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by Jennifer D. Klein
National Faculty

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May 3, 2017
Creating Space for Self-Management in PBL: When Teachers Step Back, Students Step Up


by Jennifer D. Klein
National Faculty

Educators often look at BIE’s Project Based Teaching Practices and assume it will be their job to manage the learning, to assess all student progress, etc. They are, after all, called teaching practices, which suggests that they are elements controlled by the teacher. Yet the true magic of PBL is what happens when we trust students and scaffold self-management skills, allowing them to be more in charge than we are. Once you and your students get past the initial learning curve and build a student-centered culture, PBL should mean less work for you as a teacher, not more.

If we stop thinking of project management as something that starts and ends with the teacher, the learning starts to shift. Students get more engaged, teachers and students alike replace the language of “have to” and “must” with the language of like “want to” and “excited to”—what Australian inquiry expert Kath Murdoch refers to as “invitational language.” A science teacher I know, Jonathan Reveal, discovered that putting students in charge of tracking their own process and growth led to more experimentation and learning from both successes and failures.  In fact, when Jonathan left his classroom for a three-day training in Colorado in the middle of a project on building prosthetic hands, his students got twice as much done in his absence as he was expecting—and he wasn't even in the room.

As you think about the ways you might engage your students in managing the learning in your classroom, consider putting students in charge of the following elements:

1.  Invite students to help choose who they work with on projects. Many teachers perceive this as a dangerous move, assuming that students will make poor choices if allowed to choose their own teams, or even to have input into the process. But scaffolding makes all the difference: spend some time getting students to think and reflect about who they work well with, about who respects their ideas or might need some support, and their choices will be better. More importantly, the only way students get better at collaborating is through conflict and what they learn from it. Smooth sailing teaches students very little about how to function in a team, while thoughtful support and coaching in conflict management—and structures like task logs, team contracts and journal reflections—promote growth and increasingly good team choices without the teacher’s intervention.

2.  Invite students to ideate and brainstorm topics and product options.  I hear too often from teachers that they’ve developed a product menu or list of topic choices for their projects, rather than drawing those ideas out of the students. It’s not that students need no support at all to create a good list of options, so it’s still your job to backfill their lists with additions and to help them hone in on the best options. Even when we provide a list and give students permission to go beyond it, we unintentionally suggest that our ideas are the core of the project. I found that very few students went in their own directions when I provided topic options because students perceived my list as what I most wanted to see—even when I said repeatedly that I loved unique topics not on that list.

3.  Invite students to document their own learning process. Teachers often perceive documentation and formative checkpoints as theirs to build and manage, but it’s quite easy to get students in charge of these steps through something as simple as a task log. A teacher I worked with at Town School for Boys (in San Francisco) asked for one-minute selfie videos from her students at the end of each week, for example, and the kids had a blast creating videos that gave their teacher insight into their progress (they got silly, of course, but the kids had fun and the videos produced conveyed the information the teacher needed). Task logs and journals can be used to document steps—and a journal also provides reflection opportunities and writing practice. Another favorite for tracking learning are RAN charts, designed for Reading and Analyzing Non-Fiction but quite useful across all inquiry experiences—a sort of KWL chart with additional nuances that can help make learning visible for students and progress visible for teachers.

4. Invite students to help decide on checkpoints and deadlines.  While the end date of a project may be fixed because of external concerns such as when grade reports or parent conferences occur, asking students to identify the best timing for key checkpoints is an easy way to keep students in charge of their own learning. They know better than we do about the other demands in their lives, so particularly with older students this can be a powerful practice that demonstrates flexibility and allows the pace of a project to feel more organic and less imposed. More advanced PBL teachers even get students involved in deciding what those checkpoints should include. While the dream of learning happening “any time, any place, on any path, at any pace” can feel impossible in light of strict pacing guides and disciplines with a particularly tight sequence, the more our students feel a sense of control, the better.

5. Invite students to choose—and invite—their experts and public audience. This one took me a while to recognize. It’s so easy to get caught up with who we feel would make a good audience or offer the best expertise, yet putting those choices into the hands of students—and having them do the outreach—can make a world of difference. When Jonathan Reveal had his students reach out to experts during the prosthetic hand project, he saved himself hours of emailing and phone calling—and also got a whole lot more YES answers than if he had done the outreach himself (after all, who says no to eager, engaged young people looking for expertise and support?).

6. Invite students to design and manage their own final exhibition. Many projects end in major exhibition nights or gallery showings, and most end in some sort of presentation of learning for an authentic audience. Such events can be a lot of work to design and put on, and it can be difficult to ensure attendance—I’ve seen some great exhibitions end with disappointed students who didn’t get a crowd to share their ideas with. When we empower students to create and run these events, it’s amazing how much of a difference it can make. Students take more pride in their work when they help to create the experience, set up the space, create the invitations, and generally run the show.

As I work with schools around project management challenges, I can’t help but think back to my own childhood and the personalized learning strategies I was so fortunate to be educated through at the Jefferson County Open School in Colorado (see above image). As founder Arnie Langberg put it when I interviewed him recently for my first book, the school “…removed one source of agony from kids’ lives: their schooling.” For most students, a lack of choice and opportunities to manage one’s own learning are at the heart of that agony, as they create the feeling that education is happening to them rather than being within their control. And while giving students the freedom to chart their own path may feel unrealistic in our current culture of standardized testing, even small steps make a difference and help students engage with a sense of control and empowerment as learners.

Jennifer Klein is the author of The Global Education Guidebook.


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