Project Based Learning is a Roller Coaster

One of the most challenging aspects of this school year has been using project-based learning to integrate curriculum. Projects are a beast! It feels like I am boarding a roller coaster each time we begin a new project. In fact, it feels like every project follows the same emotionally turbulent trajectory as pictured below.

Phase 1: Introduce the Project

When I introduce a new project, students are immediately shocked and dismayed. They are totally intimidated by the prospect of tackling a large scale project that does not have a clear path or an obvious answer or solution. I’m always a little disheartened by how many students feel incapable of making meaningful change in the world or dreaming up innovative solutions to address real world problems. Yet, that is exactly what I want my students to be able to do.

Phase 2: Define and Learn about the Problem

Once the project is underway, students get frustrated. They realize that there isn’t necessarily a clear roadmap for how to tackle the project. They do a couple of Google searches and get stuck. It’s at this point when I encourage them to interview people, reach out to experts on Twitter, and brainstorm with peers. This is definitely a low point in most projects. Students are not comfortable in a place of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Phase 3: Experience the First Success

In every project, there is a moment when students experience their first success. Their eyes light up and they get excited. I live for these moments. Sometimes it happens when a student connects with an expert in the field or conducts and interview and learns something really important about the problem they are trying to solve.

This year students did a design thinking challenge. One student thought she knew what the solution to her problem was at the start of the project. I reminded her that she needed to move through all the steps in the design thinking process and encouraged her to do her empathy interviews to better understand the problem t0 see if her solution was really the best solution. After a particularly enlightening interview, she rushed up to me and said, “You were totally right! I didn’t really understand the problem until I did these interviews!” She had finally trusted the process and it led her to a really interesting solution. However, this example is classic. Students rarely trust the process or want to invest the time necessary to tackle a complex challenge or problem.

Phase 4: Project Deadline Approaches

As the project deadline approaches, students often become angry because they are not as far along as they would like to be or they’ve hit a number of bumps that have slowed their progress. At this point, students typically place the blame squarely on me. Normally, they say that they didn’t have enough time. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time they actually had because it is never enough. This reveals another challenge of project-based learning: it requires that students manage their time well and stay organized. This is tough for many students.

Phase 5: Project Completion & Exhibition

The end of the project is another high moment. Students usually surprise themselves with what they have created and accomplished. Most are excited to share their work with an authentic audience. This moment of pride and excitement is satisfying for both me and them. It’s the moment when they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

As I reflect on this year, I realize how emotionally and mentally exhausting it is to teach in a project-based model. Despite the many highs and lows, I can appreciate the multitude of soft skills my kids are developing as they work on their projects. They learn how to be more flexible, to problem-solve, to communicate effectively, to manage their time, to take lead or fall back and support. They also learn the importance of being a motivated and dependable member of a team. These are soft skills they need to be successful in life beyond high school.

Just like riding a roller coaster, I initially experience fear and trepidation but I always walk off the ride feeling energized and glad I went on it. I experience the same range of emotion in the face of each big project.

There is one very important lesson I learned this year that I will carry into the next school year. Less is more. My hope is that by tackling fewer projects over the course of the year, that my students will dive deeper into their projects and actually learn more. So for those of you embracing project-based learning, be prepared for the highs and lows and remember less is more.

Posted in Learning | 6 Comments

Battling Against Traditional Perceptions of Teaching and Learning

My goal with blended learning has always been to shift the focus from me to my students. I want to place them at the center of learning. I want them to ask questions, conduct research, engage in conversations, collaborate with peers, and make meaning for themselves. I believe this is the best way to prepare them for life.

However, the truth is that

being a student in a student-centered classroom is hard & some kids just don't want to work that hardClick To Tweet I teach 9th and 10th grade, so my students have been in school for 10 years before they walk through my classroom door. They’ve been conditioned to think that “teaching” is a person standing at the front of the room explaining information.

This perception of what a teacher should do and what I actually do are very different. I see my primary role as two-fold: 1) I’m an architect of learning experiences designing engaging activities and projects so my students can discover and create, and 2) I’m a coach providing regular, real-time feedback as they work. The disconnect between their perception of what I should be doing and my actual role is hard for some students. They want me to spoon feed them information and I want them to be drivers of learning.

My students’ role in the classroom has largely been to listen, take notes, and complete individual practice. Unfortunately, this traditional student role does not demand that they develop the key soft skills that people entering today’s evolving workforce need to be successful.

