Project-Based Learning: Finding the Right Approach

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By: Sara Payne, ELA High School Facilitator

Magnify Learning Staff

Can you remember the last time you had a real “ah-ha!” moment? I had one of those moments a little over a month ago. I was at a training session for coaches and administrators where we were discussing strategies for how to best coach teachers, specifically Math instructors, in project-based learning. As we moved through each day of the training the attendees became increasingly aware of their own comfort and discomfort levels with PBL. At one point a participant shared how she realized there were two areas of content knowledge she needed to learn and understand: one was a Math content knowledge, and the second was a PBL content knowledge. To me this was a profound statement. I thought to myself, “YES! This woman is really onto something here. This is a way for me to explain what it means to implement PBL in a classroom.”

In much of my experience I’ve heard project-based learning described as an educational model, a philosophy, or a process for learning. It’s also been likened to a vehicle in which we drive instruction. I think these are true descriptions, but to hear this person identify project-based learning as its own content knowledge really clicked with me for a few reasons. First off I believe PBL, while becoming increasingly popular, is still severely misunderstood. Over the years as I have coached teachers and been coached myself I’ve come across some common approaches to project-based learning that have lead to its lack of success in a school or classroom. If we address PBL as a “content” area it sheds light on why these approaches don’t work. Let’s look at a few I’ve encountered and likewise named:

1.     The “Add-on” approach: One of the most common approaches to project-based learning I’ve come across is treating it like an additional educational initiative teachers need to add on to what is already occurring in their classrooms. This approach leads teachers to feel overwhelmed and under pressure. They believe that in their already full schedules there isn’t enough time for an additional initiative such as PBL. On top of getting in all of their standards, testing, and the other school initiatives, teachers are left feeling as if PBL is one more item on a checklist they must complete out of compliance.  In many cases, the school or district presents PBL in a manner that leads teachers to believe this. Instead of it being a “grass-roots” movement, it is laid out as the plan of attack or the educational platform to accomplish district/school goals. In this case, teachers aren’t having the chance to “buy-in”; they’ve been told that they already bought it. When it’s considered an “add-on” PBL loses its power to drive instruction and change education.  If you find yourself in this place, here are some next steps:

a.     Reframe your mindset on PBL. Check out this blog: Five Myths of Project-Based Learning Dissected & Debunked. Look at what you are already doing in your curriculum/class/district and search for natural connections to PBL. You’ll probably find that it is a solid fit.

b.     Work with your administration and request that they provide time for teachers to collaborate on designing projects. Request already scheduled professional development to focus on additional PBL training and support.

c.      Use existing PBL resources: To start, check out Project-Based Learning Tools. There are a plethora of PBL resources out there- New Tech Network, The Buck Institute for Education, Edutopia, and many others offer a variety of vetted options.

2.     The “Cliff-Notes” approach: In this approach teachers/schools/districts may learn some of the project-based learning basics, but they aren’t fully committed to immersing themselves in PBL. In the same way a student might read the Cliff Notes of a book and then try to write an essay, they try to make an educational paradigm-shift with a surface-level knowledge of PBL. Staff members may read some articles or books on PBL. They may attend a webinar, a workshop, or session about PBL. They might even go to a PBL training provided by the school or district.  With the knowledge they have, they try their hand at implementing a project or two in the school year. In this scenario their PBL knowledge can be limited or incomplete, which leads to the mislabeling of “projects” as PBL. In other cases the PBL is only being done partially and without fidelity to the model, which also can lead to mediocre PBL lacking in rigor and structure. Without proper planning and knowledge of the PBL process, the projects fall apart and PBL is seen as a failed model. Furthermore, the lack of follow-up and ongoing training/support often leads to discouragement and nominal success for teachers and students alike.  Here are some next steps if you find yourself in this approach:

a.     Gain a deeper understanding of PBL and continue growing in your knowledge of it. Read Project Based Learning Stories and Structures: Wins, Fails, and Where to Start. Check out monthly PBL blogs from teachers and students who are immersed in PBL. Consider attending more training sessions or shadowing at a school where PBL is fully implemented.  

b.     Work with your administrator to see if there are resources/time to do additional PBL training. Create a follow-up plan in your school/district for how PBL practice will continue.

c.      Take time to properly plan projects. There are a variety of Project Planning Forms out there that can help you with the planning process. There are several housed on the Magnify Learning website under Project-Based Learning Tools.

