Project Based Learning Best Practices Part 1

Project Based Learning can be a wonderful experience for you and your students. However, there are some things to consider to avoid frustration and to accomplish that what you are hoping to achieve.

Before we get started, know that my Colleague John has created some great food for thought at his Blog, I encourage you to check out and reflect upon his thoughts.

Forward Design vs. Backwards Design:
Forward Design is where you start with the learning objective and move towards the product and process. Backward Design involves envisioning the product first and then deriving the learning objective  afterwards. I tend to lean more towards Forward Design only because when I have tried to do backwards design, the learning seems less deep and contrived. I am not saying it cannot be done, but it takes a lot more work to do it well and the focus tends to be more on the product than on the learning.

When creating a project though, you will find that it is not a linear process at all, the product will emerge and refine over time; as will the learning objectives and the process. I would just encourage you to start with what you want them to learn as this will help you have a strong anchor point throughout the process.

Just as important as the learning objective is the audience as it drives the project and determines the process. Typically, the audience is only the Teacher and I would avoid that being your only audience. It sets up an adversarial situation where students will only come to you asking whether or not a product is worthy of an 'A'. If you are not the sole audience, you can be the master helping them to refine and achieve their goal without as much focus on the grade.

Knowing explicitly who your audience will determine the how as in how much, how many, how deep, etc. It might not be wise to rely upon an algebraic equation for  your students to teach 5th graders the meaning of slope. If you have already determined your audience, it is a great idea for your students to meet them or get their input before starting the project. This puts a real face to their work and motivates them all the more.

Audience members are anyone who is going to see and interact with the project. If you do not have one for your project, look in your district for Elementary/Middle Schools. The teachers there are always very welcoming. You might have community resources like a Earth Day Fair, City Council meetings, History Museums, Zoos, Businesses. I have seen all of these and more be very effective audiences. You have nothing to lose by asking, and the opportunity this will provide your students to have a
 real world location to demonstrate their learning is priceless.

Class, Group, or Individual Project:
There is no one solution, it depends completely on what you are trying to accomplish.

Class Project: This setup is very useful if you are trying to create a large product as you can break it down into departments (e.g. writing, filming, building, painting, etc) or components (top,middle,bottom). Also, since you are building just one or a couple of the product it will cut down costs dramatically or allow you to make something of higher quality.
  • What you will need to be particularly mindful of is the learning. With such a large project broken down into pieces, will each student learn the same thing with the same depth? While some say that giving a traditional assessment or giving a lecture (front-loading) is a way to avoid this, I prefer to have all of the learning and assessment take place within the project itself otherwise it diminishes the reason for doing the project in the first place. 
  • It is also possible that students will have days where they simply do not work, this is easy to happen as you are so busy orchestrating. Two possible solutions to this are to assign class leaders to take care of the administration and completion of the project so you can focus on classroom management and refinement, or to have students update a daily log through a Google Form, Twitter, Blog, etc.
  • When my teaching partner and I considered making Electric Guitars we had to decide whether or not to make 30 or 3. Something would have to be sacrificed as the saying goes, "Fast, Cheap, and Quality, you can only have two.

Group Project: Students are more likely to learn the same as their peers or at least not have the learning divided up as much. The costs are certainly more than a class project but less than an individual project. Also, there is a greater chance for each group member's ideas to be heard as opposed to a class where they might have less of a say in how it turns out.
  • Be mindful of the fact that when students are in closer interaction with each other, there is a higher risk for conflict. It would be a good idea to talk to students about conflict resolution and understanding what their triggers are. I have seen groups where a "ringmaster" was assigned. Not a leader in the traditional boss of the group sense, but in the mindset of a circus where the ringmaster does not lead but manages. The ringmaster's role is to keep the project moving and make sure it all comes together without coercion or unnecessary stress on the group.
  • Additionally, I would suggest implementing Google Docs to collaborate and share files and information. It is devastating to a group to find out that one or more of their group members is absent (and they always seem to be the ones with all of the work).
Indivdual Project:  There is a 1:1 ratio of product to student and therefore it is easiest to design an assessment that measures work and learning that has occurred. The student is able to fully express their creativity and completion is completely on them.
  • The biggest factor in this type of organization is cost. Even a project that only costs $5 per student is going to cost hundreds to complete. I try and alleviate this by choosing individual projects that use household items or are paper based.

Note: There is no one type of project that works for every scenario. Evaluate what your most important goals are so you can choose that which works best. It is possible to minimize the shortcomings of each of these with in depth planning.

Inspiration and Motivation: I have written previously about resources you can use for designing projects, but where do the ideas come from in the first place? The answer is everywhere. They will just pop out of nowhere, when you are driving home, taking a walk, reading a magazine, etc. Have a way of writing these ideas down (I send a message to my email) then keep a document of all of your previous ideas, even those you did not end up using as they will be used someday.

In part 2, we will examine other important aspects of planning and implementing a project like assessment and exhibition.