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4 Symptoms and Remedies for Hacking Project-Based Learning

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Today's guest blog post is written by Erin Murphy, Middle School Assistant Principal in the East Penn School District.

A bright, thoughtful teacher sits with her lesson plans, and she dreams of engaging her students in authentic, innovative learning. The magnificent idea comes crashing down around her as the feigned fears associated with planning such an authentic, innovative experience become overwhelming. We call this feeling: PBL Paralysis.

While the term project based learning (PBL) has circulated the education arena for decades, it has yet to breach into mainstream instructional practices. While there are undoubtedly some systemic factors that inhibit this forward motion, I have found countless educators hesitate to implement PBL due to causes of PBL Paralysis.

The first step towards a cure is a diagnosis, so let's examine four symptoms of PBL Paralysis:

The Binder Clinging
I can still picture my color-coded unit binders lining the shelf behind my teacher desk, the plans I spent hours crafting carefully enclosed in their sheet protectors. When we hear the term "traditional" or "old school" there is often an associated assumption that teachers are just too lazy to move towards more innovative approaches.

To the contrary, I loved my binders because they represented moments I cherished in my classroom. Moving away from a favorite lesson or unit can be an emotional experience, much like the experience of giving away a childhood toy. In hindsight, I know I made the right choice, and I created new moments through PBL that my students and I treasure. However, as administrators, coaches, and teacher leaders, we cannot devalue the emotions associated with change.

The Lack of Professional Development
When an organization is not ready to make the systemic shift to PBL, teachers can feel like they are on an island trying to adopt the practice on their own. They sit through professional development targeting an array of topics, none of which are PBL.

Even in districts offering professional development for PBL, it never feels like it is enough because PBL is a learning-by-doing endeavour. Chances are, you will never feel 100% ready to jump into PBL. The key is finding a way to start small with an idea that works for you. Perhaps begin shifting the ownership of asking questions from teacher to students, or test out a two-day design challenge.  Gradually begin adding to the experience as your comfort level grows.

The Grades
Grading can be an obstacle, even for educators comfortable with the overall PBL practice. Grades get the best of us because it is hard to quantify student learning. We work with students as they grapple with a challenge, and then we celebrate when the "light bulb look" finally spreads across their faces. How do we grade that look? The simple answer: don't grade PBL. Throughout a project, students will receive ample feedback from the instructor, their classmates, and even themselves. By the time the project comes to a close, it will be clear which students have demonstrated understanding of the content, and which students have not.

If a grade is absolutely necessary, create a test to assess student learning. Rather than grading the project, grade the assessment. Avoid creating an assessment made up of a series of vocabulary words or multiple choice questions. Your project's guiding questions or other open ended prompts work well for this purpose as they require students to connect their learning in a new context and more accurately reflect the level of learning present throughout the project.  

The Right Versus Wrong
Judgement can be a barrier to progress. Worrying about doing PBL "wrong" may be one of the most significant PBL Paralysis symptoms. You may have seen one of the PBL versus project graphics, or perhaps you have a high flying PBL colleague. These factors can create an unnecessary pressure around the experience. Keep in mind, every step forward counts.

As discussed in The Lack of Professional Development, you need to find a place to start that works best for you. A little bit of discomfort is good, because it means you are trying something new.  Take the risk and then be reflective. Make notes about what worked and what didn't work, and then ask for feedback from your students and trusted colleagues. 

In our upcoming book, Hacking Project Based Learning, Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) and I create an approachable path for educators on the PBL journey. Whether serving as a classroom teacher, administrator, or coach, each of the symptoms may be part of your reality. We aim to address each of these PBL Paralysis symptoms and demystify the PBL experience through ten easy hacks.

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