Why Project Based Learning is good for students (PBL Series Part 5)

Not only is the teacher’s life unique in the PBL classroom; students have a dramatically different experience in this model too.  They may whine and complain at times, especially when a project is nearing completion, but it is really good for them.  Here’s a few reason’s why:

Long-term focus

Many of my students can’t think ahead past next period.  Go read Ruby Payne if you don’t know why kids of poverty aren’t big on planning and organization.  Planning ahead is a skill that can be learned but expect growing pains along the way.  The long term focus of PBL helps students to learn goal setting, self assessment, creating a plan, monitoring progress, and time management.  How are kids to be expected to learn these skills if they are never taught them?

Embedded Skills

Many skills can be embedded within the goals of a project.  Rather than learning these skills in isolation or by doing trumped up projects, the kids learn the skills while learning important content.  This includes 21st Century (ooo-weee-ooo!) skills like research, vetting and citing sources, product creation.  It also includes timeless skills such as inquiry and reading/ writing skills.


Opportunities for differentiation are limitless.  Projects can be differentiated for content, process and product.  I was honestly never consistently good at differentiation until I started doing PBL.  Now I’ve constantly got kids all over the room working on different things (or similar things in totally different ways).  Hectic, yes, but it’s a blast.  I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Assessment for Learning

Assessment should be based around authentic products for a real-world audience.  Grades are not important in this type of task because the push is to present a quality product, not on “getting a grade.”  Because the teacher is not too busy “teaching,” they have time to mentor students, give personal feedback, have conversations about learning, and gather evidence about students that goes far beyond letters and numbers.  Now that’s good assessment!

Next post in the PBL Series – How to do inquiry-based PBL

Previous Posts in the PBL Series

Part 1 - A subtle epiphany – over planning kills engagement

Part 2 - Why my instructional approach didn’t work

Part 3 - What PBL is and what it isn’t

Part 4 - The teacher’s role in PBL

Technology trojan horse

I’ve been supporting  teachers a lot this summer via technology training.  Technology is not my passion; inquiry is my passion.  Unfortunately, because I am competent with technology and have been using it in my classroom, more and more teachers keep coming to me asking for help.  I find that teachers are hungry for technology instruction – especially from other teachers.  Rather than resenting the fact that they want to hear about technology and not inquiry-based instruction, I use the former as a modern Trojan horse for the latter.  If technology can get me into teachers’ heads with my ideas about inquiry and differentiation then so be it.

modern Trojan horse

modern Trojan horse

Technology can be a very powerful tool to support inquiry, to differentiate instruction, and for creating more democratic and student-centered classrooms.  Technology is the means, not the end.  Technology can make student-centered instruction easier for teachers to do.

In a technology-rich and student-centered classroom, students create products that demonstrate their knowledge, rather than taking traditional tests.   Product creation inspires in students a need to seek knowledge, to analyze and evaluate information, to synthesize that knowledge to produce a quality product.  These products are then easily shared with people outside the classroom, thus raising the stakes for students without needing the artificial construct of grades.

From another perspective, though, the real problem isn’t grade inflation–it’s grades, which by their very nature undermine learning. The proper occasion for outrage is not that too many students are getting A’s, but that too many students have been led to believe that getting A’s is the point of going to school. – Alfie Kohn, The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement

Students can show knowledge in an infinite variety of ways when the doors of technology are opened to them.  The key is that the students are given the freedom to choose the tool and method of demonstrating knowledge, even if that means using no technology at all (I’ve had kids opt to create handmade posters instead of technology infused products and do outstanding work).

If my technology training helps even one classroom to become more student-centered in the process, then I have succeeded.

Blogging with students – a reflection

Eye reflectioncc license by Eye@CCPiXel.net http://www.ccpixel.net/2009/09/eye-reflection/

Eye reflection

This past year was my first experience blogging with students. It certainly had its ups and downs but was a positive experience overall for me and for my students. To read why we were blogging in science class (and why I think your students should blog) go here:  “Why Are We Blogging in Science Class?”

How I started:
In September, I set up each of my 100+ students with an Edublog of their own.  I used the tips found at The Edublogs Community and The Edublogger liberally. The gmail hack for setting up their accounts and the tip to use Google Reader to follow their blogs were great.   Actually the whole series on setting up student blogs that begins here is a must read.  I set up folders in Google Reader for each of my classes and followed all of my students’ blogs from there.  I also followed all of their comment feeds to monitor them.  All blogs were public and comments were not moderated.  I have had to remove ~50 spam blog comments this year but the process is quick and easy.

Once they were set up, I asked my students to play around in Edublogs by setting up a theme they liked and making a first post called “What I Want to Learn this Year.”  This got them familiar with the control panel and the posting process.

