By Aaron Altemus
We’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of PBL educators across many school systems; here are a few pieces of advice for any administrators who want to embed project-based learning into their schools:
- Start by educating yourself about PBL. This will demonstrate your commitment to the work while making you better equipped to support teachers throughout the process. You’ll also be better able to speak about PBL when seeking buy-in from staff.
- Provide staff with an overview of PBL, including clear definitions of the instructional approach and its benefits. Provide teachers with a choice of whether or not to engage, and be clear on what a commitment to PBL in the classroom would look like.
- If PBL is new to your school, seek out a cohort of early adopters to test-drive PBL. Working through the process on a smaller scale will provide a safer, more manageable space to work out kinks that can then be avoided when moving to scale.
- Consider starting the cohort with a focus on implementing individual PBL elements in their regular classroom instruction rather than planning and launching full-blown projects immediately. This will give teachers time to hone their PBL skills while managing fewer variables at a time.
- Set the expectation that, no matter what happens, the emphasis will be on learning and growth. Mistakes and failures should be expected, embraced, and celebrated. Encourage teachers to reflect honestly and consistently about successes, struggles, and opportunities; and regularly convene the cohort to share their experiences across classrooms and eventually, with the staff at large.
- Don’t send mixed messages. If the expectation is for teachers to learn and grow their PBL practice, and to embrace failure…do not bring up test scores. Talking data points and percentages will freeze early adopters in their tracks, and the fidelity of the PBL initiative will fizzle.
- Don’t expect perfection. I mean this in several ways: PBL often looks and sounds messy and chaotic, but that’s because PBL is also energetic and agile. If you expect nice neat rows and kids working silently, you’ll be actively discouraging PBL. Likewise, projects will not look or be executed perfectly. There will likely be dead-ends, errors, and hiccups in the process, and that’s OK.
- Don’t assume that a few days of professional development will be enough. Research shows that educators typically need at least 20 hours of training plus ongoing coaching and support to really impact instruction. This support could come from external trainers or from experienced educators within your system. Keep in mind that while educators may believe in the new pedagogy, it takes long-term practice to sustain instructional reform.
- Don’t make PBL mandatory for everyone–at least not early on. Engaging all staff at once dilutes the focus before showing proof of concept; and trying to engage teachers who are uninterested or actively opposed to PBL will be a drain on time and resources. Let the naysayers be for now.
- Don’t position PBL within one department, unless that department is collectively seeking to take up the PBL mantle. No one wants to feel like the Guinea pig, or that their subject area is less important, and therefore ripe for experimentation. Voice and choice is essential to getting new instructional practice off the ground.
In case my last post on rubrics wasn’t exhilarating enough, I’m back with a sequel!
But seriously, rubrics are really valuable tools, especially as an assessment and guide for PBL instruction. If you ever struggle with creating rubrics (like I sometimes do), here are a few suggestions to help you along the way:
Add a Feedback Column
As I mentioned before, rubrics should provide students with a pathway to growth. Using a feedback column allows you to more explicitly identify that pathway, and to set goals or next steps for improvement. It’s also a space to praise students for their efforts that might not otherwise come through on the assessment itself.
Use the Rubric During Feedback and Revision
Ask your students to put on their teacher’s hat and use the rubric to provide project feedback to their peers. Applying the rubric to others’ work will push students to think more deeply about their assessment while raising the quality of student work prior to final presentations. Consider asking students to review work from a different class to provide a little distance (and less awkwardness) between student reviewers.
Keep It Simple
I try to follow the MAYA design principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. I want to push my students’ thinking, but I also need my assessments to make sense; if I get too detailed, creating seven columns for every standard, we’re all going to get lost in the process. I tend to focus on the key skills and standards that I want students to demonstrate, and if my rubric grows beyond a page, front and back, I start to look at ways that the assessment can be chunked.
Don’t Get Too Far into the Weeds
Living the rubric life means accepting some level of ambiguity and subjectivity. Maybe that’s life in general…I know that I am prone to drift from describing performance to tallying action. For example, instead of, “Diversity of sources reflects multiple perspectives,” I sometimes get too specific with phrases like, “Includes citations from more than three sources.” This kind of language has its place in a checklist, but not in a rubric. Plus, injecting tallies into rubrics can disproportionately weight items and skew assessment. Giving a student a ‘1’ on a rubric for having ‘more than five grammatical errors’ in a 1000 word paper would not reflect what that student has learned.
