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August 1, 2018
Vol. 60
No. 8

God Save the Routine

Instructional Strategies
The sounds of papers shuffling, little fingers typing or building, and low voices discussing the task in front of them, accompanied by the blissful noise of purposeful footsteps and the soothing hum of young voices engaging in academic discourse. These are the productive sounds that every innovative educator hopes will permeate their classroom. In the world of project-based learning (PBL) we call it the buzz.
People casually refer to this buzz as something dreamy that magically happens once a teacher has mentally committed to PBL. However, in my work supporting PBL implementation across the country, I have found that there is a growing disconnect between the vision of the healthy buzz that comes from student engagement while working on a project and how we as educators actually get our students there. Truth be told, it is anarchy in the classroom more often than it's not. Teachers often think that in order to get to this type of student-driven engagement, they must almost completely remove themselves from the equation to allow students to drive their learning. This mindset is rarely productive, often leaves all stakeholders frustrated with the PBL experience, and doesn't ensure that our children are actually learning.
As educators, we have romanticized PBL in many ways and have not been honest about the reality most teachers face in their classrooms and the adjustments they must make for PBL to be effective. As a result, we have sacrificed the rigor that is essential to deeper learning. It's time for some #realtalk about PBL. Debunking these five myths tones down the hype around PBL and instead honors the struggles of teachers in the trenches who make up the new wave of mainstream educators looking to adopt this approach to teaching and learning.

Myth 1: All things must be collaborative in PBL

With collaboration as one of the four Cs central to the 21st century skills movement, schools have placed a great emphasis on students working in groups, and PBL is frequently seen as an easy vehicle for facilitating collaboration. When teachers are first introduced to PBL, they often see a finished product that is produced or presented by a small group of students. Teachers move forward operating under the assumption that all projects should be collaborative, but that's simply not true.
Any teacher will tell you that when students are placed in a group, there is always at least one "free rider," and it is very hard to tell what students are actually learning. Without explicitly teaching students how to collaborate, putting protocols in place for equal thinking (not just equal doing), and individually assessing student knowledge and skills, it is impossible to get to deeper learning for every child in a group. Common PBL practices I see such as group grades, group research reports, and group presentations unsettle me because I know that teachers are trying hard to do something they think is expected of them in PBL, but the outcome rarely gets to the intended goal of deeper learning.
The assumption (and messaging) that collaboration is a necessity in PBL is wrong and unfair for everyone involved. Although there is great value in having students working together, and some projects truly do require diverse strengths, knowledge and perspectives, not all projects actually require a collaborative effort. Many can be done independently. If we are able to uphold a focus on the individual (even within collaborative projects), then we can help teachers maintain some basic checks and balances to avoid that feeling of unruly learning that often comes from early collaborative projects.

Myth 2: Students should have "voice and choice" over all things

"Voice and Choice" is always a fan favorite when I ask teachers to identify the most important tenets of high-quality project-based learning This PBL characteristic is exciting because it acts as a potential driver of student agency. This phrase is also one of the most abused terms that I see in the field because it is often used as an (unstable) vehicle to drive the direction of planning a project. When I coplan projects with teachers, I ask them to start by identifying an enduring understanding and a driving question. This approach usually feels familiar to them because it mimics best practices of the Understanding by Design® framework. I then ask them to identify a final product that students will ultimately create or showcase. Teachers rarely have a shortage of ideas—they typically give me four to five ideas and then say (with a look of queasiness), "Well, we are just going to let them decide because that's what we are supposed to do, right?" My heart always picks up a pace (or 12) at this point because I visualize the potential chaos that will happen with 10 groups of three young children sprawling in all different directions for the upcoming four weeks. And this is when I step in and say, "STOP THE MADNESS!" Well, not entirely, but I do spend some time talking to them about the delicate balance of voice and choice and structure and routine.
When students are studying many different topics, it is difficult to uphold basic classroom structures to check for understanding and content mastery. Management becomes challenging, and teachers often get overwhelmed trying to monitor all students. Similarly, when students are producing a variety of products, it is difficult to assess the same content and skills. A recommendation I offer to teachers when designing a first project is to give students voice or choice. Maybe they get to pick the content they research or present, or perhaps they get to pick from a bank of three final product options. Aspiring to have students dictate what the project is and how they go about their learning is a lovely "north star," but it is rarely sustainable for an early PBL user. So, go ahead and just pick one topic or product to focus on and do it really well.

