by James Fester
In addition to the role I have as a teacher and all the perks that come with it, every year I get to take a large group of my students on their class trip to Washington D.C. During this trip they get to visit iconic spots like the Capitol Building, The Washington Monument, and of course Golden Corral, a chain of all you can eat buffets. This may seem like nothing special, but to kids from Northern California who are raised on organic, small-portioned everything, an all-you-can-eat buffet is an awe-inspiring experience akin to gazing out across the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
I’ve noticed that every year when my students first enter the restaurant, many of them do not eat anything for the first twenty minutes. They are so overwhelmed by the volume of choices available that they stare, awe-struck, at the seemingly endless options and then usually just select what their friends choose only to discover it’s not what they wanted.
This reminds me a lot about my experiences with allowing students voice and choice in Project Based Learning. Many of my students, when empowered to select their own products or topic for study, react similarly. They get overwhelmed by the all the possibilities and choose nothing, or they settle on what their neighbors choose only to restart when they figure out they have not interest in it. This is especially true of elementary students, who need more teacher guidance when making selections.
But it is important to give them choice often. How do we expect students to stick by their choices later on in life if we don’t provide them opportunities to make choices now? To avoid “the buffet effect,” I do certain things to help students make smart, timely choices during their project:
1. Think Before You Order
When empowered to make choices in regards to products, students often just charge right in and get halfway through before they actual consider the scope or requirements of what they’ve chosen. Provide time for them to pause and consider all of the choices they could make BEFORE they select one. Encourage them to consider things like timeframe, work that is due in other classes, and their own strengths. If they are in groups, the strengths and expertise of the people they are collaborating with are important to consider. It may not make much sense to create a ten-minute PSA with iMovie if nobody in the group has any experience producing digital video.
2. Give Them A Menu
When first introduced to the importance of student choice in PBL, many teachers have an immediate negative reaction, fearing that a classroom of students will make so many different, disparate choices that keeping track of their progress will be impossible. But choice doesn’t necessarily mean “anything”. When you go out to dinner at your favorite restaurant, you don’t get to order anything you want. Your choices, while plentiful, are relegated to what’s on the menu so the restaurant can manage them. Likewise, it is good practice to provide students with a list, or menu, of choices. This allows you to manage the process while still giving them a voice in the process. If they are new to PBL or are just a class that requires a little more handholding, make their “menu” a little smaller. If they are experienced or have a track record of strong self-management, allow them a larger list.
3. Make Sure Your Menu Has Something For Everyone
No doubt your students are a diverse group with equally diverse learning needs and modalities. Therein lies another way to make sure students are successful with their choices; make sure that products are as diverse as your students. Main products that are heavily writing-based can be paired with art or performance centered options which help address multiple intelligences. If you’re worried about not meeting important writing or literacy standards, address them with your formative assessments or reflections. If your last project revolved around a group presentation, try something more individualized with the next one. Variety is the spice of life and so it is with PBL.
4. “Can I Get You Anything Else?”
Once students have progressed to a certain point with their comfort level regarding choice, you may wish to more fully include them in the project planning process. Consider allowing students to take ownership of the process by suggesting their own methods of demonstrating their learning. No matter what I include as a product option or how complete I think my list is, some students always seem to come up with something I could have included. Instead of feeling like I missed an obvious choice, I embrace and adopt these possibilities as a way to revise and strengthen my projects for future students. Ultimately, adding student suggestions to a product list or student-procured readings and articles to a resource menu will improve the quality of your own work.
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