"Our parents bring us into the world, but in the end, we are responsible for what we become." - Kahlil Gibran
As an adult, these words ring true. While my parents' guidance and experiences set me on a path, it is my choice to follow in their footsteps, heal intergenerational traumas, pass on their teachings, or pick a different way. As a parent, these words ring true. I know that there is only so far I can take my children and only certain places I can travel with them. They, too, will have the chance to make their own choices as I did mine. As a teacher, I know that I also play a role. Parents and caregivers alone cannot provide all of the learning and guidance young people need to take full responsibility for themselves. That requires ongoing and wide-ranging modeling, practice, feedback, reflection, and practice (that bore repeating!) across contexts and content. It is both a duty and an opportunity, as educators, to support this work.
One of the many gifts of a constructivist approach to learning is that young people have the opportunity to make choices within a safe and supportive structure. This blog focuses on one constructivist approach to learning— High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL)— and offers ways to make space for student choice throughout the HQPBL experience. If you are new to HQPBL, learn more here!
Choice Throughout the Project Plan
The ACP team created the Project Learning Experiences Steps to aid in the understanding of what high-quality projects are and how they unfold.
There are three major steps:
Launch Project and Inquiry
Present Products and Explain Learning
At each step, there are opportunities for students to be the designers and deciders of their experience. We offer suggestions for teachers and/or students new to PBL and those with more project experience.
When you are ready, download the Teacher Project Plan and start planning!
Launch Project and Inquiry
The launch consists of three major components:
Launch—The opening experience serves as the hook into the project and initiates students’ curiosity and questions.
Identify Questions and Products—Share and/or determine with students the Intellectual Challenge or Problem and what they will make or do in service of addressing the challenge.
Know/Need-to-Knows—Students generate and record the questions related to the launch, the challenge/problem, and the products. They also take stock of their knowledge and expertise that may help them in the project.
We recommend more structured choices for teachers and/or students new to HQPBL. By this, we mean the teacher determines the choice options or limits them to a particular aspect of the launch and presents them to students. Why do this?
Thing One: Decision-making requires several critical thinking skills—information gathering, analysis, interpretation, reasoning, etc. As you transition your young people to a more learner-centered environment, they will need modeling and support to understand how and why to make decisions related to the project work.
Thing Two: Too many choices can stifle not only progress and efficiency but also creativity and engagement. With practice, decision-making will require less cognitive load and become more automatic.
Once students become more familiar with decision-making and their responsibilities as independent learners, they will be ready for the more advanced suggestions below. (Though, feel free to try them on if they resonate!)
If you or your students have more project experience, the collaborative work happens both before and during the launch.
Before: Identify the content or skills you want students to learn during the project. Then, engage students in topic identification. Ask students to consider their interests and passions alongside the relevance or urgency of the issue.
During: After a topic is selected, students may also participate in drafting the central question that will anchor the project. Tools such as the Tubric can help scaffold the process. Determine products at this time as well. You may find that there is bouncing back and forth between the products and the challenge—revision and refinement happening as each comes into view. Lastly, we come to the Know/Need-to-Know questions. These are inherently learner-driven—they wrote them! Students may choose how to group their questions or how to investigate them.
Regardless of whether you are new to or more experienced with PBL, we want young people doing the same work. When we present the new to PBL versus the more experienced it will focus more on scaffolding and less on different pathways or processes. Even in a more experienced PBL classroom, there will be times students will need one of the “new to PBL” scaffolds. Use what they need!
Again, these are the four (4) steps in the Investigation Cycle.
Learning and Investigation—Based on students’ need-to-know questions, provide learning inputs and experiences that support student investigations.
Revisit Inquiry and Reflect—Students engage in ongoing reflection on new learning.
Prototype and Develop Products—With their new understanding and skills, students develop their product or performance.
Feedback and Revision—Students give and receive feedback from relevant stakeholders. Feedback could be self, peer, teacher, or expert feedback. Plans for revision, along with need-to-know questions, inform the next Investigation Cycle if one follows.
Here are some ways to offer student choice in the Investigation Cycles.
Before we journey to the final section, we would like to point out that you, the teacher, will still need to be the bridge for seeking feedback from external folks. What does this look like? Identify and secure community partners and offer guidance to said partners on how to provide feedback to your students best.
Present Products and Explain Learning
The final step in the HQPBL experience is Present Products and Explain Learning. Since the product is determined in the early stages of the project, student choice here is very focused on how to get the product into the proverbial hands of the intended audience. Here are the components of this step.
Preparing for Showcase—What practice or support do students need to showcase the product(s) and learning?
Showcase—What is the appropriate structure or format for the products to be presented? How will students explain their transfer of learning to people beyond the classroom?
Closing Reflection & Celebration—How will students individually reflect on learning and growth and celebrate with others?
While accountability is undoubtedly a part of showcasing work and learning at the end of the project, I invite you to frame this as an opportunity to create impact. How does the conversation shift for young people when we talk about impact? Let’s take a look through a quick example. Shout out to Brenda at Allan Daily High School for the idea!
Imagine students are designing mobile services for different community needs—think mobile libraries or care package delivery services for families facing food insecurity. Students will present their proposals and designs to local community groups for consideration. As they prepare for the showcase, their teacher asks them to consider the project’s impact in the following ways:
How does my design impact the community? What will change for people as a result? How can I emphasize that in my presentation to the community groups to persuade them to use my idea?
What impact could my design have on the audience (in this case, the community groups)? If I want to move them to action, what do I need to know about my audience and their goals?
How did the work in this project impact me? What did I learn, and how did I grow or change from this experience? What content do I want to share in my reflections with peers, teachers, and stakeholders, and how do I share it? How have I moved closer to my goals or mastered target competencies?
By exploring these questions, young people have the opportunity to make choices about the showcase that allow them to show up more authentically for themselves and others.
There are a lot of ideas offered here. Take a moment to select one or two that you would like to try out. What feels like a natural place to start? Share your reflections or celebrate your work with students with us on Twitter or Facebook!