How it progressed:

I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted the students to do with their blogs.  I had them do a few assignments that were posted there, I had them reflect on completed projects, and I had them do extensions there.  I quickly realized that they needed to know what makes up a good blog post.  So, we brainstormed that together and I made this post:  “What Makes a Good Blog Post.”  The posts (for the most part) continued to improve.

Problems I encountered and how I addressed them:

  • Lack of computers at times – addressed by booking labs when needed and buying more computers for next year (I’ll be close to 1:1)
  • Lack of computer access at home for many students – I gave ample class time to complete assignments and plenty of extension opportunities for those who finished more quickly
  • Attendance – ample computer time and extensions (see above).  I do think that the electronic structure of my classroom with Edmodo and Edublogs made students more aware of what they had missed and more likely to catch up
  • Note: these are all problems that I had encountered before and will encounter again
  • Some students wrote too little – I left them comments with specific feedback
  • Some wrote too much – feedback comments
  • Many did not read the comments that I dutifully left them – I need to work in more regular interaction with their blogs in my class

Benefits & Successes:

  • Many students wrote much more on a blog than they ever would have written on paper
  • Students were much more willing to revise their work than they would have been with paper assignments
  • The blogs integrated photos and links to sources.  I enjoyed reading them much more than I enjoy reading lab reports or research papers
  • The blog became an excellent tool for differentiation – my class was more differentiated last year than ever before.  My faster working students were able to continue on with greater depth or extension assignments of their choice while I was able to provide more assistance to students who wanted or needed help
  • The combination of Edublogs and Edmodo (free online course management software) helped me to keep up with student work as it was posted and I provided much more specific feedback than ever before

My vision for the coming year:

The students’ blogs will be their electronic portfolio for my class.  I hope to rope in some other teachers to this as well and if I can, each student’s blog will be his or her electronic portfolio for multiple classes.  Students will create pages to demonstrate work samples and best works and reflect upon them.  They will journal along the way as well, although I won’t mandate any minimum number of posts (maybe I’ll give them a maximum).  I’m going to use the new RSS import feature in Edublogs to roll students’ posts through my blog as well.  I also hope to find time to get them reading and commenting on each others’ blogs more.  I hope to use Jing (thanks, TeachPaperless) to give student quick screencast feedback, rather that just written comments.

Eye reflection – cc license by Eye@CCPiXel.net http://www.ccpixel.net/2009/09/eye-reflection/

I hate science fair

I am a science teacher.

I hate science fair.


Three main reasons: they only happen once a year, they don’t happen during class time (usually), and only the “A students” and the Science Club kids do it.

Credit: Rich Bower, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbowen/3266847462/

Credit: Rich Bower, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbowen/3266847462/

Only once a year

Why do kids only get this rich student-centered inquiry-based experience once a year?  Why aren’t they doing genuine inquiry research and experimentation repeatedly throughout the year?  Why aren’t they presenting their work to an audience outside the classroom more than once a year?  The “science fair” experience (on a slightly smaller scale) could be repeated multiple times throughout the year.  That is how students really learn the process of science!

Not during class time

Why not?  Why do kids have to do this on their own time?  Why not do this type of work during class?  I know some science teachers in some schools do give class time for science fair.  Some even require all students in certain science classes to participate.  My point is this – why does class time have to be so teacher centered and the students only get to do “science fair” type work as “enrichment?”  Let’s enrich the experience for students IN OUR SCIENCE CLASSES!

Only the “A students” and the Science Club kids do it

That’s because it’s almost always an optional enrichment activity for those students who already love science (or whose parents make them do it).  Why not give all kids the opportunity to generate a question that they are interested in and mentor them through the pursuit of an answer?  All kids can do science!

What is good about the science fair concept:

  • Having students do “real science” in an open-ended inquiry format
  • Connecting students to mentors in the science field, whether they are from industry or academia
  • Engagement is enhanced by allowing students to choose the focus of their project
  • Having students present to an audience outside the classroom is a very good thing

My suggestion is that we give students the opportunity to do this type of work regularly throughout the year.  Maybe the teacher introduces the general topic or guiding question, maybe not.  From there the students generate their own questions, do research, design and carry out experiments, and summarize and present their results.  Bring in parents, other teachers, community members, other students, etc. for the students to present to.  Have them present their results in any number of formats: posters, electronic presentations (PowerPoint, Prezi, SlideRocket, movies, etc.).  Rinse and repeat.

Oh, and have fun!

Why are we blogging in science class?

I’ve been asked by students and a couple of parents – “why are we blogging in science class?”
Students collaborating

There are several reasons:

Paper reduction

In my experience, students do not value paper.  They see any work done on paper as disposable – worth little more than the paper itself.  Paper assignments are constantly left laying around my room – from my class and from others – even work that has not yet been turned in!

