Many debate the need to move to project-based learning, but fear that the lack of directed instruction would hinder student outcomes.
The idea of direct instruction or lecture to help students learn is a method of pedagogy that doesn't work for most 21st century learners; they must be involved.
However, just making a shift away from a more traditional classroom doesn't ensure success in learning. Students must be taught how to be successful in their learning when it is different from what they are used to. (i.e. waiting for the teacher to tell them what to know and how to know it).
When we move to project-based learning, it's important to remember that students need assistance in planning the pace of long-term projects. Too often we assume that giving them more time on a meatier project will ensure their success, but this isn't really the case.
Learning to balance the rigor of a task with pacing and mini-lessons is a skill that takes time for teachers. It takes collaboration with the students and constant feedback dialogues to ensure that kids are getting what they need and teachers are giving appropriate feedback for what needs to be accomplished.
Here are some tips for maximizing student learning in project-based classrooms:
Create realistic benchmark dates with deliverable products at the end of them. Students need to know what is due and when it is due so they can best achieve those expectations. Flexibility is important for some students as some will need more time, but even a rough idea of "average" will help students pace themselves better. Also, remember that sometimes the enormity of a whole project can be overwhelming to some students who have time management or organizational challenges.
Give time in class to do the work so that students are able to ask questions and get personalized formative feedback as they go, daily. This ensures no one gets off task too far. We can provide feedback to the small group, on their assignments as they submit benchmark learning or individually as asked for or noticed needed.
Make sure to adjust mini-lesson instruction as needed to make sure students have the tools to be successful. You don't necessarily have to start each class with a lesson, but as you take the status of the class, why not stop them once a period if you notice a similar challenge that requires some redirection. There will be individualized learning happening, but sometimes a full class short lesson works well too.
Allow students to be creative with their interpretation of the task so as they collaborate in groups, the personality and ideas of the group can shape the learning. In this way, always adjusting groups based on dynamics and needs will ensure the greatest outcome for all involved.
Provide success criteria upfront, so that students understand what they need to do to show what they know. This can be done in the form of front loading the standards that the assignment is assessing or in connecting it to earlier work from the year and a discussion of mastery learning. We must always keep the end in sight as we are pushing forward to progress students not only in engagement and enjoyment of learning but also in their level of mastery of different skills and content.
Hands-on activities that require students to activate a lot of skills at once take practice. Breaking these complicated but rigorous learning experiences into pieces can be very helpful and satisfying to both the teacher and the students.
What structures are in place in your space to ensure student success on the projects in your classes? Please share. If you haven't done project-based learning, what is your biggest stumbling block? Let's problem-solve together.
*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in March 2016