Although I am an advocate of project-based learning, I am not unaware of its challenges. As the old military adage has it, failure to prepare is preparation to fail, so here is a list of what I consider to be the main issues you need to be aware of. Many of them may be subsumed under the general heading “management”, but I believe it’s worth itemising them all nonetheless.
Coming up with a rich problem
This is a key issue. As we saw in 7 Reasons to use project-based learning in computing, a “rich” problem has many potential dimensions. “How can we make the roads safe around here?”, the example given in that post, has no simple, cut and dried answers. For example, one reason that kids get knocked over by traffic is that they step out into the road while texting or listening to music. Another reason is that children find it hard to judge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles. Those are not easy problems to solve. On the other hand, a “problem” like “What’s the climate like in New Mexico” can be solved in about two minutes, simply by looking it up.
You don’t have to come up with the problem yourself. Staff, parents and pupils themselves can be invited to make suggestions, based on the things that are worrying them. The list they come up with should keep you in projects for quite a while!
Monitoring who is doing what
I mean this in two senses. First, you need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to develop the same skills. Not necessarily in one project, which would be asking a lot, but certainly over the course of the year. Otherwise you could have a situation in which a pupil only ever does writing or design work, and never touches data handling, for example. Think of the individual pupil outcome as a patchwork quilt: it doesn’t work if all the squares are the same colour.
Second, if one is not careful, it is very easy to allow some pupils to get away with doing very little. However I think one needs to be both pragmatic and perceptive.
I once had a class for two hour lessons, twice a week. If I saw a couple of pupils taking a break to discuss last night’s soap, I took the view that as I can’t work for two hours solid, why should I expect them to be able to? But after a few minutes I’d catch their eye and point to the clock. That was all that was needed.
Some pupils look like they are not doing any work at all. But just because you can’t see their brain whirring doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. In one group I had, one boy spent virtually all group discussion time talking about football with his friends on the next table. But every once in a while he would lean over, and make a suggestion. The others invariably followed this new lead, and it was also invariably a brilliant idea. So who is to say he wasn’t working, just because he didn’t demonstrate it in the usually accepted manner? This, of course, raises another issue arising from PBL….
If 5 people are involved in a project, how do you assess each of them on the quality of the outcome? You could decide to simply give them all the same mark. I think that is unfair, or potentially so. I preferred to do three things in this regard:
- Monitor who did what, and keep a written record of that;
- Have the pupils themselves log what they did at the beginning and end of each lesson;
- Talk to pupils individually to find out if they really do know what they ought to know if they have done the work they said they had.
This is related to assessment, but is not quite the same. What I am referring to is the fact that you need to ensure that each pupil is improving, which entails being challenged. Hopefully, pupils are not doing the same sort of thing in every project, but if they do end up working in the same area twice, the second time should be a development rather than a repetition.
Providing catch up opportunities
If a pupil misses a particular type of opportunity, how will you ensure that s/he makes up for it? This relates to the points about monitoring: if a pupil has been involved in 4 projects, say, over the course of the year, and has not once touched computer programming in all that time, you may have to tell him what role he is going to take on in the next project. Hey, if it’s good enough for Lord Sugar to do that on The Apprentice, it’s good enough for me!
Ensuring no time is wasted at the start of the lesson
You want the start of the lesson to be dynamic and purposeful. The pupils want that too. What you really don’t want is 30 kids all shouting “What do I have to do?”. The best way to ensure a proper start of the lesson is to allocate time at the end of each lesson for planning. Pupils should note down the following:
- What they have done during the lesson;
- What they need to get on with next lesson;
- What they need to do between now and then in order to be able to just get on with it as soon as the doors are opened next time.
I have adopted this approach with even the most challenging of classes. It works.
Ensuring quality learning
There’s learning, and there’s quality learning. So-called peer learning is not much good if the person you’re teamed up with has the same misconceptions or same lack of knowledge as you do. You need to:
- Monitor what goes on in the lesson, so you can provide timely assistance when required (see next point);
- Make sure you know who the class experts are, so you can send pupils to them as necessary. For example, one of the pupils might be the “go-to person” for spreadsheet modelling or video editing. If they are, take advantage of the fact;
- Have a set of resources (books, handouts, useful websites) that you can direct kids to when appropriate.
Ensuring nobody waits too long for assistance
What do you think is an acceptable “wait” time? Personally I believe that 5 minutes is too long. You need to have a range of strategies that you can employ, to ensure pupils are not hanging around waiting for you to answer a question. For example:
- A rule like “Ask three and then me”.
- Having lots of useful resources for kids to explore for assistance;
- Clear instructions on the whiteboard, or the wall;
- Over the long term, establish a classroom culture of “If I can’t get on with what I want to do, I’ll get on with what I can do.”. There is always something useful that a pupil can be getting on with;
- Having the ability to talk to one person while scanning the rest of the room helps too!
Not minding an air of organised chaos
If a project is something the kids can really get their teeth into, and there is a sense of excitement, even urgency, then forget about the idea of a British Library type of atmosphere. It’s going to be a bit noisy, and at any one time kids will be walking about getting resources, talking to other pupils or printing stuff out. If that’s something you find hard to handle, or difficult to explain to a visiting inspector, then maybe PBL is something you should avoid.