A well-crafted rubric is the Swiss Army knife of assessment tools: it communicates expectations for student work; it describes clear steps for learner growth; it provides a guide for students throughout a project or unit; and perhaps most importantly, it requires educators to really reflect on what it is they want their students know and be able to do. And because the work is so often unique and open ended, rubrics are an integral part of project-based learning assessments.
It’s taken me a long time to refine my rubric design skills, and I’ve gained a lot of tips and tricks along the way. If you are planning to use a rubric with your next project, here are a few considerations to support your work:
Chunk Your Rubric
If you’re planning a relatively long project that spans a variety of learning outcomes, break your rubric into smaller, more digestible pieces that align with the different project benchmarks. For example, use a research rubric while students are gathering and sharing information, and save the details of your presentation rubric for later. This will make each segment of the project more manageable, and less-likely to overwhelm you students.
Check for Understanding
Because rubrics are descriptive, they can also get wordy and confusing. Share your draft rubric with several students to get feedback before rolling it out to the entire class. Pay attention to the questions and issues they raise because they will likely catch red flags that you might otherwise miss. And when you do eventually introduce the rubric, take time to model its application, and then ask students to use the rubric to assess either hypothetical student work or work from years past.
Use General Rubrics When Possible
The more rubrics I make, the easier it gets, but it still takes significant time. Using general rubrics that focus on broader standards or skills without getting into project details, allows you to more easily reuse those rubrics from project to project. This also means that the language of the rubric remains consistent for students, likely easing anxiety over grading expectations.
Avoid Language that Judges Quality
Terms like ‘poor’, ‘good’, and ‘excellent’, are examples of quality ratings. Using these kinds of terms in a rubric will not help students to grow, and may actively discourage it. Remember, a rubric should describe performance at various levels. For example, if a descriptor reads, “Poor use of punctuation and grammar,” how will my students use that description to improve? What does ‘poor’ mean? This type of language will not provide students with a guide to move from ‘poor’ grammar usage to ‘good’ grammar usage. For an example of a rubric that describes, rather than judges, check out this 6+1 writing traits rubric.
Part II of this series will continue next week.
*If you’re looking to learn more about rubric design, I strongly encourage you to check out Susan M. Brookhart’s detailed, yet accessible, How to Create and Use Rubrics for Formative Assessment and Grading.
By Aaron Altemus
“How can I connect my content standards to something that is real for students?”
This question comes up a lot during our PBL trainings. And to be honest, depending on the subject matter in question, I’ve not always had a stellar answer. But hey, we learn and grow.
However, when I receive this question now, I most often recommend the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) as a means to channel classroom content into action. According to the UN, “the Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice.”
The Global Goals are big, they’re ambitious, and they are most definitely relevant in every classroom.
The 17 Global Goals provide a lens for students to engage with, and impact real, relevant issues in their own communities, with enough voice and choice to channel their specific passions into a PBL project. Current reports show that sustainability, climate change, gender equality, and social justice are important issues for Generation Z. And providing students with an avenue to engage with and impact their community helps to build student agency, particularly regarding issues that might otherwise seem too large or overwhelming to impact.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing students take on these goals in real and meaningful ways in their schools. Just last year, the Consortium partnered with Covestro to launch Youthquake 2030, part of their Thinc30 initiative to address the UNSDG’s. Students from a dozen schools across western Pennsylvania came together to hear from experts in sustainability and brainstorm ideas for action.
Over the course of several months, these student teams reflected on the unique challenges in their own communities, talking with stakeholders, and designing solutions in the service of others. Taking on this challenge built critical thinking and collaboration skills–certainly–but it also reinforced something arguably more important: empathy.
When these students presented their projects to the engineers, designers, and scientists at Covestro last spring, I found myself awestruck by the thoughtfulness and passion that these young people had for those in their communities. Their projects did not serve themselves, but instead focused deeply on those around them, particularly people who may often be marginalized.
