By Thom Markham, CEO of PBL Global
At all grade levels, some educators still equate project based learning with ‘doing projects,’ ‘hands on’ learning, or ‘activities.’ This can be particularly true in middle schools, where projects have long been seen as thematic investigations or broad, interdisciplinary learning experiences that emphasize the ‘doing’ over the ‘knowing.’
But as PBL has become a far more evolved method of instruction, it’s not only possible, but also necessary in an era of more focused accountability, to power up projects for middle schoolers. How do you do that, and what are some guidelines that can help teachers create higher quality projects? Here’s a list of ten important ‘do’s,’ as well as a few things to avoid:
- Use Best Practices for Project Design. Planning a project is much different from writing a lesson plan. Rather, teachers design a project using specific design principles and proven, field-tested methods. Taken as a whole, this methodology allows teachers to conceive and implement a coherent problem-solving experience that brings out the best work in students, challenges students with authentic learning, and addresses key standards in the curriculum.
A don’t: Great methods help middle school teachers can avoid low-level projects that simply turn students loose on a problem or question, put them in groups, and have them do an exhibition or PowerPoint at the end of two weeks—a version of PBL that does not meet the criteria for ‘high quality.’ Try not to settle for this ‘project’ version of PBL.
- Start with a Challenge. For students of all ages, a meaningful challenge is at the core of great PBL. This means that projects start with a powerful idea, an authentic issue, or a vital concept. The challenge must then be defined so that it aligns with the objectives of the course, but not be so narrow that it doesn’t demand innovation and insight.
A don’t: Generally, if projects originate from a laundry list of standards, they lack a big idea to power the project. There must be a reason to learn beyond covering the curriculum. Begin with the challenge and then incorporate the appropriate standards into the project.
- Turn the Challenge into a Driving Question that Invites Deeper Learning. The challenge must be captured in an assessable driving question that clearly states a problem to be solved or a question to be answered. The trick here is to uncover your true intention for the project. What is the deep understanding that you want students to demonstrate at the end of the project? This process can take time. For example, a typical question such as ‘How can we prevent climate change?’ encourages in-the-box thinking and a laundry list of suggestions drawn from the internet. That’s more coverage. Instead, ‘How can we, as 7th graders facing severe climate issues in adulthood, use data to effectively lobby our community about the dangers of climate change?’ forces students to grapple with core, authentic issues around the topic of climate change: Who do we believe? Why? How do we educate ourselves? How do we change attitudes?
A don’t: Be careful of broad driving questions that can’t be answered in the space of one project. Conscious of this, a 6th grade team shifted their question on a China project from ‘How Has Ancient China influenced modern China’ to the much more realistic ‘How can we use our knowledge of Ancient China to educate our community about global citizenship?’
- Plan Backwards. Once the Driving Question is drafted, start thinking about the final product and public performances that students will deliver at the end of the project. Once that is determined, PBL mimics the ‘plan backwards’ approach recommended by many educators. Given that PBL focuses on problem solving, innovation, and ‘fuzzy’ goals, it is imperative that your day-to-day design includes both the knowledge acquisition as well as the process of learning and close attention to how your student teams will collaborate intellectually.
A don’t. PBL teachers sometimes feel that direct instruction or traditional lessons are not part of PBL. But often these are necessary for conveying key information. Don’t neglect these tools in your project design if they are appropriate.
- Get the Student Teams Right. Think of yourself as more of a coach than a teacher. Your job is to put together a game plan for high performance, meaning your student teams need to perform at a high level. To do this, let go of the notion of ‘groups’ and move to the language of teamwork. Allow plenty of time for preparation, drafting, and refinement of products, presentations, and skills. Allow plenty of time with middle schoolers to organize, support, and confer with the teams. Use teamwork rubrics, contracts, and norms to guide performance and offer opportunities for assessment.
A don’t: Don’t start projects too early in the year, or until students are settled and ready to work in teams. This might mean some pre-project training in listening and collaboration is necessary before actually starting the project.
- Grade Skills as Well as Content. The key to high quality PBL assessment is to view content as one of several outcomes that will help middle school students be prepared for high school and beyond. Use traditional assessment instruments, but include performance rubrics for teamwork and presentation. A project rubric that combines skills, strengths, and content acquisition works very well for middle school projects.
A don’t: Don’t neglect to grade the skills as part of the final project grade.
- Help Middle Schoolers on Work Ethic and Personal Strengths. Including outcomes in the project such as work ethic, self-management skills, and strengths such as empathy and perseverance in projects is particularly helpful for middle school students, who may be still working on their emotional balance and commitment to learning. These skills and strengths can easily be part of the project rubric—and part of the grade.
A don’t: Nagging on study skills or constantly reminding students of their responsibilities doesn’t really work. Don’t nag; instead use a well-defined rubric that tells students the exact behaviors expected, with a grade to back it up. Many PBL schools, for example, allot 10% of a project grade to work ethic.
- End with Mastery. PBL is a non-linear process that begins with divergent thinking, enters a period of emergent problem solving, and ends with converging ideas and products. A good PBL teacher manages the work flow through the chaos of the project, but also closes the project by giving students every opportunity and support necessary to experience a sense of mastery and accomplishment. This includes sufficient time to practice presentations, as well as reviewing drafts of products before they go public.
A don’t: Schools go at a fast pace, and the next unit comes up quickly. Don’t rush a project to completion just to start the next unit on time.
- Reflect on the Project. Teaching students to reflect on their own work is always a good thing—and is an essential skill these days in the work world. In PBL, this can be elevated to an intentional exercise at the end of the project through a formal reflection. Was the Driving Question answered? Was the investigation sufficient? Were skills mastered? What questions were raised? The project debrief improves future projects, as well as teaching students the cycle of quality improvement. This is a terrific habit of mind for middle school students.
A don’t: Don’t plan for or assume the project is completed on the day of the exhibitions. Instead, see the reflection as the final day of the project, and the culminating activity that ‘closes’ the project.
- Use a Critical Friends Protocol before the Project Launch. When the plan is complete, share it with colleagues to make sure it will work for your students. The project plan will benefit enormously from collegial input prior to starting the project in the classroom. PBL has many ‘moving parts,’ and help from other teachers is essential. Is the project too easy, or too complex for middle school students, or have you created the ‘Goldilocks’ plan?
A don’t: Don’t settle for just ‘discussing’ your project with colleagues. That won’t be nearly as helpful as using the Critical Friends Protocol, which is designed specifically to encourage good listening and feedback. If you need a copy of the protocol, download PBL Tools at www.thommarkham.com.
How can we sum this up? PBL promises more engaging school work and a shift in the culture of learning that should be visible in the form of more satisfied, higher performing, and more innovative students. But it does require a systematic approach that fully engages middle school students, offers a potent blend of skills and intellectual challenge, and prompts or awakens a deeper curiosity about life.
Here are some specific Project Based Learning resources in mathematics and physics available at Curriki.
- Curriki PBL Geometry – sponsored by AT&T
- Curriki PBL Algebra – sponsored by AT&T
- Physics of Sailing – sponsored by Oracle Foundation
Thom Markham, CEO of PBL Global, offers world class online PBL training for teachers and schools. A speaker, writer, psychologist, and internationally respected consultant in inquiry based education, 21st century skills, project based learning, and innovation, Thom is the author of the best-selling Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for innovation and inquiry for K-12 educators and Redefining Smart: Awakening Student’s Power to Reimagine Their World, as well as the co-author of the Project Based Learning Handbook, published by the Buck Institute for Education. Visit www.introtopbl.com for online PBL, or go to www.thommarkham.com for more on onsite workshops. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @thommarkham.