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

I used to think…

I USED TO THINK I was a good teacher when a student would remember something I had taught.

I would swell with pride when a student would regurgitate a fact, an example, an analogy and I’d say to myself, “I taught them that!” A student would score well on a test or solve a problem and I would pat myself on the back.

The door is open...

The door is open...

Now I get my greatest satisfaction from moments when my students are the experts.   I am proud when I hear them sharing with each other and engaging in rich conversation.  I love it when students teach me something or shine new light on the familiar.

NOW I KNOW that I am a good teacher when I give my students the freedom and support to learn without boundaries; when I open the door to the world and say, “explore!”

cc licensed flickr photo by h. koppdelaney

My Educator’s Oath

Building off of my previous post, The Educator’s Hippocratic Oath, I thought I would write my own personal educator’s oath.  I’m considering including it with my course syllabus this year.  It will be a work in progress, so don’t be surprised if it changes from time to time.

Reflection Nebula in Orion - thanks, NASA

Reflection Nebula in Orion - thanks, NASA

Without further ado, here it goes:

I will never forget that my job is to educate young people to the best of my abilities.  This means facilitating their growth and learning.  This means helping them to become the best version of themselves that they can be. This means never placing limits on their learning.

I will get to know all of my students personally and treat each as a unique individual. My classroom will be a democratic and student-centered learning environment in which students are treated fairly, not equally.  I will provide students with ample opportunities for genuine, meaningful choices and for collaboration with peers and mentors.

Students in my classroom will have the opportunity to inquire, to think, and to create.  I will let students form their own opinions, beliefs and conclusions.  When I challenge those conclusions, I will do so respectfully.  I will not indoctrinate my students.    Education is something I do WITH my students, not to them.

The focus of my classroom will be learning, not doing.  My students will engage in relevant real-world learning.  I will not allow a book, curriculum, test, or standard to be the sole determinant of what my students are able to learn.

I will strive to facilitate growth in each of my students each day.  I will strive to help each student to discover his or her passion and talents and will nurture those traits within them.   I will advocate for my students whenever possible and do my best to protect them from the vagaries of the educational system.

The purpose of assessment is to provide students with information, not judgement.  I am not the sole purveyor of knowledge in my classroom and will not behave as such.  I will never reduce students to a number or a letter, even if I must issue them grades to satisfy district policies.

I will display my humanity to my students without taking out my personal frustrations on them and will apologize to my students when I inevitably make mistakes.  I will treat my students and their families with respect, honesty, and humility.  I will listen to my students and honor their feedback.

I will never cease to learn and grow as an educator and will humbly share my learning with my fellow educators to help improve their practice and mine.  I acknowledge that my knowledge and skill are built upon that which I have gained from others.  I will not stand for the status quo and will advocate for policies and practices that will truly benefit students.

I recognize that I have learned through experimentation and failure and that I have, at times, failed my students.  I will always be a reflective educator, learning from mistakes.  I will never consider myself or my curriculum to be a “finished product.”  There is always room for improvement.

I will cherish every day, every moment that I am able to spend in the classroom working with students.  Each day is a gift; each student a treasure.  I have the greatest job in the world.

As much as I love my job and believe in its importance, I will keep it in perspective.  My job is not more important than my faith, my family or my health.  I cannot change the world by myself.  I cannot “save” every student.  All I can do is be myself and show genuine care for students.

I challenge each of you to write your own educator’s oath.  Forever consider it to be a work in progress.  Revise it often.  Throw it away and start over.  As you evolve, it should too.

If you are so inspired, please share your oath in the comments below for others to read.

On bunny trails and the need to know

Follow the white rabbit

Follow the white rabbit

Sometimes my students lead me down a bunny trail.  One question leads to another and, before we know it, we’re Through the Looking Glass.  A discussion about atomic structure leads to nuclear weapons, which leads to World War 2, which leads to racism, which leads to genetics.  We meander into and out of science.  The students ask questions that I do my best to answer if none of them has an answer.  Somebody hops on a computer or their phone and looks up an answer if we get stumped.  The really good questions we write down to come back to later.  Those are some of the best moments in any class.

The thing that I’m always striving for with my students is to inspire a genuine “need to know.”  I want them to be so immersed in their learning that the need  answer a burning question leads them down the rabbit hole of learning.  Those are the days when the bell rings (I hate school bells, by the way) and the kids say, “class is over already?  Do we have to go to next period?  Can’t we just stay here?”

We need to teach students to ask and answer their own questions.  Teach them to ask great questions and to challenge themselves to discover the evidence they need to infer their own answer.  Teach them to explain and defend that answer to their peers and to the world.  Teach them to question the answers.

From A to purple

Whenever I read an article or blog post, I think about it’s implications for teaching.  I can’t help it.  I’m a teacher 24-7-365.  Drives my family nuts sometimes but it’s who I am.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest blog post, The art of seduction, this morning was no different.  Seth’s talking about marketing but I’m thinking about teaching.  No, not in a creepy Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau kind of way.  Don’t go there.

Anyway, I’m thinking about how teachers are not unlike salesmen.  In fact, the more “traditional” the teacher, the more used car salesman-like they must be.

“Hey, kids, here’s what I want you to buy (learn) and how I want you to pay for it (show your learning).  This is how much it’ll cost you (busy work, homework, hoop jumping, etc.).  I don’t care if you want it or not, because I (or the feds, state, district, etc.) know better than you what you really need.”

By the way, I detest having to try to sell people stuff.  I did it once for a month or so during college with a direct marketed product.  I HATED trying to sell people stuff they didn’t want or need.  That’s my idea of hell, really.

Then there’s the idea of choice in the classroom.  Many teacher training programs and self-help guru books tell you to give the kids choices – just not too many.  Let them choose from options A, B, or C.  That’s differentiation in a nutshell…

That’s not real choice.  That’s choice in a nutshell.

How about letting students choose anything from A to purple?

Chemistry, condoms and the Colosseum

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

One of the most successful inquiry activities that I did this year wasn’t successful because of my careful planning or my skill.  It wasn’t successful because of expensive equipment or great lab space.  It wasn’t successful because of technology integration or guest experts.

It was successful because I took a chance.

It was successful because I said, “yes.”

I had wanted my Chemistry students to test the effects of acid on various materials.  I demonstrated for them the effect of sulfuric acid on a pop can (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a good video of it).  They read about acid rain and brainstormed a list of possible materials to expose to acid.  The students came up with things like wood, plastic, copper, aluminum, etc.  We brainstormed our scientific question as a class: “what is the effect of acid rain on different materials and why does it affect them differently?” or something like that – this question really isn’t important.  What’s important is what happened next.

I asked them to come up with their own subquestion under our class question and then gave them time to brainstorm.

When they called me over and said can we do _______? I said, “yes.” (Okay, so I asked a few clarifying questions first and made sure they had a clear idea but the gist of the conversation was, “yes.”)

One group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on different types of building materials, using major world landmarks as their guide (the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, the Great Pyramid, etc.).  I said, “yes.”

Another group asked if they could test the effect of acid rain on metal that had been painted, clear coated, both or neither (because they like cars).  I said, “yes.”

Yet another group decided to test the effects of acids on condoms.  That was a hard one to agree to, believe me, but I said “yes” anyway.  Nevermind the pile of open condom wrappers in the garbage, Mr. Custodian, it’s all in the name of science!

By saying, “yes” to their ideas, to their questions, I said yes to a lot of other things:

I said, “yes” to student engagement.

I said, “yes” to authentic inquiry.

Most importantly, I said, “yes” to LEARNING – both mine and theirs.