Project Based Learning: The 10 Step Plan
|Thom Markham, Ph.D.
A decade ago, project based learning (PBL) was popular in a few schools and with a few teachers, but hardly widespread. Not so now. With the rise of 21st century skills instruction, the advent of career and college readiness goals and a renewed emphasis on inquiry, the game is changing. PBL is popular.
The most visible evidence of PBL’s new level of acceptance is a phenomenon rarely encountered in prior years: Districts have begun to see PBL as the primary method for teaching and learning in all grade levels, and are backing up their decision by offering in-depth PBL professional development and coaching to teachers.
For any District, this is a brave step into the unknown. There is a dramatic difference between conventional instruction and a student-focused, inquiry-based approach. Often, this can show up in poorly planned projects that leave students, teachers and administrative staff dissatisfied with results. PBL is a sophisticated methodology, with many moving parts, and teachers and staff developers may not recognize how challenging it is to implement—or how difficult to train for.
But it can be done right. Districts benefit when they take a careful step-by-step approach that allows sufficient time and opportunity for PBL to take root and flourish. Here are ten steps that will help:
- Prepare the Ground. Most teachers understand the rationale for PBL, but remain skeptical until they are reassured on two fronts. First, they need to know that PBL will help them meet their core content objectives. Second, they need to be shown how PBL differs from ‘projects,’ which they often equate with off task work, disorganized groups, or fuzzy outcomes. Once reassured, the discussion can focus on the ‘how’ of PBL.
- Differentiate PBL. Unseasoned advocates for PBL have a habit of treating PBL like other reforms: Everyone will do it, in exactly the same way. In fact, experience with PBL shows that implementation varies across grade levels, subjects, and teachers. There is no one ‘PBL’; it is a process and philosophy that must be adapted to each teacher’s situation. For example, algebra teachers will often design shorter, problem-oriented projects, while a World History teacher may have a longer project in mind.
- Offer Methods and Resources for High Quality PBL. Schools in the U.S. and other high performing countries have adopted a codified set of best practices, along with key tools, that have proven essential for high quality PBL. Helping teachers master these tools and methods avoids reinventing the wheel and enduring many first year failed projects.
- Attend to school and classroom culture. The underlying dynamic that drives better performance in PBL is a personalized classroom culture in which every student feels known, respected, and communicated with. If the classroom culture is disruptive, projects become unfocused and fragmented. In general, trying to graft PBL onto schools that haven’t created a successful school climate is a challenge.
- Prepare teachers for people management. In PBL, the teacher assumes the role of mentor and facilitator. But teachers, trained as classroom managers, often find it more difficult than they anticipated to move to a role as a project manager, a crucial shift for successful PBL. Districts can prepare teachers by emphasizing norms and performance expectations, agreements on behavior, and clear directions. But other elements contribute to better behavior just as much: (1) A clearly stated Driving Question that captures imagination and starts the project in the right direction; (2) a consistent explanation of the why behind the project; (3) an air of experiment, problem solving, and discovery; and (4) a promise that, at the end of the project, the results will matter to someone besides the teacher or the test designers.
- Anticipate the number one problem: Teamwork. PBL relies heavily on student teams to draft, design, and create quality products. Excellent tools exist to keep students focused and productive, including work ethic and collaboration rubrics, contracts, and bonus point systems to reward initiative or empathetic behavior. But teachers struggle with fairness, variations in contribution, and grading issues. If teams don’t work, neither will projects. Learning to use the tools consistently is critical.
- Plan for Coaching. Whole group instruction about PBL anchors the methods and objectives. But coaching support is crucial. Each teacher (or team of teachers) needs to develop a driving question, project plan, and assessment plan, including the sometimes unfamiliar task of deciding how students will exhibit results and deliver public products. In general, every teacher will need about 45 minutes of coaching to turn a preliminary design into a solid plan.
- Identify your champions. Not all teachers at a school will embrace PBL immediately, nor is PBL the type of instruction that is easily mandated. The best route is to identify a core of skillful teachers who show initial enthusiasm for PBL. During the first year, limit the projects to those classrooms that have the best chance of success. Then share and debrief the projects with the full staff, allowing time for reflective observations and gradual acceptance.
- Debrief and Replan. Most teachers will struggle with identifiable barriers in the first year of PBL implementation, including teaching and assessing 21st century skills. They also need to learn to avoid default mode, which is to use PBL to cover a unit, and instead look for ideas that really challenge and engage students in a new way. The best way to handle this change process is to anticipate the gaps and address them by discussing and revising projects, using protocols or the norms of a professional learning community.
- Have a vision for getting better. Implementing PBL on a large scale is much like a business start-up. Expect that it will take three years of consistent effort before the norms, methods, expectations, expertise, and results come together to achieve results. And, to progress from the start-up year through year three, each year requires a separate strategy. In the first year, the goal is to establish a PBL culture by aligning the 21st skills assessments, training students to work in effective teams, and building a consensus on project quality. In the second year, the objective is to bring more power to the thinking and inquiry process within projects, and to ensure that the performance of students rises significantly. In year three, Districts should expect a noticeably higher level of student engagement (often with a spike in test scores), outstanding projects, and a consensus culture among teachers that denotes that PBL is widely accepted.
Thom Markham, Ph.D., is an educator, psychologist, recent author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators, and the principal author of the Handbook for Project Based Learning, published by the Buck Institute for Education. He can be contacted through his website, www.thommarkham.com.
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