I’m talking about students who designed low-cost air filters that could reduce particulate levels in homes for the elderly. I’m talking about students who created an anonymous “take-what-you-need” food and toiletry pantry in their K-12 building for students and families who are struggling. And I’m talking about students who outlined a non-profit approach to addressing gun violence across their district neighborhoods.
Engineering, entrepreneurship, social studies, ELA, biology. The list goes on. Our students are passionate about their homes, their families, their world. The Global Goals can show them how vital their classroom learning can be to ensuring a healthy, sustainable future for everyone while teaching them to see their world from someone else’s perspective.
By Aaron Altemus
If you’re not familiar with Harvard’s Project Zero Thinking Routines Toolbox, I hope this post will convince you to take five minutes to explore their website. Reflection is a key element of project-based learning (not to mention all learning), and I’m pretty sure the PZ Thinking Routines could be a one-stop-shop for all of your reflection method needs, with dozens of unique, descriptive processes to choose from. Here are five of my favorites:
- I Used to Think…Now I Think…
When teaching students how to reflect, sometimes one of the first steps might be to provide statement starters. This method offers language for students to measure their change in thinking from one point in their learning to another. Great for an end of class exit slip.
You can read the full process here.
- Compass Points
Similar to feedback protocols, reflection sessions tend to be more robust and productive when mechanisms are in place to balance student responses. The Compass Points process divides responses into four categories corresponding to the cardinal directions: excited; worrisome; need to know; and suggestion for moving forward. Deploying Compass Points at various benchmarks in a PBL project can help in spotting red flag issues, while also reinforcing best practices and acknowledging student voices.
You can read the full process here.
- Walk the Week
It’s safe to say that we’re all spending quite a bit of time behind a computer screen at this point, so this active reflection method may get your students moving around a bit. Essentially, it’s an ongoing scavenger hunt in which students connect classroom content to the world around them; as students go about their everyday activities (taking a walk, for instance), they should aim to keep an eye out for any and all ways that their classroom learning manifests in their lived experience. This one combines reflection with a strong emphasis on real world connections.
You can read the full process here.
- 3-2-1 Bridge
Overcoming biases requires conscious reflection; if we don’t take the time to measure the change in our perspectives, would we even realize that our thinking has changed? 3-2-1 Bridge makes this process explicit by breaking the reflection session into pre- and post-exercises, requiring students to express and then bridge the difference between their thinking as it relates to a given topic over time. I recommend this method for situations where students may be entering a lesson or project with prior, deeply held opinions or biases.
You can read the full process here.
- True for Who?
What does truth look like from someone else’s perspective?
This method introduces empathy into the reflection process by asking students to explore issues from viewpoints beyond their own; in doing so, students visualize other stakeholders and the reasoning that they each might exhibit. As students gather research throughout a project, this method can slow students’ tendencies to jump to conclusions–introducing more nuance and understanding into their interpretation of information.
You can read the full process here.
By Aaron Altemus
Think about that first time that your students saw you outside of the school setting. Maybe you’re shopping for groceries, out for lunch, or on a walk.
My middle school students usually exhibited mild shock that I existed anywhere other than within the school campus; I’m pretty sure they assumed I emerged from my supply closet every morning, Mr. Rogers-style after a night of reading ancient world history textbooks and subsisting on stale chicken nuggets from the after school program. Little did they know or wonder about my hobbies, interests, and adventures that took place as an adult beyond the classroom.
Now that may sound silly, but I have to admit that I was guilty of thinking of my colleagues as somewhat static characters as well. How much did I really know about the Biology teacher who shared lunch duty with me? What did I really know about the Art teacher who worked way up on the mysterious fourth floor?
The truth is, schools are jam-packed with dynamic, fascinating, brilliant people, with unique stories and experiences–and they’re right down the hall or up the stairs (or on a Zoom call). And I’m not just talking about teachers; schools represent a whole ecosystem of administrators, support staff, counselors, maintenance techs, bus drivers, food service workers, and IT support. These are all folks who can lend their expertise and experience to your PBL class in the form of a resident expert, engaged audience member, or thoughtful critic.
