Book Spotlight: Reinventing Project-Based Learning

I mentioned back in the summer that I had purchased Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age by Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss (ISTE, 2018, 3rd Edition), a book I recently finished reading.   The edtech angle implied in the title definitely was my initial hook for buying it (and it is useful providing tools and strategy in this area throughout), but I was quickly thankful for a much bigger picture on PBL; Reinventing Project-Based Learning helps me achieve ways to do just that.  While spending the last few months settling into my role as a Deeper Learning Design Specialist, I was glad to have the text as a companion.  Effective PBL is certainly not the only pathway to deeper learning outcomes, but it is undoubtedly a popular one, so Boss and Krauss’s insights are invaluable in how to make project-based learning more impactful and manageable.  While Reinventing Project-Based Learning is highly recommended from stem to stern, I wanted to share some of my personal highlights from the book in this Edtech Elixirs blog entry.

High Quality Project-Based Learning (HQPBL)

While I knew PBLWorks’s “Gold Standard” design elements for PBL, I had either not heard of or don’t remember the HQPBL Framework until reading this book (pages 18-20).  (I should point out that PBLWorks was one of many partners that helped shape the HQPBL Framework.)

The six criteria for HQPBL are:

  • Intellectual Change and Accomplishment.  “Projects should not just be ‘fun activities’ or ‘hands-on experiences’ requiring minimal intellectual effort. … To complete a project successfully, students need to learn important academic content, concepts, and skills.” I appreciate the emphasis on complexity, while also pointing out that PBL should not be just fluffy and devoid of academic rigor.
  • Authenticity.  “[D]o students engage in work that makes an impact on or otherwise connects to the world beyond school, and to their personal interests and concerns?”  The key word here is and:  a good PBL should both impact others outside of the four walls of the classroom while also connecting to student passions.  When asked, a student should be able to answer the question Why does this PBL matter to you?
  • Public Product.  A culminating event where the product is published or presented is an oft-cited hallmark of PBL.  However, the importance of sharing the project not just at the end but throughout is also key: “In a high quality project, students make their work public by sharing it not only with the teacher but also with each other, experts, and other people beyond the classroom. This occurs both during a project, as part of the product development and formative assessment process and at its conclusion, when the product is shared and discussed with an audience.” I also discuss the shift in thinking about “experts” as well as the need for continuous formative assessment later in this blog entry.
  • Collaboration.   As the Framework reminds us, collaboration “does not mean simply dividing up project tasks, completing them individually, then putting it all together at the end with no synthesis or discussion.” In my early teaching, I often mistook and misassessed the equivalent of “parallel play” as effective student groupwork. Students merely working side by side is not enough to prove evidence of effective collaboration!  Model and scaffold collaboration for students, and help teach the skill if necessary. 
  • Project Management.  While a teacher may initially need to model for, guide and facilitate the students in “manag[ing their] time, tasks and resources efficiently,” the goal is that students are eventually doing this for themselves.
  • Reflection.  Again, this is not just something for students to do after the project is published. They should “pause regularly—not just at the end of the project, but throughout the process—to think about what they are doing and learning.”

The Framework PDF may only be six pages, but it repeatedly provokes thought on how to improve PBL (as some of the above quotes hopefully attest to), and is well worth the read.   To be honest, I like this Framework more than the Gold Standard of PBLWorks; as it states in the Framework’s introduction, while many “models and guidelines have been created” for PBL, they are “typically written from the perspective of the teacher.” In contrast, the HQPBL Framework “describes PBL in terms of the student experience.”  As a person who is trying to help others envision a better, richer student classroom experience, I appreciate this focus.

Transforming Questions

Another route to deeper learning is Inquiry-Based Learning.  It is not surprising that the idea of asking good questions and a student-centered approach to seeking out content is also a part of transformative PBL.   Boss and Krauss remind us to keep the PBL’s outcome in mind, and that asking questions can be part of a great hook to start the PBL.  In the chapter section of the book titled “Promote Inquiry and Deep Learning” (175-178), they use an example of an instructional unit on money to show how to transform closed questions that have a narrow or single answer (“What is money made of?”) to more open, driving questions “transformed for deeper inquiry” (such as “How would you analyze coins to learn what they are made of?” or “Is the process of making coins and paper money the same everywhere?”).

The Need for Formative Assessments All Along the Way

In my opinion, the biggest difficulty for teachers is how to properly facilitate the long middle portion of the PBL journey.  They may have a great driving question or event to kick it off, and have a solid idea for how to publish and present the end product, but it’s the plan to check in on student progress (both in progressing to meet deadlines as well as progress toward mastering the academics) where teachers often get stuck.  Boss and Krauss really shine in this area of support. Table 5.2 “Assessment Options” (131-136), which details formative assessment options during PBL, is alone worth the price of the book.  The table has columns for “Teacher Activities,” “Questions,” “Assessment Options (means of finding out),” and “Teacher Response”; the rows give examples when to do this, from “During Planning and Preparation” through “Presentation of Project Work.” 

Fieldwork versus Field Trips

I’ve written before about the impact of place-based learning.  Boss and Krauss remind us how place-based learning can be a powerful component of successful PBL as well (212-213).  Firstly, it’s a matter of inverting the notion of a class field trip as the “dessert” that may happen at the end of a unit or school year (if there’s time, and if everyone pays the fee).  Instead, why not make such a field trip a crucial component at the start or middle of a PBL?  This allows students to do authentic field work, gathering data and ideas.  For example, a visit to a museum may elicit inquiry beyond content and fact collection (149).  How does the docent talk? How are exhibits constructed? How can an unplanned event or discovery trigger a new inquiry?  If you can let go and have the students be the ones to drive learning, you can create a great start to personally driven PBL: “[S]ome of the best learning experiences unfold when teachers are comfortable asking, ‘Where will the environment take us on this particular day?’ ”  (149)

Be Creative in Finding “Experts”

Teachers may consider experts as panel members to make up the audience that students will present their final project to, but Boss and Krauss remind us that it is equally important to consider experts during the PBL as well, in order to provide formative assessment feedback as well as content resources.  But we also must make the idea of “experts” more elastic.  The potential expertise of parents also has to be considered and included (146-148).   How might a teacher, at the start of the year, survey parents to determine their professions, hobbies, availability, willingness to help? (Of course, this should be done with the utmost respect and dignity, with a clear asset mindset that any parent can bring value to the classroom.)  We should also utilize school or district work-based coaches, internship coordinators, and CTE pathway directors who have connections to the community workforce to help create not only partnership for PBL expertise, but potential place-based learning opportunities, or panelists for Defenses of Learning.  

One final humorous note.  As I neared the end of the book, I almost fell off of my couch when I read Carmen Coleman‘s name (page 246)!  Boss and Krauss quote her from a PBS NewsHour story in 2013, when she was the Superintendent of Danville Independent Schools and an early proponent of PBL.  (It turns out that Carmen was equally surprised and unaware of the mention!) There’s nothing like seeing your OVEC Deeper Learning Team leader show up in a best seller to make you proud of your opportunity to work alongside such educational innovators.    

What other PBL books have you found helpful in your educational journey?  Share in the Comments below!

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