Reflection: Real World Applications Evolution - A Ten-Day Project - Section 1: Note to Teachers


The prospect of creating a PBL learning experience might seem daunting. As you peruse different PBL libraries, like those of High Tech High or the Buck Institute, you might think of a thousand roadblocks (from perhaps not having access to enough devices to what to do about students that just "don't do the work"). I am going to be honest in saying that I do not have a magic formula, but these are some of the things I have learned that perhaps might help you decide to take on the challenge anyway.

1. You do not have to start from scratch. When looking for ideas for a PBL experience, the aforementioned libraries are a good place to start. Even if a project was designed for students well above or below your grade level, the Big Idea remains and is often adaptable. The depth of the project is up to you and your students. 

2. Keep your standards visible. PBL is about engaging students in deep inquiry. Identify the power standards that you want your students to address, and go back to them often as you think about the work you are asking the students to do. 

3. Youtube is your friend. In order for students to accept the challenge of a PBL experience you want to start of your project with a bang. From TV commercials to Kid President videos, YouTube offers a plethora of material that can be used as an entry event. Of course, your entry event does not have to be a video, but my students are often more engaged by a quick clip that challenges them to learn something new than by a wordy document.

4. It's not about the technology. In a perfect world, all students would be in a 1:1 environment where internet access is never a problem. I know that this is not the case. Don't let the lack of tech be a roadblock. Successful PBL can take many forms, and some of my students even prefer going old-school and use their textbooks, our library and their own creativity. Give your students the power to repurpose materials to build prototypes or create paper prototypes, that show or explain how their ideas could work - even if the prototype itself does not actually work.

5. Provide students with a way to manage their project. Staying organized and on task is hard. If your students do not have much experience with managing their own time, they will most often let time slide only to realize that days have gone by without much progress (which is why daily feedback is also key). During our first few PBL experiences, the students and I work together to develop a very detailed timeline (Human Body 2.0). As the year progresses, I slowly give students more ownership of the process (Genetics), until they can do this on their own (Evolution). Managing their work time and deciding what they need to do in order to satisfy project requirements is a lifelong skill that will be useful in the workplace. 

6. Be available to provide feedback. From day one, as students create a timeline of their work to presentation day, continuous assessment and feedback are key components of project success. It is easier to do minor corrections as the students are working than to wait until the end of the project and be surprised about what really happened. By this I do not mean that you have to prevent students from making mistakes, but rather that you are available for the all important questioning "Why do you think _____ happened? How could you solve it?"

7. Keep students engaged by giving them a voice and choice. The driving question for your project should provide enough lee-way for students to access the material in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them. PBL is not about having a class where the variations in the end product are about color scheme or presentation style. It is about students working hard, developing their own ideas and thinking critically about them. I even tell the students: "The most successful end product is one where you teach me something I do not already know. By this, I don't mean an obscure fact. What I mean is show me a different perspective or convince me that your way is better than mine."

The first time I ran a PBL experience was most definitely not perfect. It takes time and patience, and at times your students will beg for you to just tell them what to do. However, it is worth the effort.

For more information on PBL, I recommend the Buck Institute and Edutopia as invaluable resources.

  Project Based Learning
  Real World Applications: Project Based Learning
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Evolution - A Ten-Day Project

Unit 8: Evolution
Lesson 16 of 17

Objective: Students will be able to apply the concepts learned during the evolution in one of five different ways.

Big Idea: Students take control of their own learning.

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