by Brad Sever
I have been a student of Project Based Learning through multiple lenses. I have implemented it as an 8th grade social studies teacher, served as an Instructional Coach and PBL Coach for a large urban school district, served for a brief time as an Assistant Principal at an Expeditionary Learning School, and am currently an Assistant Principal in a large suburban high school. In my current role I help instructional coaches and teachers who are interested in implementing PBL.
I did a few elements of PBL in my own classroom years ago, but it wasn’t until I attended a conference in 2007 that the light bulb really went off, at a session where a teacher presented his PBL unit, describing how he assessed, planned, used outside experts, and grouped students. In my role as an instructional coach I had learned about differentiated instruction, teaching English as a new language, and cooperative learning strategies. I had read Kagan, Marzano, Tomlinson, Dufour, Daggett, Schlechty, and others. However, once I heard this teacher present his unit it dawned on me that strong PBL encompassed all of those best practices. PBL was a comprehensive instructional framework that incorporated all of the supporting research in best practices.
Two Favorite Projects & Two Weaknesses
One of my favorite projects was one my good friend Bob Loy implemented in his 7th grade classroom. He taught 7th grade math and defied all of the skepticism around implementing PBL in math. His students worked with a local builder to help design elevations of houses that would actually be built. His students applied their math content when consulting the architects. Bob ran the unit kind of like the TV show “shark tank.” The students loved it and they all performed well on the state standardized test.
My personal favorite unit that I implemented was about the Civil War in 8th grade social studies. It was centered on the driving question, “How can we abolish slavery today?”. Students did compare/contrast activities around slavery before the civil war and slavery that exists today in the textile and agricultural industries. Students also participated in literature circles discussing historical fiction novels they were reading. They also consulted outside experts, including a community relations director and the manager of a local fair trade store. The culminating event was a “Community Open House” where students generated awareness of the issue of modern day slavery and the social benefits of fair trade.
Two weaknesses I have had in my PBL practice are 1) Creating rubrics that are clear, concise, and student friendly. My rubrics always seem to be too wordy. 2) I sometimes have a hard time giving up control. I am sure some of my projects could have been stronger in “student voice and choice.”
My Work with BIE
I absolutely love facilitating PBL 101 workshops. It is such a great opportunity learning from educators around the country, brainstorming project ideas, and thinking about local experts that could enhance the experience for students. I find it extremely refreshing and rewarding.
I have been a student of Project Based Learning for nearly 10 years. I have a hard time saying that I am an “expert.” The essence of PBL is inquiry and getting students to reflect, after they have answered their driving question, about what they would do differently. The learning never stops. I am not necessarily an “expert” I have just failed a lot in this process, refined my work, and continued the journey. In PBL you never arrive.
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