We go through WAY too much paper in schools – nearly all of which ends up in the trash – wasting money and natural resources

Reflection for learning

I want students to reflect on their learning.

In my opinion (supported by educational research), students retain much more of their learning if they take the time to reflect on it.  This means thinking back on what they learned and why it is important and/or valuable.  This means evaluating the quality of their work and their level of effort.  It also means setting goals for future learning experiences!

Public nature of blogs

Students’ work on their blogs is public – visible to the world.  This raises the value of the work because it will not only be seen by their teacher.  Already my students have received comments and feedback from teachers around the country and from fellow students in Minden, Louisiana.  Parents and peers can also view the work and leave comments.

Creation of an electronic portfolio

Students in my classes are creating a year-long digital portfolio of their work.  At the end of the year, they will be able to look back on what they’ve done and reflect on how much they have learned.  They should be able to see evidence of their learning and their growth.

At the end of each semester, I plan to have my students compile some examples of their best work to post to their blog and reflect on.  This will be part of the final semester assessment in my class.


I have found this year that students are MUCH more willing to revise and improve work that has been done electronically.  Handwritten assignments that must be completely rewritten are rarely revised – even if the student is not happy with his/her grade!  It’s just too much work in their eyes to rewrite the whole thing!

This is the world that we live in!

The world that we live in – that my students have grown up in – is digital!

This is what they know and, more importantly, this is what their future lives will center around.  I am doing my part to help to prepare them for that world – as a student, as a future employee, and as a citizen

Technology integration and differentiation

Two of my primary goals for this school year have been to improve both technology integration and differentiation for individual student needs/ interests in my classes.

As I’ve begun to delve into tech integration with Edmodo for classroom communication & assignments and Edublogs for student work, I am now seeing how the two goals go hand in hand.


Aviary edmodo-com Picture 1

Screen cap from my Edmodo site

Edmodo calls itself a microblogging platform for students and teachers.  However, it’s really much more than that.  It’s a place to post notes and assignments for students.  It’s a way to open a backchannel in your classroom.  I contains a calendar for coming assignments.  Students can use it to submit assignments electronically.  It’s truly an organizational tool for both students and the teacher.  One really cool feature of Edmodo is that students can input their cell phone numbers and receive messages from the system.  I used this feature just the other day to remind my students to wear appropriate clothing and shoes for a lab the next day – which students often forget to do.  This time, none forgot – even those who weren’t at school the previous day!

I’ve also had students using Edmodo from home after school hours to turn in work or to ask me questions about assignments.  Because I get a text message when a student sends me a direct message, I know to login to Edmodo and answer (you can’t do it from your phone yet).  This way I don’t feel a need to constantly check the site in case a student might have a question.


Student blog post about Zinc

Student blog post about Zinc

I’ve set up every one of my 100+ students with their own blog via Edublogs.  While the process has been a bit time consuming, I feel the payoff will be worth it.  So far, I’ve had students using it to post certain assignments (my chemistry students each chose a chemical element to research and made a post to their blog about it) and reflections on their learning.

Toward Paperlessness

Another side benefit of all of these tools is the ability to greatly reduce the amount of paper used in my classes.  While this is environmentally sound and cost efficient, the real benefit of paper reduction has been in the motivation of my students to do quality work.  They are so much more willing to revise and resubmit their work, based on my feedback, than ever before.  When I returned a lab report electronically via Edmodo with feeback integrated (tracked changes in Word) and a rubric attached, I had 10 of 24 students revise and resubmit their work within 2 days.  When I left comments on their blogs with feedback and suggestions to improve their posts, I had students revising blogs and sending me links via Edmodo to their revised posts.  When too few students heeded my reminder to integrate links to their sources within their blog posts, I gave a quick classroom mini-lesson about integrating links.  I reminded them that their work is now on the internet and plagiarism is not just against school rules, it is against the law.  Several students immediately revised their posts to integrate multiple links.

Why are they so willing to revise?  Because they don’t have to start over from scratch.  Because the feedback from me is right there.  Because the tools are the ones they want to use.  Whatever the reason, they are doing it much more than students ever have done for me in the past.


Finally, I’ve been able to differentiate for student needs with these tools.  If a student has already completed the assignment while their peers are still working on it, I send them a note via Edmodo with suggestions for an extension assignment that they post to their blog.  Students who are behind get extra help both electronically and in person.  All students have more choice about how they will approach and represent their learning.  These are all VERY good things.


Inquiry is absolutely crucial in science.  How to get from guided inquiry to open inquiry, though?  Through technology and differentiation.  Students have the tools and resources available to them now in my classes to ask and answer their own questions.  Edmodo provides a means for me to track what they are doing.  Edublogs provides them an outlet for reflection and a place to present the results of their learning.  This is a powerful combination, for science or for any class!