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.

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13 Responses to Project Based Learning is a Roller Coaster

  1. Lakecia says:

    My 4th grade team is currently planning PBLs in Math for the upcoming 2017-2018 school year. How many PBLs did you complete? How many would you recommend?

  2. Kristy Marchese says:

    Hi Catlin,
    I really loved this post! I am currently taking a class about Communication Tools for the Classroom and am learning a lot of new technology. I can’t express enough how this post/PICTURE hit home for me! I certainly will be able to relate to my students better after taking this course & I will keep that picture with me to remind me that the roller coaster does indeed come to an end and that it was worth the ride! Thanks for a great post!!

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  4. Christie Day says:

    Hi, Catlin! I’m an educational specialist in Fairfax County Public Schools and much of my work focuses on PBL. Today I’m collaborating with an amazingly innovative teacher and an inspiring school-based technology specialist on a professional learning course that focuses on how to utilize technology to enhance PBL for students and teachers. We’d love to connect with you to further share ideas! 🙂

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  6. Karen Mostad says:

    I would love to hear some examples of the projects you have done. I am doing a lot of work with design thinking projects, but am having difficulty creating integrated projects applicable to the real world where students would need to develop the empathy for the situation.

    I would appreciate some guidance on this for students in grades 6/7.

    • Hi Karen,

      My co-teacher and I use the design thinking approach to PBL because it builds empathy. In order to design an actual solution to a real problem, students must understand who the stakeholders are and conduct empathy interviews. We typically give students a big umbrella topic and they design the projects based on their interests. For example, our first unit was on nutrition, the body, and food production, so a group designed an “Eat Local” website with a Google Map of local farms and farmer’s markets, interviews with local farmers, farm to table recipes, etc. Another group did a series of podcasts exploring misconceptions around food and nutrition. During our mental health unit, we asked students to raise awareness about a mental health condition. We had a group design a virtual reality experience to put people in the shoes of someone with anxiety while another group created a light up model of a human body that showed the reaction the body has when under stress.

      I’m a big fan of identifying the learning objectives and providing the umbrella topic, but then I want students to construct their own projects and pitch their concepts in a 90-second elevator speech. I don’t want to dictate how they complete a project.
      That makes it harder to share really explicit examples, but I found the article below interesting because it talks about teaching empathy by using the design thinking process.

      https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-empathy-through-design-thinking-rusul-alrubail

      Catlin

  7. jacquelyn karney says:

    Quick question-Do you relate the projects to the literature you are reading? I’m trying to wrap my mind with how to design a project. I teach Outsiders first semester, and I think there are many topics that could morph into projects!

    • Hi Jacquelyn,

      Yes, projects are usually connected to an overarching theme that is connected to the literature we are reading. For example, when we read Romeo and Juliet, students completed a project related to mental health.

      Good luck!
      Catlin

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