I’d say every school probably has a few folks who prefer to remain enigmatic characters, but they can still offer their professional expertise as a resource. And overall, most people are excited and honored to have the opportunity to share their passions with a wider audience.
Take time to recognize and elevate people for what they know and love, and they will usually respond in kind.
Developing partnerships for project-based learning often requires time, effort, and know-how. So as you continue to make connections in your community and beyond, don’t forget to tap into the many talented and thoughtful individuals with whom you work.
By Aaron Altemus
Reinforce Key Skills Beforehand
It’s increasingly likely that students will engage with digital resources online rather than in a library or with an actual textbook. This means that students need to build the skills and meta-strategic knowledge to locate, navigate, and evaluate information on the internet. CommonsenseEd offers a digital citizenship curriculum for free, and Stanford University recently launched a program to teach students lateral reading online.
Harness the Power of ‘Need to Knows’
Throughout the project, you should refer often to the project driving question, but students will inevitably generate many more sub-questions on their journey to answering the DQ. When you kickoff your project, take time to compile your students’ questions, or the things that they ‘need to know.’ This could be a list in a shared document or on a whiteboard, or a collection of sticky notes on a wall. Sometimes, students may not realize how many questions they have, or what questions to ask; in such cases, I like to provide a lens for their thinking, e.g., my favorite: “If your presentation was tomorrow, what would you need to know?”
Tackling big driving questions often means sustained, arduous research and iteration. If your students are new to project-based learning, start with smaller, or narrower DQ’s that can be explored in a few days or a week. Seeing tangible progress quickly will help reinforce the value of their work, increasing student agency in the process. In addition, a small test-drive can provide an opportunity for you to spot red flags early that might derail a larger project.
Develop the Questioning Disposition
Asking questions may not come naturally to many students. First, it’s not a skill that’s traditionally encouraged, and students may dread speaking up in front of their peers. Or they simply may not have the words to do so.
Whenever possible, I like to use questions as a form of praise for students:
“How did you do that?!”
“Can you teach me?”
“Where did that idea come from?!”
Asking these types of questions recognizes each student’s unique thinking and expertise, reinforces pride in their work, and encourages a culture of co-learning between teacher and student. Doing so also prompts students to practice meta-cognition as they reflect on and verbalize their thinking and creative process. And as a teacher, I’m modeling curiosity and excitement about my own learning.
Chunk the Process
Without an end in sight, students may lose focus. Set small, recurring deadlines–maybe a few days at a time–with the expectation that students compile and share answers to a subset of project questions. Celebrate what students have learned, and encourage them to consider what information they should pursue next.
Curate Their Journey
Even in college, most student writing is based on a curated list of texts and resources from their professors. Likewise, use your expertise and experience to create a collection of resources for your students to explore; you can still offer voice and choice in terms of how students choose to use those resources. If possible, consider multiple media (video, audio, text-reading) to support student engagement and accessibility.
Organize the Process with a Checklist
Depending on the kind of research that students are conducting, there may be many variables or steps to keep in mind. This is where a checklist comes in handy. If students are searching for information online, consider compiling a list of ‘look fors’ to help students differentiate between reliable sources and misinformation. Or if organization is a concern, break down the research process into a step-by-step guide for students to follow. Checklists, by providing structure and clarity, raise quality expectations for student work.
Set Time Limits
Feedback sessions can be awkward, for both the student whose work is being critiqued as well as the student responsible for the critique. Setting clear time limits helps to ease the stress of the experience; for students who are new to the feedback process, consider starting with very short sessions, maybe two minutes at a time. A short time span means that students have to be concise in their communication, and prioritize the most important feedback to share. Likewise, if a student shares information about their project prior to receiving feedback, a time limit will require more thoughtful presentation. As students get more comfortable with the process, you can expand time limits to allow for more detailed collaboration.
Not all feedback has to take place face-to-face. The classic example of Ron Berger’s video, Austin’s Butterfly, shows students sharing their thoughts on Austin’s scientific art project, and as you’ll see, Austin is nowhere to be found in the video.
