by Chris Fancher
If you listened to me facilitate BIE’s PBL 101 workshop, you would hear me say, "we need to be more like magicians."
One of the key elements of Gold Standard PBL is the idea of “Sustained Inquiry.” Sustaining inquiry, as a teacher, requires patience. Patience built upon knowing that students really are fairly inquisitive. They will, eventually, need and/or want to know how or why something is the way it is.
But, very often, I see teachers struggling with the seeming dichotomy of a structured curriculum and "allowing students the freedom to explore the content." If we have done our homework and have backward-designed the project with those standards we want our students to learn, then we can allow students freedom to explore. The key here is that we must create the pathway for our students to walk down while they are exploring.
For example, let's say that we are creating a project around geometry. Within the project we want students to create a package design that fulfills the requirements of having a specific volume and surface area. The students are going to build the package out of balsa wood and they must measure all of the pieces of wood that they are piecing together.
Measurement is one of those “real-world” skills that create messy numbers and our students will/should be ending up with measurements that have fractional parts. Unless you are working with upper middle school students (or higher) you, probably, plan on reviewing and/or teaching manipulating numbers with fractional parts. Because of your backward planning of the unit you know you want to teach/review fractions starting on Tuesday of the second week of the project. Now comes the time for patience.
Wait for the Need to Know
As a great PBL teacher you will have to wait until students start struggling with their measurements. And then, either by directly telling certain students they aren't working their numbers properly or, by seeing that they have already listed in their questions (during the QFT) that they need to understand how to work with fractions, you state - "You know what, it looks like some of you need help understanding fractions. Would you like me to cover that sometime?" And when at least one student says, "why yes..." you say, "I'll go ahead and plan something for next Tuesday. Until then I'll help those who are already at that point and need the help." Poof! You are now a magician.
The lecture/activity on fractions was on your planning calendar and was, metaphorically, up your sleeve. And when the time was right you produced it, to your students' amazement (and because they needed it). Now it's time to work on your finger agility - roll that coin across your knuckles every day for 30 minutes. Yes, great PBL teachers ARE magicians.