Blog: The Project-Based Practice

The Foundation to Student-Centered Learning

The PBP (not a PBJ) stands for the Project-Based Practice. Just like any good teaching, we know that it takes practice and it is a practice, day in and day out. It never happens perfectly, but we revel in the beauty of learning from the failures, seeing gains and growth in our students, and doing it a little different the next time around.
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From my time in the classroom as a Project-Based Learning teacher (from here on out, referred to as PBL), and from my research and the growing field of research in PBL, I’ve come to realize that PBL is not as simple as laying the groundwork for an incredible project that gets kids fired up about school. I’m not even referring to the quality of the project itself, which is a whole other important “practice”. Project-Based Learning feels successful for teachers and students, when there is a true, authentic student-centered learning environment that is driven by the common belief that PBL is not a curriculum and not a one-way only methodology.

Enter: The Project-Based Practice. The foundational elements that can be intentionally designed to build the environment needed for successful, engaging and thriving PBL, and a truly student-centered learning environment.

The Elements

A mentor of mine, and a PBL guru, once said to me… “When I ask my students what class looks like to them, they say we spend about 80% of the time with us doing work and about 20% of the time with the teacher telling us things…And so, simply, it’s (PBL) when students are doing most of the lifting, that’s when I know we are doing PBL work”.

There are 4 design elements that make up the PBP:
-Student Voice and Choice
-Collaboration
-Reflection and Feedback
-Intentional Structures

The Project-Based Practice helps us as teachers get to a place in our teaching where the environment, the classroom, and the routines, structures and everything that makes the machine run is so well-oiled, because it’s set up for the right reasons and for the right people (the students as the center of learning). This is when we can truly become facilitators of really awesome student-driven learning, and let the kids do what they do best.

The truth of the matter is, if we don't intentionally design our communities, our choices, lack of dialogue, and willingness to settle for "the way things are" will impact future generations, and the sustainability of the future.

1. Intentional Structures

In my post Not All Structures are EqualI dive deeper into intentional structures and their key role as an element of the Project-Based Practice. Intentional structures are structures that teachers design as a way to capitalize on student-centered and student-driven learning – these might look like your typical routines and protocols but are designed in a way that, over time, students are owning the task. For example:

  • Do-Nows that provoke student autonomy, and require little to no teacher intervention (not even to read the instructions out loud!)
  • Transitions that are self-directed (oh, I finished this part, I’m ready to move onto the next thing without waiting for permission!)
  • Non-teacher dependent options for students who are ready to move on (feedback circles, interdisciplinary reading, continuing project work)
  • Student-guided class reflection (students lead each other through the +/deltas of how a class period went, teacher sits in the back)

These intentional structures are the platform for which to build the rest of your project-based practice. Without them, you’ll continue to be the one doing the heavy lifting.

2. Student Voice and Choice

The challenge with student voice and choice is not in knowing what it is and why we do it… as educators, we WANT our kids to be invested in what we’re teaching them, so there are definitely already elements of choice and voice that exist within the pedagogies we bring to the table. The challenge is in how to design creative opportunities for student voice and choice that gives kids the feeling that all of this, everything, is about them. 

There is a ladder, in a sense, of choices that students can make. Many of us are familiar with the lower rungs of the ladder, for example, giving kids opportunities to pick their seats, choosing between a poster and a powerpoint, and earning extrinsic rewards to choose a prize. But as we move up the ladder of student choice, students are given more and more opportunities to make decisions that impact their learning, and ultimately, the outcome of how personalized they make that learning. For example:

  • Creating a system for students to give feedback on how the class is operating, or how the project is going, and then making transparent changes based on their feedback.
  • Allowing students to choose pathways in a project, working towards similar learning goals but with very different processes for getting there.
  • …and the flip of this, allowing students to make content choices within a skeleton process (i.e. everyone is doing literature circles that progress into developing documentary clips, but the topics, books and work differs greatly based on the content they choose)
  • Allowing students to choose how they use certain chunks of time, based on their own needs in a project-cycle.

Over time, as student choices move up the ladder, the outcome of one choice leads to the outcomes of other choices made, and the learning folds into other learning, and the student flows through the learning, articulating and making sense of how it all connects. The project cycles of Project-Based Learning are a powerful, and straightforward way, to show students that choices are something you will make throughout life, and much of what happens in school can be up to you (the student!).

One great test is to see if your students can actually talk about the meat of the class. That is, what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, why they’re learning it and why it’s important.

  1. Measure whether you, or the students, get more opportunities to talk; and
  2. Give kids opportunities to explain “the meat” to you.

As a colleague once taught me, student voice is connected to student understanding and ownership of learning, and in the choices that they make. The proof is in the pudding.

3. Collaboration

The 3rd design element of the project-based practice is collaboration. My memories, your memories, and the way we interact every day as humans is already living proof that collaboration doesn’t always have to be engineered. But this version of collaboration goes beyond setting up intentional table groupings and letting kids pick their own groups for projects. This collaboration builds on the intentional structures you’ve already ingrained in your classroom, and maximizes on student voice and choice, resulting in student-constructed and student-centered learning.

