How Varied is Your “Main Course” PBL Menu this Year?

Have you been doing Project Based Learning (PBL) for a while now? Are you excited about the results of your “Main Course” projects? Are you wondering how you can learn to make things even better? If you are asking these kinds of questions, you’re probably a PBL veteran with a string of projects already lined up for this year. Before you launch that first project, you might want to take a look at the whole year and ask yourself: “Am I serving up the same “Main Course” dish project after project? If so, consider what you can learn by varying your “Main Course” Menu.

Varying your “Main Course” menu isn’t much different from what you do at home, week by week. Other than my daughter, none of us would eat Mac & Cheese every day! So as you look at each project in relation to the others you plan to offer during the year, consider whether they’re really different, and if so, how those differences target your learning objectives? You’ve probably already figured out how well differentiation and PBL go together within a project. Now it’s time to consider differentiating your learning experiences project by project.

Varying by Subject Preference
You can start by reflecting on the biases in the discipline you teach. In my case, seven years of grad school left me with a deep impression of what quality work should look like in history/social studies. Early on, I almost always had a heavy dose of research, followed by the historian’s favorite word, “analysis,” and then some sort of written publication. One year, for example, I had my high school students pretend they were grad students re-writing the first chapter of their college level textbook for a middle school audience. Those who shared my disciplinary biases for text grabbed on right away. It left others disengaged, and in extreme cases, a few students even tried to escape from the project by looking for ways to get their other teammates to do the work. Sound familiar? Want to avoid this? Then vary your menu beyond the biases of the discipline you teach.

Reflecting on that textbook project, it hit me! Not all of my students liked doing history to learn history. Some liked doing math, and some liked doing science. So, eventually I tried to start doing projects in my history class that were more like math and science projects, but where the learning outcomes were still targeted to history and social studies. As another example, students in my world history class had to produce double entry account books and a topographical map that explained why their team of medieval merchants would have travelled to Africa, or the Levant, and back to Europe. The final product was all math, geography and art, but what they learned by doing the project was all history. Result? Students who liked doing math more than history started learning a bit more history in my class.

Varying by Learning Styles
Whether or not a student grabs onto a text may be a matter of preference, or it may be a matter of learning styles or multiple intelligences. Rick Wormeli is pretty clear in “Fair isn’t Always Equal” that we should be varying the way we assess in order to meet the range of student learning styles or intelligences in our classrooms, but I wonder if this could mean more than just differentiating an assessment plan within the project? If students learn by doing, might they not learn more in your subject by doing a range of projects that suit a range of learning styles? First and foremost, you’ll need a project that helps you to get to know what those learning styles and intelligences are. After that, you can retool your Main Course Menu for the year so that it includes a project-style for everyone.

Don’t leave different intelligences to the different academic disciplines in your building. Integrate different styles of learning by doing! Design projects that get students moving when doing history or math. Give them a project that focuses on a spatial challenge—inside or outside. Reframe those traditional humanities notions of cause and effect into logical challenges. Want students like me who struggle with numbers to learn science or math? Try giving us a text-based research project with math outcomes rather than word problems alone. You might be surprised what such minds can show you about their understanding of science or math, just as I was surprised by what future accounting majors could tell me about history once they had numbers to work with rather than words!

Varying by Teamwork Habits

As a final variable, you might also want to consider the very clearly established patterns students learn from their roles in team projects, regardless of their subject preferences or learning styles. They learn most of these patterns in the first few years of school, if not in kindergarten. Experiences transform some into what I’ve been calling “grabbers:” the ones who will do whatever is asked of their team. Others students become “escape artists:” those who spend a lot of time and brainpower thinking about how NOT to do a project. Notice that this doesn’t mean they are not thinking about the project! They are, and so as you’re thinking about varying your Main Course Menu, you might want to think about having something in a project for escape artists, too.

Early in the year, include a smaller scale project that has little or nothing to do with content, but a lot to do with communication and collaboration skills. Then, increase the weight of those 21st century skills in your assessment plan. This could be a great project for gathering data about the various intelligences in your classroom. You might also see a lot of escape artists stepping up, delegating responsibilities and taking a leadership role. Distributed leadership, after all, is about getting others to do the work! Transforming escape artists into leaders in September might also make your projects go more smoothly the rest of the year.

Who are you Serving with your Main Course Menu?
Now, all this said, I still think that students need to learn to do, and to write, good history. So a few of your projects will always be about learning by doing your discipline. Still, I hope you’ll greet this year’s new students where they are, with open questions about whether they need to do your subject in every project for your class in order to learn that subject? Can all those students learn by doing if they are only doing it your way? Why not do a little learning by doing of your own, and entertain the possibility that knowing your students’ strengths in different subjects can actually help them to learn your subject matter? By varying your “Main Course” Menu, your students will have a range of opportunities to learn by doing something they love in your classroom, and you’ll have a wider range of opportunities to learn how to reach others like them in years to come.

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