Myth 3: The teacher should always take the back seat

Similar to the false assumptions regarding "voice and choice" is the belief that teachers often have about their role in PBL. Teachers have been shamed away from being a "sage on the stage" in the past few years. As a result, the pendulum has swung so far the other way on the pedagogy paradigm that some teachers question whether they even need to be involved in student learning. I'm here to ask you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. God save the routine; you still need to teach your standards!
Contrary to what is often messaged about PBL, the teacher must be very present and still does a good deal of heavy lifting. The paradigm shift is really related to what this looks like in action. In a well-structured PBL classroom, there are few surprises. Yes, teachers will learn alongside their students, but none of it should be completely foreign because your project should be grounded in your standards, and you know those! The teacher appears to take the backseat to students by leveraging the Know/Need to Know process (K/NTK), where students identify what they already know about a topic, what new ideas they'll explore, and how they will pursue these new skills or knowledge. Student inquiry will kick in as a result of some voice and choice, thus igniting some unknown Need to Knows. For the most part, though, teachers prepare their teaching in advance according to the anticipated Need to Knows. The PBL facilitator now leverages and keeps these NTKs alive by pointing students back to them daily as the impetus for a (preplanned) workshop on a given NTK. For a new PBL adopter, this instruction may look pretty similar to what was done traditionally—perhaps a science lab, maybe a mini-lesson or short lecture, or even a video or webquest. It is my observation that with more experience designing and facilitating PBL we begin to see less traditional, "stand and deliver" approaches to instruction, but that shift is hard, and we need to give teachers the time and space to let go of the things they behold. As they become copilots to students' deeper learning, teachers will undoubtedly become more committed to nontraditional teaching practices, but we need to be sure they experience success first. Avoiding anarchy by upholding their important role in the process of learning is crucial!

Myth 4: "Management" is so 20th century

When we visit the magical classroom humming with the PBL buzz, the teacher is often hard to find. When we do locate experienced PBL facilitators, they often use phrases such as organic and messy, and that sounds really attractive and enticing to visitors. However, for new adopters, I'm here to tell you that messy is not sexy. In fact, it's a hot mess for both the teacher and the students! Don't let maverick PBL facilitators fool you—they are orchestrators that have put in place a great deal of structure and routine. Experienced teachers know how to manage a classroom, and the same rules often apply to a PBL setting. Yes, as time and PBL experience go on, we will begin to see students own more of that process, but for your first project, don't expect your room to run like a well-oiled machine—yet!
Here are a few favorite approaches to managing a project:

Myth 5: Assessment is a dirty word

The vast majority of teachers work in schools that are facing seemingly insurmountable barriers to moving PBL theories into practice, such as six-week district evaluations, state testing, and district pacing guides. Although it seems contrary to the cutting-edge ideal of PBL, I'm here to tell you that dirty words such as assessment, accountability, benchmarks, and pacing do have a place in progressive teaching and learning methods. And these "dirty words" can be empowering, rather than paralyzing, for both teachers and students. For example, putting benchmarks in place can serve as safety nets for teachers and ensure that students are making progress and mastering content and skills prior to moving forward. This approach is empowering because it sets the students up for success when it comes time to present or showcase their final product; any flops may be caught early and therefore avoided!
Most PBL trainings that I have facilitated or attended pay little homage to the realities of mainstream PBL adopters. We need to get in the trenches with these teachers and truly listen to the challenges that they face so we can help them embed these realities into their projects, rather than design projects that feel "in addition to" all the other thing they are being asked to do. In my work with teachers I help them see that assessment is vital to ensuring deeper learning and can be a structure that feels safe for all involved: parents, students, and teachers. When we're up front with students about what we expect from them (through tools such as rubrics), learning doesn't feel like a mystery.
These five myths of project-based learning have proven to do more harm than good for mainstream PBL adopters, and we need to face them head-on. Glamorizing projects that are designed by expert PBL designers and facilitators in ideal conditions places unfair expectations on teachers who are just getting their bearings in PBL. The current wave of PBL adopters are fighting to survive in conditions that can be extremely challenging to this style of learning, having to contend with borderline scripted curriculum, lack of resources for new standards adoptions, little to no staff collaborative planning time, and limited professional development time. We have to meet teachers where they are and help them see that small shifts in our practice can ultimately lead to big shifts for our future. More importantly, we must recognize that our work for this new generation of PBL adopters is about honoring current best practices and showing teachers how bringing those into the fold of PBL will ensure that projects do not lead to lawless learning.

Jenny Pieratt is the founder of CraftED, an education consulting company in southern California that specializes in PBL. Formerly, she was a classroom teacher and school development coach.

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