Memories

I often start my workshops by asking teachers, “what’s your earliest memory from your childhood schooling?” For some, it’s a powerful conversation, for others, it was the mundane routine of doing something over and over, which made it worthwhile and imprinted. Others recall traumatic experiences that connect to a positive or negative perception of school as a child.

When I think back on my memories of school, I’m struck at how many of them involve other people. For example, I recall with vivid clarity the day I got on the school bus, a little nauseous, hoping the stomach ache would go away, and puking ALL over the front row, just as the bus pulled in front of the school. Did I mention I was in the front row so everyone had to walk by me and it?

Another memory is from the 3rd grade, when my friend Mekko and I decided to get really creative for our history project… the project, meant to be an individual tri-fold board public presentation of our “culture”, suddenly became the conjoined project of two girls who realized we were both of Asian ancestries (she’s Filipino, I’m Japanese), and so of course, we had to glue the boards together and do the project as one. During our pseudo-collaborative efforts to finish in time, we fell into a laughing fit on my living room floor that felt like it lasted hours.

Another one, a few years later, takes place on the same living room floor. Together with Kathleen and Olivia, we worked on creating the most non-functioning “cat-dog car wash” to present at the 5th grade Invention Convention. It didn’t work, but it was memorable. Flash forward a few years to high school, and fond memories of concert choir, early morning swim practice and directing a group of boys to a choreographed dance for the AP History play (in a different living room) come to mind.

The common thread in these memories is people. The missing thread is that all of these experiences occurred outside of the classroom. All of these memories were stored, while many others didn’t make the cut. There is something about the experiences I’ve had learning with others that allowed that memory to be imprinted on my brain in a different way.

If my ridiculous stories don’t sell this argument, then I recommend you think back on your own school memories and see what comes to mind. Did it occur in or outside of the classroom? Did it involve other people or impact the way you felt about yourself because of the perception of other people?

“We”

The measure for what real collaboration looks like came to me from a conversation I had with some students about their projects. They were telling me about an ongoing project where they were setting up an efficient composting system for the school gardens as part of a greater investigation of Hawaii’s food independence.

As this trio of 7th graders were going through the motions of explaining the project, they kept using the pronoun “we”, in reference to what the rest of the class was working on. Mid-explanation, I finally stopped them and said, “you keep saying we. Who is we?” Their response: “everyone working on this project”.

Surprised at the lack of selflessness that this group of middle schoolers was using to describe their project efforts, I probed further and asked, “why do you keep saying we?” One student piped up and responded, “We say “we” because we are all working towards the same goal, and working together to find the best solution”. 

This is when it hit me that the *we mentality* is the ultimate measure for whether collaboration is real collaboration. In order to gain a better picture of what collaboration looks like, I asked teachers and students to describe experiences where students really owned the learning and had a *we* mentality.

Ms. Meg from Hawaii shared a story of how 2 groups of middle school students working on very different projects around the local food movement organically (without any adult guidance) realized the common objective that both projects had, and proposed to the adults that they should work together. Now they test recipes together and give each other concrete tasks to get to their goals, without awaiting their next steps from an adult.

Ms. Mac from Virginia shared a story of how a community-building advisory activity brought the group together in a way that empowered students to feel like they had a stake… “we recently decorated our classroom door for the AVID college contest and my students decided to use our class stuffed animal as inspiration. Now, they’re working together to determine and vote on a new color to paint the classroom wall, and they’ve had a lot of fun debating that”. Something as simple as designing their classroom space rallied students around an idea, motivating them into thinking in that *we* mentality.

These snapshots from Ms. Meg and Ms. Mac offer a parallel to the (some fond) memories I shared, where our most impactful memories of learning included others. So whether you choose to incorporate teamwork with common goals and high stakes, or unite your class around engaging Socratic discussions that evoke empathy and listening skills, or advocate for strong community within your classroom, there is real power in collaboration and social learning.

Screenshot 2020-05-13 12.20.05

4. Reflection & Feedback

“Feedback should help you make something better. It’s better than grading, it’s useful.” 

These are the words of a group of wise 7th graders who shared with me their understanding of the role of feedback and reflection in creating quality work. Just like the other elements of the Project-Based Practice, reflection & feedback fall back on classroom culture.

Ron Berger provides a great example of how reflection and feedback play a role in student growth in his Austin’s Butterfly series.

The reality is that reflection and feedback can happen at every stage of learning, and it doesn’t always have to be a formal assignment. The more that students have opportunities to reflect and give/receive feedback, the better they’ll get at it!

Here are some ways to incorporate more reflection & feedback into your practice:

  • Incorporate feedback protocols into projects at various stages, such as these from National School Reform Faculty.
  • Always include reflective questions at the beginning or end of each class to gauge progress throughout a project.
  • Give student teams a chance to reflect out loud on “how things are going” – focus on process over content.
  • Hold 1-1 student conferencing, not attached to a grade but for the sake of giving oral feedback to students during their work (i.e. while working on a draft for a writing assignment).
  • Give students multiple opportunities to reflect on how the class is going – “how did we do today in reaching our goals?” Make this about the student actions, instead of what you did or did not do as a teacher. Google forms are a great way to gather this information.