At the secondary level, consider sharing work with students from other sections of the same course; at the primary level, look for opportunities to share work with students in another grade level class. This type of distance also allows for work and feedback to be conducted anonymously, which may allow for more candid thinking than might otherwise happen face-to-face.
Speaking of anonymity, sticky notes offer an excellent medium to deliver feedback that can be clustered, color-coded, or quantified without identifying the authors. Whether virtual or analogue, sticky notes require students to be concise in their thinking. Small notes are also easy to organize and synthesize when looking for areas to address during revision.
Provide Statement Starters
It takes time to learn the language of valuable feedback, and statement starters can help provide scaffolds for students who are finding their way. Consider sharing a handful of statement starters with your students to choose from during their feedback sessions.
- “One thing that I like is…”
- “One thing that could be better is…”
- “What if you…”
- “Maybe you could…”
- “One thing that I would change is…”
- “Have you considered…”
- “One opportunity might be to…”
Set Expectations for Balanced Feedback
In order for feedback to have value, it’s important that students find the process encouraging and the information actionable. If students receive only rave reviews on their work, they may be elated, but they won’t have a pathway for growth. On the flip side, if they encounter a deluge of negativity or criticism, they may simply ignore it or shut down. Below are several formats for providing balanced feedback. Consider setting output expectations when using any of these, e.g., “Provide one Rose, one Thorn, and one Bud for each project that you review.”
- Rose (positive), Thorn (negative), Bud (opportunity)
- A Glow (positive) and a Grow (suggestion)
- A Star (positive) and a Wish (opportunity)
- Impress (positive) and Address (area for improvement)
- Impress (positive), Press (Question), and Address (area for improvement)
- Thinking Hats
Encourage Student Voice and Choice
We tend to focus a lot on the feedback process, and not so much on revision. However, impactful revisions are by no means a given. It’s important for students to understand the nuance of engaging with feedback–not every suggestion should be (or probably could be) followed, and so fostering thoughtful voice and choice can empower students to move from mechanical revision to more discerning. Like the other advice in this post, expectations are key; if students will be in charge of selecting which feedback to address, then set the expectation that students reflect on, and subsequently, defend their decision-making. For primary students, consider asking students to choose a specific number of suggestions to address during the revision process.
First things first, let’s be honest: this is not an exhaustive list, but here goes:
#1 Not taking the time to practice presentations
This has often been the result of poor timing or tight deadlines, but investing the time to practice, even for a brief period, can help students improve their presentations exponentially.
As students are conducting their research and addressing ‘need to knows,’ set aside time for quick formal and informal share-outs to help students build their presentation chops.
Create and share a presentation checklist with your students. Such a checklist might include items like ‘Introduce yourself,’ ‘Describe your challenge,’ and ‘Thank your audience.’
Start presentation practice sessions with small groups and build to larger, full-class audiences. Practice opportunities are just as important as the final presentation.
Take time for students to receive constructive feedback.
Be purposeful and intentional about including time for your students to practice presenting (formally and informally).
#2 Not briefing and/or debriefing the project kickoff
Many of the projects that we facilitate begin essentially with either a field trip to a business and/or a guest speaker. Too often these kickoffs get students excited and yet never reach their full potential as learning opportunities that inform the actual projects. Consumed by the logistics of the visit, and we’d arrive at a site without providing the necessary context for students to fully understand the business and its operations. And then upon returning to school, students would launch into their project without ever fully debriefing what they learned or learned in the field.
Prior to a kickoff event, ask students to generate questions. It may be helpful to break down the subject into subtopics to provide a more focused lens for their questions.
Ask students to divide up the questions, taking time to seek out as many answers as possible prior to the kickoff. Students could compile their learning in a WIKI, a webpage, or a shared document.
Re-evaluate which questions could not be answered, and prioritize the questions that might be answered during the visit.
After the kickoff, ask students to revisit their questions and add new information to the shared space.
#3 Being too laissez faire during research and concept development
Oh, PBL can be exhausting, and sometimes the R&D phase looks like a great opportunity for a little educator R&R. I mean why not? The project is launched, students are easing into their work; perhaps it’s time to step back and let students go for a bit. For students who are seasoned veterans of PBL, this may be a fine approach, but unfortunately this is where projects often go off the rails. Without structure, student inquiry can wander and stretch out from days to weeks–and then project burnout soon follows.
