more and more choice in selecting the driving questions. It depends on your philosophy.

When you implement inquiry based learning or PBL, think large and inclusive, but also think measurable and manageable. Remember to construct an “entry event,” as BIE likes to call it. How will you introduce each PBL unit? I know you want to dive all in, but it is and often desirable to implement a hybrid PBL program in which you have one PBL unit per grading period in the first year, and use other types of teaching-learning activities in between. Then expand to more PBL units in the second year. You know your own tolerance.

Collaboration is a HUGE piece of PBL. Just be aware that students need to learn how to collaborate meaningfully and fairly. Avoid having one student do all of the work for a group. The mainstays for me in implementing PBL are:

  1. Some type of collaboration software: I recommend Google Drive as the foundation. It is the modern workplace collaboration and “sharing” tool that they need to learn to use. Students are required to have GMail accounts. Wikis are great for protected threaded discussions. PBWorks or Wikispaces provide free sites. You can also collaborate through Edmodo.
  2. Second, a learning management system such as Edmodo or Schoology (although Edmodo claims it is not really an LMS) is necessary to hold your assignments and shared resources. Creating YouTube playlist for your videos is good so students access from home. As you gather web based learning resources, you will find they proliferate. Keeping track can be a challenge. I finally decided to create my own website to organize them:
  3. One thing I learned in implementing PBL was the importance of the role of assessment. This is the hidden beast. Students need weekly “formative” feedback on their progress. Helping them divide the larger PBL unit into meaningful and measurable chunks is important. Learning in PBL is as much about the process as the product. Many teachers I have worked with also designed rubrics around social and collaboration skills as well as content.

I have been using Camtasia Studio for my screen casts. It will get easier and easier. Most of my screencasts so far have been in the area of PD. I will be expanding, but right now the focus has been on the ed1stop portal.

Teach flat, teach well.

Part 2: How Does One Keep It Manageable?

The key to timely feedback is the “timely” part. Keep each piece of weekly feedback discrete, targeted and – most importantly – manageable. In other words, don’t try to include everything in your weekly feedback or assessments. If you can feel overwhelmed, then so can the student.  To keep it simple, decide on a regular day, no more than once per week, when you will provide feedback. It can be bi-weekly. Provide a “grade” or points. If you have time, provide comments. Comment can be written or oral in conference. In the case of student conferences, you can rotate these because they are time consuming. In my experience, it is better to provide multiple but short grades to students rather than one extensive summative assessment when all is done. Grades can also be simple “did it and submitted it on Edmodo” or “didn’t do it.” You can do simple “tickets out” and assign points. Peer reviews can also count for credit. More in-depth assessment should be done by mid-project.

The key to keeping assessment manageable is in what I like to call “chunking.” Remember that for many students, PBL or “inquiry learning” is a brand new way of doing things. They are juggling the process as well as the content. When you require that they work on their projects collaboratively, that is an additional “process” ball to juggle. You will have to teach them the process and allow for fumbling along the way. Think of each project as a multi-course meal. Feed each PBL unit to the students in a piece by piece fashion, allowing them time to digest one course before moving on to the next.

Here is an organizational framework for planning PBL

Always have your “driving question” at the top of the hierarchy. Then clarify what the final student “product” might look like. Then organize the PBL unit by assessments. In the various graduate education classes I taught, I used to say, “Assessment drives instruction.” This is simply another way of conceptualizing “backwards design.” You design you project entry events and periodic assessments with the end in mind. These assessments act as benchmarks.

“Summative assessments” are for final project grades. “Formative assessments” go hand in hand with checking for understanding from the teacher’s point of view, and they answer the student question, “Am I doing this right?” In PBL a teacher is like a music conductor who keeps the orchestra playing together. It can be easy to forget that one key role of “formative” assessment is to provide information for mid-course correction. When I think of the broader meaning of “authentic,” I ask myself, “Is this working as it is, or do we have to tinker with it to make it work?”

Here is a summary. Students need to know what is expected of them, how it will be evaluated or graded, and when it is due. “Rubrics” are part of managing assessments, but you can also include quizzes, essays and other standard approaches. Peer evaluation can be included as long as it is moderated. Each formative assessment or piece of feedback ought to accomplish multiple purposes:

  1. Tell the student if he or she is “on topic,” that is, answering the driving question. Sometimes this is a process of successive approximations.
  2. Evaluate quality of work to date, but in a limited or targeted way. Do not try to evaluate every component every week. Authentic does not mean comprehensive, but it does means personal and genuine. When each step of work is completed, students get credit for it. This can be simple. Don’t try to make it to complex.
  3. Provide pacing feedback. Tell the student if he or she is on target to complete the project in the time allowed. If you have established and articulated “benchmarks,” then give students points when they complete that benchmark.

1 thought on “Project Based Learning

  1. Hey, nice to hear from you, Rick! Great blog post–keep ’em coming. I liked the meal course analogy! I learned alot from you, as usual. Good resources.

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