by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
If you walk into a classroom during a project, what you see could vary a lot by the day or the time within a class period. It could sometimes look like a traditional classroom, with students sitting at desks doing individual work and the teacher standing in front, talking. You might hear a whole-class discussion taking place. At other times, you’d see students working in teams, or sharing work with each other for feedback, or using tech tools to communicate with outside experts and create products or presentations. On some projects, you would find the classroom empty, because students and teacher are out doing field work or visiting someplace in the community.
It’s these last two scenarios that can give some teachers pause about PBL. Teachers who are used to traditional instructional methods know how to manage a classroom when they’re directing a lesson, supervising individual assignments, or leading a discussion. But managing the varied and more team-based, lively activities found in a project might seem daunting to teachers new to PBL. But as is true with assessing student learning, another of the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model for Gold Standard PBL, managing activities during a project combines the familiar with the new.
I discussed the practice of managing activities in PBL on a recent hangout with three of BIE’s National Faculty members, Ian Stevenson, Angela Marzilli, and James Fester. When BIE was creating our list of Project Based Teaching Practices, we considered other words as alternatives to “managing” to describe what a teacher does to keep a project flowing smoothly toward completion. We considered facilitating, conducting, or guiding, because all are applicable in some sense, and we wanted to capture the spirit of independence and inquiry you can feel in a good project-based environment. We wondered if “managing” implied too much control by the teacher.
But as Ian points out, the word “managing” connects to the real-world practice of “project management” which definitely applies to what happens during a project. And the key, Angela emphasized, is to turn over to students as much of the project management as possible. Learning how to manage people, time, tasks, and the learning process is a valuable skill that’s required in the world outside of school, so PBL provides the perfect opportunity to build it.
In general, we agreed that there is no “typical” flow of activities in PBL classroom. There is definitely more independent work time for students, during which a teacher can roam the room doing informal assessments and coaching student performance, or meet with teams. Older students tend to be able to work for longer periods of time on their own, perhaps even an entire 80-minute block. Younger students will need to be given only, say, 15 minute chunks of worktime, broken up by activities like sharing work with each other and the teacher, or by a new lesson, resource, or scaffold, followed by another chunk of worktime.
You’ll have to watch the hangout to hear and see more details about the projects described by our guests, but here are some more tips they offered for managing activities in PBL:
To conclude our conversation, Ian provided a nice metaphor for the role of the teacher when managing activities in PBL: You’re more often a “weather reporter with constant updates,” and only occasionally introducing a “breaking news segment.” Angela reminded viewers about the importance of the process in PBL; take the time to teach students how to manage a project. On a related note, James said, “trust your students, they’re capable and it’s amazing what they can do.”
Do you have tips about managing activities in PBL, or questions or comments? Please enter them below.