PBL Challenge – Balancing content vs. project

balance rock

One thing we’re really wrestling with in PAWS (Power Academics at White Swan – our integration of biology, English and social studies) right now is the balance of content and project.

We have a tendency to want to deliver content to our students to prepare them to do a quality project. This has resulted in a model where we mostly control the activities and direction of the classroom for a few weeks at the beginning of a project. Then students are basically given 2 or 3 weeks to put what they’ve learned into a project.

That has paradoxically caused some projects to have too little content integrated into them.

So we are pushing toward a more recursive model:

  • Hook the students into the project with engaging activities, field work, video, provocative text, data, images, etc.
  • Give them the big picture of where we’re going with the project and ask them to “attempt” the project (by answering the driving question, having a discussion, drafting relevant writing, a simulation, etc.)
  • Allow some time for inquiry and research
  • Deliver chunks of content and necessary skills along the way where they make sense and where the students have a “need to know” (via labs, texts, lessons, discussions, etc.)
  • Ask students to revise their work to integrate the new learning
  • Give more time for research
  • Repeat

Here is the model based around our current project, which is a mock trial project about the issue of salmon populations on the Columbia River and the role of dams in the issue. The driving question for this project is “What would happen if all dams were removed from the Columbia River and its tributaries?”

  • We hooked the kids with data about salmon populations, images and video, followed by a visit to a local dam and a wildlife refuge near a local stream
  • We introduced them to the real legal issue that has inspired this project
  • Students chose roles in the case (attorney, expert witness, media)
  • We’ve had guest speakers – an attorney that works with tribal hunting and fishing rights and a member of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (we’re working on getting a speaker from the Bonneville Power Administration)
  • Each student is generating an authentic piece of writing within their role (case arguments & discovery for attorneys, expert witness reports, news articles)
  • We have delivered targeted texts and lessons about the issue. For example, I did an interactive presentation about the role of salmon in the river ecosystem.
  • Students have generated 3 progressive drafts of their RAFTS and had peer revision workshops and teacher feedback
  • They are preparing in earnest for a mock trial on 4/26 by doing depositions, preparing witnesses, conducting interviews, making exhibits for evidence, etc.

This project has nearly all students highly engaged. When we have delivered bits of content, they are genuinely interested in learning it because they clearly see the connection to the issue and the court case. They are doing high quality writing and deep research.

This circular model of project –> inquiry –> content –> skills –> project seems to be working.

So far, this has been a very successful project and I expect the mock trial to be outstanding!

2 thoughts on “PBL Challenge – Balancing content vs. project

  1. Hello Tyler!
    My name is Alexa. I’m a sophomore at the University of South Alabama and a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310. This blog post was so interesting. I really liked the idea of the student’s project. I wish that I would have been able to have a project like that in my lifetime. The method you are using to help your students do this project seems to be the most beneficial. I am going to take your ideas to my classroom. Thank you!

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