Research may need to be scaffolded, especially at the beginning. Set deadlines and regular check-ins to help students find a rhythm and process to their work.
Don’t assume that students know how to research with a critical eye; test the waters with smaller research challenges to assess your students’ skills before diving into something larger or more complex.
Embrace the digital citizenship and research skill-building tools available online. It’s essential for students to build the necessary skills to determine the veracity of published information on the internet. Stanford’s Civic Online Reasoning resources are a great place to teach your students key lateral reading skills.
Consider a checklist or rubric for research to provide students with clear guidance and up the quality of their work.
#4 Skipping brainstorming
Students are trained over many years of testing to seek out the one right answer to a question; that inclination, when unchecked, often leads students to leapfrog right over the brainstorming process during PBL. Groups will quickly go from problem identification to prototyping and design.
Be intentional about brainstorming. Make it an explicit benchmark in your PBL plan. Learn about and experiment with both divergent brainstorming (all of the ideas!) and convergent brainstorming (prioritize the ideas) methods to determine which ones might work best in a given situation. Taking time to generate many ideas helps to unlock new thinking and more-nuanced solutions to a driving question. Check out IDEO’s “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit to learn more about brainstorming and design.
Create a safe space for idea generation. In the early stages of a project, encourage students to share any and all ideas without judgement. Some of the greatest, most inspiring ideas might be considered ‘bad’ or ‘crazy.’ If students are particularly shy, consider using a digital whiteboard where ideas can be shared anonymously.
#5 Surprising students with a last-minute rubric
This one usually came down to time management and planning. I would get so wrapped up in the other details of the project that I wouldn’t remember to share and discuss how students would be assessed. And then a few days before final presentations, I would send out a presentation rubric that students had never seen before. Panic and frustration often ensued.
Creating rubrics can be a timely endeavor, so make sure to focus on your priority learning outcomes. If you are planning to assess soft skills, try to create a general rubric that can be paired with other projects in the future.
Prior to the launch of your project, seek feedback on your rubrics from your students. Their unique perspectives may highlight a needed change or a red flag before roll-out.
Make sure that students understand and can apply the rubric to their work by walking through the descriptions together along with varying examples of work.
Let’s get right to it: this blog will focus on practical project-based learning.
When we use the phrase ‘practical PBL,’ we’re talking about digging deeper; we’re talking about the real day-to-day details of project-based learning. Let’s move beyond the high-level theory and the buzz and the anecdotes and talk about actually doing PBL. Let’s literally get practical.
We aim for this blog to be a resource for educators striving to grow their PBL practice, whether in their classroom, their school, or their district. And so we’ll focus on tools and strategies, not only for teachers, but for administrators and students as well. Occasionally, we’ll also rant and rave, but hey–catharsis is part of reflection and growth, right?
We’ve had the privilege of working with and training hundreds of educators, across dozens of schools in Western Pennsylvania, with our work even taking us as far as New England. We’ve partnered with organizations large and small to bring real world challenges to students, from sustainability and marketing to engineering, green infrastructure, and entrepreneurship.
And so now this blog represents our own project, with its own driving question: How might we leverage our experience and expertise to help other PBL educators grow and thrive? What have we learned from all our PBL failures, successes, and challenges over the years?
Just like PBL, there will be times when we get things wrong; our experiences are not universal, and every learning environment is unique; what worked for us in the past may not work for you now. But I hope that the ideas that we share here will help you to grow faster while also avoiding some of the same pitfalls and faceplants that we’ve taken in the name of deeper learning.
Here’s a preview of some the topics that you can expect from this blog:
- Crafting effective assessments
- Methods for brainstorming
- Protocols for feedback, revision, and reflection
- Ways to build a PBL culture
- Empowering student voice and choice
- Cultivating an authentic audience
- Supporting PBL educators
- Seeking out real world connections
- Strategies for beginners
- In-depth tools for PBL veterans
- “Need to Know” advice responding to real PBL educator questions