3.     The “Lone Ranger” approach: In this situation, teachers have come across the ideas and concepts of project-based learning and truly want to put it into practice. These kinds of teachers are often the ones who are pioneers of PBL in their school or district.  They are taking their own time and resources to learn more about how to do PBL well. They are committed to doing PBL with fidelity, but without further support from administrators and peers it becomes a tiring if not lost battle. They don’t have continued support or follow-up on their implementation of PBL nor do they have other teachers to share their PBL experience with. Often their district has too many other demands that don’t allow for them to do PBL fully. Without support their PBL attempts can be discouraged and even squelched. If this describes you, here are a few next steps:

a.     Seek out administrators/coaches who would be willing to offer you support in your PBL practice. 

b. Find teachers in your school/district or another school/district who have implemented PBL successfully. Find some collaboration partners who can support you. Bring them with you to a training!

c.     Attend a project-based learning training with like-minded thinkers. Magnify Learning offers a number of Open PBL Workshops every summer where you can collaborate with other teachers are already implementing project-based learning or are interested in doing so.

4.     The “Cafeteria line” approach: In this approach some of the more palpable elements and key components of the project-based learning model are adopted, but not the entire model. So a district, school, or teacher may have agreed to do PBL, but they leave some of the crucial elements of healthy PBL model out. For instance a teacher could be implementing PBL, but they don’t ever include a community partner. Or students are doing PBL, but the teacher makes all of the decisions leaving out student voice and choice. In other cases, the PBL project is a made up scenario and lacks authenticity. The elements of the PBL model that are more appealing or easier to accomplish are adopted, while the less appealing ones are ignored or discarded.

a.     Commit to a PBL model/process and stick to it with fidelity! The 6 Steps Problem Solving Process provides a solid framework for doing a project. It can be found under the Magnify Learning website under Project-Based Learning Tools.

b.     Use the 6 A’s Project Design Rubric. Check out this blog: The 6 A’s of PBL Project Design.

Each of these approaches reflects a deeper misunderstanding about PBL. When students approach their courses in any of these ways, they usually aren’t successful nor do they reach their full potential. So we really shouldn’t expect it to be different with PBL implementation. This is where the concept of “PBL content knowledge” really comes into play.  Content knowledge must be learned and skills must be practiced for successful application to take place. I say PBL is a type of content knowledge for a few reasons. It is a methodology that must be studied, learned, and applied. It requires a certain kind of mindset and way of thinking as well as a skills set to implement it. It has its own vocabulary i.e. rubric, driving question, entry document, group contracts, Know/Need to Know, benchmarks and the list goes on.

If teachers, schools, and districts want to adopt and implement PBL with success it needs to eventually become a full immersion experience.  Learning Spanish in a high school class isn’t the same as being dropped for 3 months in the middle of Madrid, Spain to learn it. In the same way learning about PBL isn’t the same as fully immersing in it and implementing it. PBL becomes the “conduit” for teaching your standards and skills. You learn and then keep learning the content on a deep level. You get training and continued support to implement the concepts. You regularly apply the skills and concepts in the classroom. You continue reflecting on and refining your practice. It’s not an add-on to what you’re already doing; it becomes what you do. It’s not accomplished by skimming through a few PBL resources; it becomes a deep continual practice. It’s not meant to be done alone; you need support and collaboration partners. PBL is the full delicious meal; not a tray of a la carte options. If PBL is approached as a type of “content” (and I believe it is) then the manner in which it is learned and applied cannot be haphazard or half-hearted, it must be intentional and steadfast.

*Blog was originally published on February 14, 2017.


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Sara Payne taught as an ELA facilitator in a project-based learning classroom for 9 years at New Tech IDEAS, a small learning community, at Decatur Central High School. For the past three years she has been working for Magnify Learning as the Director of Branding and Marketing. She still gets to enjoy being in the classroom and helping to facilitate project-based learning workshops. When she’s not doing PBL work, she loves to spend time with her awesome husband, hang out with friends and family, go to classes at the YMCA, cook, drink good coffee, and travel to new places.