A recent Forbes article titled “Why Soft Skills Matter And The Top 3 You Need,” states that “soft skills—specifically interpersonal skills, the ability to manage and control your emotions, communication skills, leadership, adaptability, and problem solving—are critical.” These soft skills are developed and honed when people work together and face challenges. This is what makes project-based learning hard for students. They have to use and improve these skills to work with a diverse group of individuals to complete tasks, negotiate responsibilities, and execute large-scale projects.

Because my classroom is project-based, technology-infused, and student-driven, it demands that students take an active role in the learning happening. They cannot be passive bystanders. Some rise to the occasion and thrive; while others flounder and want to place the blame on the design of the course. As a teacher, I want to see every student succeed. However, I realize that my class demands that students grab the learning and embrace their roles as drivers of learning.

So, the challenge for me continues to be the battle against my students’ perception of both my role as teacher and their role as learners in our classroom.

  • How can I help my students to appreciate the skills they will need when they graduate?
  • How can I engage even my reluctant learners and inspire them to want to learn?
  • How can I help them to see the value in my roles as an architect of learning experiences and a coach?

I have this sneaky suspicion that many of my students will not fully appreciate the skills they have developed in my classroom until long after they’ve left school. I imagine them being presented with a challenge at work and using the skills they’ve honed in N.E.W. School to rise to the occasion and address the problem, whatever it is. At least, that’s my hope.

Posted in Learning | 24 Comments

3 Problems with Traditional Grades

For the last two years, I’ve been moving farther away from conventional grades. This has been a huge shift for me. I used to grade everything and dump hundreds of points into my digital gradebook over the course of a semester. When grades were due, my gradebook spit out a percentage for each student and that was the grade he/she received.

There are several problems with this approach. For this blog post I will focus on the top three problems with the traditional approach to giving grades:

  • Grades happened to students.
  • Grades did not require that students think about their learning.
  • Grades did not necessarily reflect mastery of grade-level skills.

Traditional Grades Happen To Students

Like too many aspects of education, students play a very passive role in the traditional grading system. Click To Tweet They submit work, that work is assessed by the teacher, and the teacher enters a score into a gradebook. If a teacher uses percentages, then the student may not even understand why a particular assignment impacted their overall grade in the way it did. For many students, the grades they receive when a report card comes home is a surprise. That’s a problem.

Grades shouldn’t be a surprise. They should not happen to students. Grades and the development of skills should be an ongoing conversation between the teacher and student. (For more on this, check out my blog “Conversations Instead of Grades.”)

Traditional Grades Do Not Require Students Think About Their Learning

Grading and assessment are probably the most time-consuming aspect of a teacher’s job. We feel we must stay on top of each child’s progress and attempt to know where they are in their learning at all times. Ironically, students are rarely asked to evaluate their work and reflect on what is says about their learning. This makes no sense to me.

In John Hattie’s work, he states that “self-reported grades comes out at the top of all influences [on student achievement]. Children are the most accurate when predicting how they will perform.” Hattie highlights the importance of having students set goals for their academic success. After setting goals, students should be given time to look at their work and reflect on what that work reveals about their skills and academic progress.

This year, I dumped my digital gradebook and instead share a Google document with each student that has target standards and skills for each unit. I give students time every single day to open this shared document and select a piece of work to reflect on.

They give themselves a score between 1-4 to indicate where they believe they are on the road to mastering this skill given the work they did on this specific assignment. They link to their work or insert a photo, then write a couple of sentences explaining why they gave themselves a particular score. I like that this approach requires that they think critically about their work and what it reveals about their journey towards mastery. (For more on this approach, check out my blog: Ditching Traditional Grades & My Online Gradebook)

Traditional Grades Do Not Necessarily Reflect Mastery of Grade-level Skills

Some students do well in school because they understand the game.Click To Tweet They turn in all of their assignments and manage their time well. These students typically receive top marks for their effort. However, effort is not the same as mastering skills. I felt uncomfortable about this reality for years. I had students who received As on their report cards because they did everything I asked them to do, but I knew that some of those students were not actually A level students in terms of their English skills.

In fact, I’ve had several tough conversations with students this year about their skill levels. I have students who have always received As and expected to continue doing so in my class. When we look through their body of work during our grade conversations, they have everything submitted but their scores hover between 2.5-3 on most skills. They don’t like hearing that they are not receiving an A because they have not demonstrated mastery of those skills.

Even though these conversations are hard, they motivate kids to keep practicing and working. Students seek me out for strategies about how to develop their research and analytical skills. They are aware that my focus is on their development as learners and not on the accumulation of points.

As another year winds down and many of us are gearing up to send home final grades, I think it’s healthy to question how we approach grading. Do students know what their grades will be? Have they been asked to set academic goals and reflect on their learning? Are their grades a reflection of their skills?

Posted in Learning | 6 Comments